Top Ten All-Time Irish Running Backs: The ‘Back’ Five
Top Ten All-Time Irish Running Backs: The "Back" Five
If playing quarterback at Notre Dame is college football's most glamorous position, then running back may be the position with the most competition.
In other words the fact that the 2012 Fighting Irish boast three running backs, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, and George Atkinson III, is nothing new. Indeed, in the 125-year history of Notre Dame football, it is more the norm than the exception--which makes choosing the list of all-time great Irish running backs even more difficult.
Actually, there are three huge challenges in selecting this group. As with quarterbacks, the modern runners are going to put up greater numbers simply because they play more games per season and are eligible to play three years instead of four. Secondly, up until the Holtz era, teams usually went with two running backs (fullback and halfback) instead of one. Plus, it was much more common for the quarterback to run (despite future NFL stars such as Ricky Watters in the backfield, QB Tony Rice was Holtz's leading rusher during the 1988 Irish National Championship season) further diluting the carries and statistics.
Finally, the sheer amount of talent that plays in that position often meant a single shining season for a back who later stared in the pros.
All things considered, I hope you find this list at least fair, as there are runners represented from each era of Notre Dame's illustrious past. Having learned my lesson with the quarterbacks, numbers six through ten will be presented this week, with the top five "sliding" by next.
No. 10 Darius Walker
Fine all-purpose back, Walker is perhaps the best example of a Notre Dame player who would have been better served by staying a senior season at Notre Dame. After flourishing under Weis' system, and following up a 1,196 yard rushing sophomore season with a 1,267 yard, five yards-per-carry junior campaign, Walker forsook his senior year at ND for the NFL Draft, but went undrafted. Eventually, Walker played for five different pro teams in four years, gaining a mere 264 career yards in the pros before retiring.
Also a strong receiver, Walker holds the Irish record for both most single season (56) and career (109) catches by a running back.
No. 9 Reggie Brooks
This Mr. Brooks (his older brother Tony was also a star running back for the Irish) had to wait until his senior year to start, but what a year it was. As part of the "thunder (Jerome Bettis) and lightning combination," Brooks was Gale Sayers to Bettis' Bronko Nagurski, forming perhaps the best Irish running tandem ever. Gained 1,343 yards on only 169 carries that year, and his 8.0 yards-per-carry season average in 1992 was second only to George Gipp, while his 7.6 career YPC was the best ever at Notre Dame.
No. 8 Jerome Bettis
One would assume that Bettis, or "the Bus" as he was later known, would have been ranked higher at Notre Dame considering his fifth all-time rushing, Hall of Fame pro career. But in fact, Bettis, never rushed for 1,000 yards at Notre Dame (he gained 972 as a sophomore) and was overshadowed by running mate Brooks his junior season (when Bettis gained 825 yds) before he decided to skip his senior year to turn pro. Still, Bettis often looked like a man among boys when he battered through defenders in college, and unlike Walker, was ready to turn pro.
No. 7 Don Miller
The leading rusher among the Four Horseman, Rockne called Miller "the best open field runner I ever coached." Led the Irish in rushing in both 1923 and 1924, and gained 1,933 career rushing yards on 283 attempts for a 6.8 yards-per-carry average. Also caught 31 passes for 590 yards, caught three interceptions, and had a 95-yard kickoff return for a total of 22 career touchdowns.
No. 6 Emil Sitko
One of Leahy's greats, "Six Yard" Sitko was the only Irish player to lead his team in rushing for four years; a glorious four-year career in which the Irish never lost a game. Accelerating through the hole as quick as anyone, Sitko's only flaw was his open field speed. Even so, Sitko gained 2,226 career yards and scored 26 career TDs alternating between halfback and fullback, and won the Walter Camp Trophy for best college player his senior season.