Who has put together the greatest seasons for a skilled position player in Notre Dame history? That’s a quest we will unlock today with a handful of caveats. One, we’re not going to include the quarterback position as most fans tend to know those great seasons already. Therefore, we’ll only take a look at rushing and/or receiving from running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends. Special teams production will not be included.
Putting up big raw stats is important obviously, but we’ll also factor in averages, history at their position, injuries, supporting cast, and other necessary factors such as era and style of play.
The Top 35 Skill Position Seasons
#35 Pete Demmerle 1974
667 receiving yards on 43 receptions (15.5 avg.) and 6 touchdowns
Demmerle caught 32.5% of all completions and 40.1% of all receiving yardage in one of the more forgettable offenses from this era in Ara Parseghian’s final campaign with the Irish.
#34 John Carlson 2006
634 receiving yards on 47 receptions (13.4 avg.) and 4 touchdowns
This effort tied the school record for receptions by a tight end–set the previous season by Anthony Fasano–and set a healthy new lead for receiving yardage that would last for 5 more years.
#33 Chase Claypool 2019
1,037 receiving yards on 66 receptions (15.7 avg.) and 13 touchdowns
The newly-minted Pittsburgh Steeler makes our list for carrying the 2019 offense for large stretches and for also producing the 6th most touchdown receptions during a season in school history.
#32 Theo Riddick 2012
917 rushing yards on 190 carries (4.8 avg.), 36 receptions for 370 yards (10.2 avg.), and 7 touchdowns
Riddick was far from explosive or game-breaking but put so much of an undefeated regular season on his shoulders as Notre Dame developed the young Everett Golson at quarterback.
#31 T.J. Jones 2013
1,108 receiving yards on 70 receptions (15.8 avg.), 9 carries for 67 yards (7.4 avg.), and 11 touchdowns
This may go down as the most underrated season for a skill player in Irish history. Jones had 21 more catches than the next best player and an incredible 55 more catches than the No. 3 receiver in 2013.
#30 Autry Denson 1997
1,268 rushing yards on 264 carries (4.8 avg.), 30 receptions for 175 yards (5.8 avg.), and 13 touchdowns
Denson produced a lot over 4 years but he was never as explosive or threatening as his sophomore season in Lou Holtz’ final campaign. He had to shoulder a lot of the load for an underclassman without the team having much to work with at receiver.
#29 Darius Walker 2006
1,267 rushing yards on 255 carries (4.9 avg.), 56 receptions for 391 yards (6.9 avg.), and 8 touchdowns
Fitting that we’ve placed Walker here as his career mirrored Denson’s so much. He was never a major threat on the ground but was the featured back in 2006 and was a key receiver in a very potent passing game.
#28 Red Salmon 1903
15 touchdowns in 9 games
No one knows much about Salmon except he was Notre Dame’s first All-American, he ran hard as hell during his era, and he scored a ton of touchdowns.
#27 Emil Sitko 1948
742 rushing yards on 129 carries (5.7 avg.), 7 receptions for 70 yards (10.0 avg.), and 9 touchdowns
Sitko was one of Frank Leahy’s favorite players and finished with over 2,000 career rushing yards rushing during one of the most dominant periods in college football history. His junior and senior seasons are nearly identical, we went with the former due to a few more passes caught out of the backfield.
#26 Johnny Lattner 1952
734 rushing yards on 148 carries (4.9 avg.), 17 receptions for 252 yards (14.8 avg.), and 5 touchdowns
Lattner actually won the Heisman in his senior 1953 season but his junior year was a little better overall. He ran a little more for a slightly better average and caught 3 more passes for an additional 48 yards.
#25 Julius Jones 2003
1,268 rushing yards on 229 carries (5.5 avg.), 10 receptions for 53 yards (5.3 avg.), and 10 touchdowns
In one of the more depressing offensive seasons in school history, Jones was pretty much the lone bright spot. He had to share the backfield with Ryan Grant (who averaged an abysmal 3.6 yards per carry) and might have challenged several school records with more playing time.
#24 Michael Floyd 2011
1,147 receiving yards on 100 receptions (11.4 avg.), 2 carries for 13 yards (6.5 avg.), and 10 touchdowns
Floyd was arguably better in each of his first 3 seasons on campus. If he wasn’t injured in 2009 he was on pace for 81 receptions, 1,467 yards, and 14 touchdowns during the regular season. However, due to a lack of support as a senior we picked 2011 where he set the school record for catches in a season.
