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.
Ross Browner's impact as a freshman helped the Irish to the 1973 national title.
First Freshman Defensive Lineman To See Action
In the initial year of freshman eligibility (1972), Cincinnati Moeller’s 6-4, 265-pound man-child Steve Niehaus astounded head coach Ara Parseghian and line coach Joe Yonto with his combination of size and quickness that put him into the starting lineup from Day One. USC head coach John McKay would later say of Niehaus, “He looks like a whale and moves like a porpoise.”
Two days before his 18th birthday, Niehaus recorded a team high 13 tackles in a 37-0 victory at Northwestern to open the season. Among the 32 freshmen in that Irish class, Niehaus was the only one who received a monogram at the end of the 1972 season.
First Freshman Defensive Lineman To Start
During a 4-0 start (with two shutouts), Niehaus led the Irish in tackles with 47 — and only one other Notre Dame freshman lineman has ever recorded more. Sports Illustrated came to the Notre Dame campus after the fourth game to do a feature on Niehaus and maybe put him on the cover.
Alas, Niehaus suffered a season ending knee injury in practice that week (fortifying the “SI jinx”), and without him the Irish were stunned, 30-26, at home by Missouri, a 62-0 loser at Nebraska the previous week. The one reason we don’t have him in our top five list is because he played in only four of the 11 games. Niehaus went on to become the No. 2 overall pick in the 1976 NFL Draft.
Most Recent Freshmen To See Action
In 2011, Aaron Lynch (33 tackles, 7 for loss, with 5.5 sacks) earned Freshman All-America notice while Stephon Tuitt (30 tackles, three for loss, with two sacks) displayed exceptional versatility while lining up in the interior or the outside.
Five Best True Freshman Defensive Linemen
1. Ross Browner (1973) — There might not be five other freshmen in history at any position that had a more profound impact than the College Football Hall of Fame inductee. While helping the Irish to the 1973 national title, he led the linemen in tackles with 74 and tackles for loss (17, two of them sacks in the 24-23 Sugar Bowl conquest of No. 1 Alabama).
2. Tim Marshall (1980) — Labeled “Darth Vader in cleats” by recruiting maven Joe Terranova, Marshall received Football News Freshman All-America honors on a defense that set a school record for most consecutive quarters not permitting a TD (23). On a team that finished 9-1-1 in the regular season, he finished sixth in tackles with 43, 10 of them for lost yardage. The Irish lost to No. 1 Georgia, 17-10, in the Sugar Bowl, but allowed only 127 yards total offense.
3. Aaron Lynch (2011) — Now at the University of South Florida, Lynch’s dynamic freshman season included a team high 14 quarterback hurries, twice as more than anyone else on the team. Veteran Irish offensive linemen classified him as a freak, and current fifth-year senior end Kapron Lewis-Moore already considers him a top NFL pick in the future.
4. Anthony Weaver (1998) — He and Browner are the lone Irish freshmen to start every game along the defensive line. In his debut, Weaver forced a key fumble in a 36-20 victory versus defending co-national champ Michigan. He finished with 31 stops, six for lost yardage (second on the team) on a 9-3 team that lost 35-28 to Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
5. Stephon Tuitt (2011)— A case could be made for several others, especially Niehaus, but his flexibility to play inside or out as a 6-6, 295-pound lineman was a tie-breaker. Although he missed five games for various reasons, he still had only three fewer tackles than Lynch. Tuitt bounced back from mononucleosis to record three tackles, a sack and three QB hurries in the 18-14 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
• Among the Irish defensive linemen who were drafted in the NFL's first three rounds but did not see action as freshmen were Wally Kleine (1982), Chris Zorich (1987), Renaldo Wynn (1992), Justin Tuck (2001) and Trevor Laws (2003). Could current junior Louis Nix III one day fall into that category?
• Unlike the offensive line, where every freshman but one (Trevor Robinson in 2008) has been red-shirted since 2007, at least one Notre Dame freshman defensive lineman has seen action every season but one since 2005: Pat Kuntz (2005), John Ryan (2006), Ian Williams (2007), Ethan Johnson (2008), Kona Schwenke (2010) and Lynch, Tuitt and Chase Hounshell (2011). The one exception was 2009, when Tyler Stockton was the lone defensive line recruit.
• In 2007, Ian Williams became only the third Irish freshman lineman to eclipse 40 tackles in a season. He had 45 during Notre Dame’s 3-9 campaign, which put him behind only Browner and Niehaus for most stops by a frosh lineman.
How About 2012?
Early enrollee Sheldon Day (6-2, 286) made a strong enough impression this spring, even though he doesn’t turn 18 until July 1, to work himself into the line rotation at end, behind starters Tuitt and Lewis-Moore.
Whether Jarron Jones (6-6, 298) can do the same might depend in part on how sophomores Hounshell and Tony Springmann recover from off-season shoulder and back surgery, respectively, to be effective this fall with Day along the second line.