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ND’s Best Freshmen: Cornerbacks

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.

Stacey Toran (30) was a standout cornerback as a freshman for the 1980 Irish team that was ranked No. 1 in November.

First Freshman Cornerback To See Action
It took five years before a frosh corner appeared in game action for Notre Dame. Future tri-captain and Pro Bowl performer Dave Waymer played in nine games in 1976, and in five of them he also saw action on offense. He would be the starting flanker for the 1977 national champs before switching to corner for good his last two seasons.

First Freshman Cornerback To Start
Next to the offensive line, cornerback has been the most difficult spot for a freshman to win a starting spot. It took 23 years on the offensive line at Notre Dame before a freshman started (Mike Rosenthal in 1995). At corner it took seven years, with Indiana native Dave Duerson breaking the streak in 1979 with seven starts. That same year, another freshman, Rod Bone from New Mexico, also started twice at corner.

Most Recent Freshman Cornerback To See Action
Current sophomore Josh Atkinson primarily played special teams last season, but he also made a couple of appearances at corner in mop-up stints.

Five Best True Freshman Corners
1. Stacey Toran (1980) —
When sophomore Duerson was injured in the second game, the rangy 6-4, 185-pound freshman Toran made his first career start in the third game, at Michigan State, at weak side corner. He was so effective that when Duerson was healthy again a couple of week later, Toran stayed at corner and Duerson was shifted to strong safety for the remainder of his career. Toran started the last 10 games on a defense that led a 9-0-1 start and set a Notre Dame record with 23 straight quarters of not allowing a touchdown. He made the Football News’ 1980 All-Freshman Team, finishing with 30 tackles, six passes broken up and a clutch interception near the goal line in a 3-3 tie with Georgia Tech.

2. Dave Duerson (1979)— He was thrown into the fire when starting corners Waymer and John Krimm were both injured. The freshman played in nine games and started seven, finishing with 24 tackles, two passes broken up and interceptions in victories against Georgia Tech and Miami, the latter played in Tokyo, Japan, in the season finale of a 7-4 campaign. Against the Hurricanes he also had 46- and 43-yard punt returns.

3. Robert Blanton (2008) — After sitting out the San Diego State opener, he played in the last 12 games during a 7-6 season and started the last four, totaling 170:24 for the year. In the fourth games, versus Purdue, he recorded five solo tackles, broke up a pass and scored the game’s first TD on a weaving 47-yard return of a Curtis Painter pass. He was a standout in the 38-3 loss at USC with seven solo stops, one for a loss, a pass broken up and an interception. Overall, he finished the year with 33 tackles, three for loss.

4. Troy Wilson (1983) — In head coach Gerry Faust’s third season, Wilson began to play an integral role at corner, starting in 42-0 and 27-6 victories against Army and USC (when Toran was injured), and then intercepting a pass against Navy a week later. Overall, he had 153:19 playing time, 18 tackles and two interceptions. His signature moment was deflecting Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie’s final pass on a fourth-down attempt that allowed the Irish to hold on for a 19-18 victory in the Liberty Bowl.

5. Dave Waymer (1976) — Played 48:53 in a reserve role, recording his first career interception in a 48-0 victory at Northwestern in the third game. He also broke up four passes during the season, the most clutch coming in the end zone late in a 27-21 victory versus Navy.

Interesting Facts
• It is sad to note that Toran, Waymer and Duerson all died at far too young ages, 27, 34 and 50, respectively.

• Freshmen Luther Bradley (1973), Todd Lyght (1987), Tom Carter (1990) and Bobby Taylor (1992) all were starters as freshmen (Bradley in every game), but it was at safety. Bradley, Lyght, Carter and Taylor later became All-America corners, with the first three first-round picks and Taylor a second-round selection after his junior year in 1994.

• One other start we could find at corner by a freshman was Ivory Covington in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl against 10-1 Colorado. The 6-4-1 Irish were outmatched in the 41-24 loss. Darrin Walls did play in the 2006 opener at Georgia Tech and went up against Calvin Johnson, holding his own. But he never started that year, although he did play sparingly in eight games.

How About 2012?
A year ago at this time, four-star Tee Shepard had already verbally committed to Notre Dame, and developing five-star Ronald Darby would do the same. On paper, they appeared to be the best corner tandem coming to Notre Dame in one year since Walls and Rashon McNeil in 2006.

Alas, early enrollee Shepard left Notre Dame this March, prior to spring practice. Two months earlier, Darby opted to attend Florida State instead, leaving the Irish with zero corners in this class and five scholarship players overall at the position in 2012.

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