#23 Vagas Ferguson 1979
1,439 rushing yards on 301 carries (4.7 avg.), 14 receptions for 72 yards (5.1 avg.), and 17 touchdowns
This is one of the more impressive workhorse seasons in Notre Dame history. Ferguson set the current record for yards in a season when no other player on the team carried the ball more than 40 times or gained more than 200 yards on the ground.
#22 Maurice Stovall 2005
1,149 receiving yards on 69 receptions (16.6 avg.) and 11 touchdowns
The 1966, 2005, 2006, and 2012 seasons feature 2 players from each campaign. For this season, Stovall broke the record for most receptions in a game and finished with the 4th most receiving yards in one year.
#21 Marc Edwards 1995
717 rushing yards on 140 carries (5.1 avg.), 25 receptions for 361 yards (14.4 avg.), and 12 touchdowns
This sneaky good offense from 1995 featured a modest passing game but a team-leading 1,078 yards from scrimmage by Edwards who shared the field with 2 other players to make this list.
#20 Jim Seymour 1966
862 receiving yards on 48 receptions (17.9 avg.) and 8 touchdowns
Surrounded by a fearsome ground game that anchored the nation’s top scoring offense, Seymour flourished in his first season of action. His 862 receiving yards would account for 47.6% of the 1966 offense through the air.
#19 Tom Gatewood 1970
1,123 receiving yards on 77 receptions (14.5 avg.) and 7 touchdowns
This fantastic season from a top 10 offense saw Gatewood accumulate 44.4% of all receiving for the team while setting school records for receptions and yards that would last for over 30 years.
#18 Derrick Mayes 1994
847 receiving yards on 47 receptions (18.0 avg.) and 11 touchdowns
Mayes had a fantastic junior and senior seasons, we decided on the former where he scored 5 more touchdowns and led the team with 45.5% of all receiving yardage.
#17 Jerome Bettis 1991
972 rushing yards on 168 carries (5.7 avg.), 17 receptions for 190 yards (11.1 avg.), and 20 touchdowns
Bettis dominated early in his career while his sophomore season makes the list today. He was part of a ridiculously effective backfield, led the team in rushing, was the 4th leading receiver, and set the Notre Dame record for most touchdowns in a season which he still holds.
#16 Allen Pinkett 1983
1,394 rushing yards on 252 carries (5.5 avg.), 28 receptions for 288 yards (10.2 avg.), and 18 touchdowns
A few years after Ferguson broke the school record for rushing in a season, Pinkett made a run at it himself. Except, he put together a better rushing average, caught more passes, and scored 1 more touchdown than Ferguson.
#15 Josh Adams 2017
1,430 rushing yards on 206 carries (6.9 avg.), 13 receptions for 101 yards (7.7 avg.), and 9 touchdowns
What could have been for 33 Trucking if not for injuries that Adams tried to play through. His effort from 2017 would fall just 8 yards shy of breaking the school record for most rushing yards in a season.
#14 Creighton Miller 1943
911 rushing yards on 151 carries (6.0 avg.) with 13 touchdowns
The only running back in school history to lead the country in rushing, despite receiving only 24.7% of the attempts in 1943. From a loaded pre-war offense that would finish second nationally in scoring, Miller was a step above everyone else on the ground.
#13 Nick Eddy 1966
553 rushing yards on 78 carries (7.0 avg.), 15 receptions for 123 yards (8.2 avg.), and 8 touchdowns
Not many players were as explosive as Eddy during the Parseghian era. He would share the backfield during this National Championship run with Larry Conjar and Rocky Bleier while averaging nearly 2.5 yards per carry more than his teammates.
#12 Jeff Samardzija 2005
1,249 receiving yards on 77 receptions (16.2 avg.) and 15 touchdowns
Truly one of the top “this came out of nowhere” seasons in school history. As a junior, Samardzija would go on to break the school record for receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Although he’s been surpassed in all those categories this remains one of the most fun career switch flips in Irish history.
#11 Tyler Eifert 2012
685 receiving yards on 50 receptions (13.7 avg.) and 4 touchdowns
Eifert caught 8 passes in 3 separate games during his breakout 2011 that saw him shatter the school record for receptions by a tight end. However, we chose his final season in blue and gold when he was slightly less productive on an offense that threw the ball nearly 100 fewer times than 2011 and was moving on without Michael Floyd.
