Forty years ago, the NCAA eliminated freshman ineligibility for good. Freshmen were permitted to play in 1951 during the Korean War, but they were not allowed to compete in the ensuing 20 years on the varsity level until they became sophomores.
Bob Golic still holds the freshman record at Notre Dame for most tackles with 82 in 1975.
First Freshman Inside Linebacker To See Action
There were none during head coach Ara Parseghian's final three seasons from 1972-74, but under first-year head coach Dan Devine, Bob Golic made a quick debut.
First Freshman Inside Linebacker To Start
In the third game of the 1975 season (Northwestern), the 17-year-old Golic made his first career start under first-year head coach Dan Devine, lining up at middle linebacker. That was the same game where freshman fullback Jerome Heavens produced his first 100-yard game and sophomore quarterback Joe Montana would play in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time, rallying the Irish off the bench from an early 7-0 deficit to a 31-7 victory with his first career TD pass and TD run.
The trio would be vital forces on the 1977 national champs and serve as tri-captains in 1978.
Most Recent Freshman Inside Linebacker To See Action
This position rivals cornerback as maybe the most difficult one on defense for a freshman to break into the lineup. Since 2007, the only inside linebacker to play as a freshman the past five years was High School National Defensive Player of the Year Manti Te’o, a 10-game starter in 2009.
Five Best True Freshman Inside Linebackers
1. Bob Golic (1975) — His 82 tackles (two for loss) in 171 minutes remain the most ever by a Notre Dame freshman, with defensive end Ross Browner second (68 in 1973). Golic classmate Steve Heimkreiter — they finished 1-2 in career tackles at Notre Dame after their senior seasons and are still second and third — also would see early action this year before getting injured.
2. Manti Te’o (2009) — The most heralded defensive recruit signed by Notre Dame the past 30 years, Te’o started 10 games as a freshman and finished with 63 tackles (fourth on the team) in 238:28 playing time, the most ever by a frosh Irish inside linebacker. He was far from polished, and in 2010 new head coach Brian Kelly noted that Te’o was only “guessing” on the field. Still, the ability was evident.
3. Mike Kovaleski (1983)— When junior starter Mike Larkin and backup Ron Weissenhofer both incurred season-ending injuries in the pre-season, Kovaleski suddenly became the first — and still only — inside linebacker starter in Notre Dame’s opening game. He started the first nine before getting injured and finished with 62 tackles, four passes broken up two fumbles caused and an interception in 179:32 playing time. Kovaleski recovered to start in the 19-18 Liberty Bowl victory versus Boston College.
4. Grant Irons (1997) — In Bob Davie’s first season as head coach, a rash of injuries forced an edge player such as Irons, a more natural defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid with his 6-5 frame, to start three games at inside linebacker during a 1-4 start. He was out of his natural position but did record 50 tackles in 117:27 of action.
5. Michael Stonebreaker (1986) — He did not make the early impact of the top four, but began to be inserted more regularly in head coach Lou Holtz’s first season at the helm, earning a start in a romp against SMU. In 70:40, he finished with 21 tackles and an interception.
• Notre Dame’s all-time leading tackler, Bob Crable, made 521 career stops, but only 13 of them came during his freshman season in 1978. After Golic graduated, he stepped in at middle linebacker and recorded a single season school record 187 stops in 1979, followed by 154 and 167, respectively.
• Te’o is the first Irish linebacker since Crable to post back-to-back 100-tackle seasons, totaling 133 in 2010 and 128 last year.
• Over the last decade, or since 2002, almost every top tackler on the Irish team at inside linebacker was red-shirted as a freshman, including Courtney Watson, Corey Mays, Brandon Hoyte and Maurice Crum Jr., while Mike Goolsby appeared on special teams.
How About 2012?
It’s easy to project that no freshman will play at inside linebacker this year — mainly because the Irish didn’t sign one. The lone Notre Dame linebacker inked this February — Romeo Okwara —is slated to play on the outside and he doesn’t even turn 17 until June 17.
Te’o is the lone scholarship inside linebacker among the six in 2012 who will be out of eligibility in 2013. Thus, signing the “Big Skill” athletes — linebackers, tight ends, or safeties who become linebackers (i.e. Danny Fox on the inside or junior Danny Spond on the outside) — will be a focal point of the current class being recruited by the Irish staff.