On Monday, Rocket Ismail’s long wait to be named to the College Football Hall of Fame ended. It was a honor that was long, long overdue for one of the most electrifying college football players of all-time. While The Rocket’s wait for the Hall of Fame has finally ended, Notre Dame’s wait to find the next Rocket Ismail, however, is still ongoing. Thirty years after the Rocket was robbed of a game winning touchdown in the Orange Bowl against Colorado for a phantom clip, the Irish are still looking for someone who can take over a game like the Rocket could.
There have been some players who have come to Notre Dame with some hype as the “Next Rocket” and some who have come in with a lot of speed, but none of those players have ever come close to holding a candle to the Rocket. Younger fans might not remember the name, but Mike Miller was supposed to be the next Rocket in early 90’s. He had blazing speed like Ismail, but he never turned it into a whole lot of production before eventually being dismissed from the University.
There was Munir Prince who Charlie Weis claimed had “Whoooosh” speed, but Prince never made an impact on the field and ultimately transferred. Other players have worn the #25 in hopes some of the Rocket’s magic would wear off but none of those players have come close. Kevin Stepherson was a player who looked like he could be a potential gamebreaker with his speed, but legal troubles have completely derailed the young man’s career unfortunately.
Notre Dame has, however, had two players who had electrifying Notre Dame careers and put fear into opposing defenses similarly to the Rocket.
Golden Tate was the closest Notre Dame’s come
There isn’t a single player since Rocket Ismail who has impacted the game in as many ways as the the Rocket did as Golden Tate. Like Ismail, Tate was a dynamic receiver, runner, and return man. Unlike the Rocket, Tate wasn’t used as much in the run game though. Charlie Weis deployed Tate as a runner out of the backfield occasionally but he only totaled 31 attempts over his three seasons in South Bend. Those attempts did cover 227 yards with three touchdowns (7.3 yards per carry) though so he was effective when used in that capacity.
Tate was also a dynamic return man. Over three seasons he returned 26 punts with an average of 11.0 yards a return including an 87 yard touchdown in 2009. Like Rocket, Tate had a nose for the endzone. He scored 30 touchdowns over his career including 15 receiving alone his junior year.
The biggest similarity between the two is also one of their biggest differences. Both were dynamic in the open field and with the ball in their hands. How they did it is what differed. Rocket needed one step and he could take off and run past everyone. Tate was more of a running back trapped in a wide receivers body and made his mark by breaking tackles. He wasn’t slow by any means, he just wasn’t Rocket fast but then again who is?
Thirty years after The Rocket last took off for Notre Dame though Golden Tate remains the closest thing the Irish have had to a player who could who was a threat to score in so many ways every time he touched the ball. Speaking of Tate being able to score anytime he touches the ball, how about that TD he hauled in Sunday for my beloved Eagles?
Will Fuller wasn’t that far behind
Another player who came close to giving Notre Dame the same level of playmaking ability the Irish got from Rocket was Will Fuller. No player since Rocket has had the kind of speed that Fuller possessed. He could get behind any defense Notre Dame faced. Just asked USC speedster Adoree Jackson how fast Will Fuller is. Jackson is still trying to catch up to him.
Like Tate, Fuller scored 30 touchdowns in his Notre Dame career but Fuller’s all came in the passing game. And therein lies the difference between Fuller and Ismail. Fuller may be the most dynamic wide receiver that Notre Dame has ever featured, but he didn’t impact the game in the running game or in the return game the way Ismail or even Tate did. That doesn’t take away from anything Fuller did over his career though.
During Fuller’s junior year, he hauled in 14 fewer passes than he did as a sophomore but he covered more ground. His 62 receptions totaled 1,258 yards (20.3 yards per carry). He capped his career with a career long 81 yard touchdown reception in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
One thing all three had in common was leaving Notre Dame after their junior seasons. Ismail left following the 1990 season in which he won the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award and famously spurred the NFL for a big pay day from the CFL before eventually making the move to the NFL. Tate left after the 2009 season and Charlie Weis’s dismissal after taking home the Biletnikoff Award and was selected in the 2nd round of 2010 NFL Draft. Fuller initially said he was going to return for a senior season during the 2015 season but ultimately ended up leaving early and being a 1st round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Will there ever be another Rocket Ismail?
Spoiler alert: probably not. Rocket Ismail was a generational talent. The kind of player that comes around once, maybe twice if you’re lucky in a program’s history. If Ismail played in today’s college football in Notre Dame’s current offense, his numbers would be absurd. He’d probably run and receive for 1,000 yards a year and add a couple return touchdowns just for good measure. That kind of talent just doesn’t come around often. In fact, try and think of any player in college football over the last 30 years who had the kind of speed the Rocket had. It’s a pretty short list.
Now, that isn’t to say that Notre Dame will never have another player who can impact a game like him. We saw Tate dominate for the Irish in an offense that didn’t really even have a running game. We saw Fuller strike fear into the heart of any poor corner unlucky enough to have to line up across from him. The problem is that is two players in 30 years. Notre Dame needs more players like that even if they aren’t quite on the Rocket’s level.
Earlier this week Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune had a terrific interview with Tim Brown where the last player to win the Heisman at Notre Dame echoed the same sentiment – Notre Dame needs more players like Rocket Ismail to compete with the Clemsons of the college football world.
Notre Dame actually matched up well with Clemson at a lot of positions in the Cotton Bowl, but the difference in athleticism and speed at wide receiver was overwhelming. Alabama found out earlier this week it couldn’t match the Tigers at receiver either so maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad, but it is still an area Notre Dame needs to address.
On the current Notre Dame roster, the closet thing Notre Dame probably has speed wise is sophomore to be Braden Lenzy. Sure enough, he wears #25 too. Lenzy redshirted this past season, but he has speed to burn and Notre Dame has to find a way to get that speed incorporated into its offense in 2019 in some capacity.
Brian Kelly and Chip Long probably aren’t going to find another Rocket, but what they can do is find more explosive playmakers to incorporate into the offense. Heck, some might even be on the current roster – think Lenzy, Michael Young, Kevin Austin, Lawrence Keys. Two things are clear though: 1) after 30 years, it’s clear that we may not ever have another Rocket and we were damn lucky to have him and 2) Notre Dame has to find more players who can come close to having the kind of impact he had if they ever want to win another national championship.