#10 Jack Snow 1964
1,114 receiving yards on 60 receptions (18.5 avg.) and 9 touchdowns
Snow came out of nowhere in a bigger way than Samardzija. Through 2 seasons, he caught 10 passes and then put up this monstrous year in 1964. While his teammate won the Heisman, Snow caught exactly half of all receptions this season and 53% of all receiving yardage. Along with Gatewood’s season above, this is one of two campaigns still surviving prior to the 21st century on the all-time best yardage for one year.
#9 Will Fuller 2015
1,258 receiving yards on 62 receptions (20.2 avg.) and 14 touchdowns
This is the highest ranked most recent season from a Notre Dame player. Fuller’s receptions are tied for 5th best in a season and his yardage is 2nd best ever. It’s that 20.2 average that really highlights just how fast and explosive Fuller was in his final season on campus.
#8 Marchy Schwartz 1930
927 rushing yards on 124 carries (7.4 avg.) with 9 touchdowns
Schwartz was only a junior during Rockne’s final season before the coach’s untimely death. He was actually part quarterback but put together the third best rushing average for a season in school history and his 9 scores stood as a record for many years.
#7 Reggie Brooks 1992
1,343 rushing yards on 167 carries (8.0 avg.), 1 reception for 24 yards (24.0 avg.), and 14 touchdowns
Not a bad senior season for a former defensive back! We’ve mentioned a couple seasons that seemingly came out of nowhere and this effort from Brooks in 1992 takes the cake. Sharing a backfield with Jerome Bettis, Lee Becton, and Ray Zellars this was a terrifying rushing attack that saw Brooks nearly break the school record for yards per carry.
#6 Tim Brown 1986
910 receiving yards on 45 receptions (20.2 avg.), 59 rushes for 254 yards (4.3 avg.), and 7 touchdowns
Tim Brown would win the Heisman in 1987 thanks in large part to some iconic punt return touchdowns. Looking back, while his ’87 season was a touch more explosive from scrimmage his 1986 campaign was better. He would finish with a team-leading 1,164 yards from scrimmage on an offense that is probably a little underrated in the long history of Irish football but far from elite.
#5 Ken MacAfee 1977
797 receiving yards on 54 receptions (14.7 avg.) and 6 touchdowns
Even at Tight End University this season from over 40 years remains the gold standard at this position. MacAfee led the team in receiving by 210 yards while snagging 34% of all receptions on offense.
#4 Don Miller 1924
763 rushing yards on 107 carries (7.1 avg.), 16 receptions for 297 yards (18.5 avg.), and 7 touchdowns
It’s always been weird to me that Miller is the least known or talked about Four Horsemen and yet he led the first National Championship team with 1,140 yards from scrimmage. Miller led the team in rushing and receiving with incredibly impressive averages in each category, too.
#3 Golden Tate 2009
1,496 receiving yards on 93 receptions (16.0 avg.), 25 carries for 186 yards (7.4 avg.), and 17 touchdowns
Times have changed so much so that this season, as we lamented in a post recently, merely garnered Tate 10th place in the Heisman voting. He broke the record for most catches in a season (currently 2nd all-time), put up the 2nd most yards (244) ever in a game, obliterated the record for most yards in a season, and tied the school record for receiving touchdowns. Plus, he did some damage on the ground with a couple more scores.
#2 George Gipp 1920
827 rushing yards on 102 carries (8.1 avg.) with 8 touchdowns in 7 games
Gipp could do virtually anything on the field at an elite level but in an era where passing games were in their infancy it’s remarkable to see someone be this devastating as a runner. How many loaded boxes did Gipp run into that absolutely did not matter?
#1 Rocket Ismail 1990
699 receiving yards on 32 receptions (21.8 avg.), 67 rushes for 537 yards (8.0 avg.), and 5 touchdowns
You look at these eye-popping averages from Rocket and think maybe he should’ve touched the ball more often? Yet, he wasn’t big enough to carry much more of a load on the ground and the offense wasn’t built to throw a ton. Ismail also missed the Stanford game and the second half of the Penn State game with injuries, both losses.
Just for fun, I like to imagine a season where Rocket garnered 45% of the receptions (up from 28.8%) and 25% of the rushes (up from 11.5%) in a more modern offense. His averages would’ve produced the following:
1,088 receiving yards
1,160 rushing yards yards