Actually, Todd Lyght played in all 12 games in 1987, including starts against Air Force and Miami at free safety. He was switched from WR to DB during '87 pre-season camp and played more minutes than any of the other freshman, including Watters, Brooks, Jacobs, et al. Some of his more memorable plays included a pick against MSU, a blocked punt against Pitt, and a forced fumble against Alabama.
Most of the key components were, in fact, on campus in January 1988, including our entire defense, sans Arnold Ale, who arrived in the Summer of 1988. Ale started only 4 games in 1988, with Andre Jones and Flash Gordon starting the other 8. Andre began the season as the starter, and Flash eventually won the job back (although they all continued to rotate in and out). I think we would have done just fine in '88 without Ale, as we did in 1989 after he transferred. He had only 7 solo tackles in 1988, as compared with 71 by Stonebreaker, 54 by Pritchett, 42 by Zorich, 32 by Stams, 17 by Flash, etc. If you asked me who the key components were in 1988, it would take me a long time to get to Arnold Ale.
At LB, although we lost Cedric Figaro to the NFL, we added back Mike Stonebreaker after he missed all of 1987 after an excellent rookie season in 1986. We also returned 5th year seniors Wes Pritchett, Frank Stams, and Flash, Senior Ned Bolcar, and Andre and Scott Kowalkowski, who were sophomores. We also returned John Foley, who was the defensive player of the year coming out of HS. He just destroyed people on special teams in 1987 and had one start at DT.
In the secondary, we lost Marv Spence at corner and Brandy Wells at safety, but brought back the eventual 1988 starters George Streeter, Corny Southall, Stan Smagala and Todd Lyght, along with Pat Terrell who had played WR in 1987. We also returned senior D'Juan Francisco who started the 1988 Michigan and Pitt games, while playing nickle throughout the season. (We also returned NDNation's very own "Pitbull" and a great guy by the name of Bobby Satterfield).
On the defensive line, starters Mike Griffin and Jeff Kunz graduated, and Lou moved 1987 starting DT Tom Gorman to OG. However, we returned our entire eventual 1988 starting defensive line in Jeff Alm, Chris Zorich and George Williams. Also back was Bryan Flannery, who would play in all 12 games in 1988, including as a starter for the USC game after Zorich hurt his knee against Penn State. Also back was Ted Fitzgerald who had started two games in '87 at DT. Towards the end of the 1987 season, Zorich had already bulked up from his former MLB frame and was a force in practice, and I wish he could have gotten the opportunity to contribute in '87, but the decision was made to preserve a year of eligibility that, unfortunately for us, went unused.
On offense, we returned all of the eventual 1988 starters, except for Rocket and Derek Brown. While Derek Brown was an important part of that team, he started only 5 games in 1988, with sophomore Frank Jacobs starting the other 7. Two of those starts by Brown came after Jacobs sprained an arch early in the Stanford game. While Brown was considered by many to be the top player coming out of high school in 1988, Jacobs was considered one of the top, if not the top tight end in 1987. He was a Parade All American as well, and had a list of accolades too numerous to mention here. He played in all 12 games in 1987, finishing behind only Tim Brown and Andy Heck in terms of receiver playing time. Only Todd Lyght played more minutes as a freshman in 1987. Also returning were Mike Brennan and Rod West. We had every reason to believe we would be sound at TE in 1988, especially once it became clear in or about January '88 that Derek Brown would be joining them. Lou felt comfortable enough to move a three year veteran and his 1987 starter at TE, Andy Heck, to tackle. Also keep in mind the role of the TE under Holtz back then. For instance, Frank Jacobs did not catch a pass until the 10th game of the season against Penn State, and the two of them had only 13 catches between them all season. To the extent the TE position was a key component of the 1988 season, it was primarily as blocker.
We were also well stocked with returning starters at running back. Although we lost Pernell Taylor at FB (he started in the routs of Michigan and MSU in 1987), we returned Anthony Johnson and Braxton Banks, a truly excellent duo who shared starts in 1987. At tailback, we returned a three year starter in the form of captain Mark Green, along with a couple of guys named Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks. In addition, we knew we had just recruited not one, not two, not three, not four, not five but six Parade All America running backs to go along with the already stellar group listed above. This included some kid from Wilkes Barre named Raghib Ismail or something like that, as well as Rodney Culver, Rod Smith, Rusty Setzer, Walter Boyd and Kenny Spears. Mark Green would start every game at TB in 1988, and Johnson and Banks shared the starts pretty evenly.
As you note, the question marks were at offensive line, WR and arguably QB. There was also the issue of major turnover in the coaching staff.
With regard to the offensive line, we had to replace four 5th year senior starters: Co-Captains Chuck Lanza and Byron Spruell, as well as Tom Rehder and Tom Freeman. Also gone was Jeff Pearson who transferred to Michigan State after starting eight games in 1987. However, all the replacement parts were in place by January 1988.
With Jacobs, Brown and West at TE, Holtz was able to move captain Andy Heck to tackle. Heck's primary role had been blocking over the previous three years, so I expected he would do quite well. (Tom Rehder had also been moved from TE to tackle by Lou, and Byron had started out as a DL. Tom Freeman was also briefly listed as a DL his freshman year) Tim Grunhard returned at guard, having played in all 12 games in 1987, and having started against BC, Alabama, Penn State and Miami. (We all knew he was a great athlete given that, as the long snapper, he would routinely be in the face of the return man on punt coverage). Big Dean Brown, a Parade All American, returned at OT, having played in 8 games in 1987 at guard. Mike Heldt returned at center, having played in four games as Chuck Lanza's backup in 1987. Winston Sandri returned at the other guard position, but had yet to see any action. The same was true of sophomore Joe Allen. Mike Brennan moved over from TE to OG. Tom Gorman, who started 9 games in 1987 at DT, was moved to OG. Parade All-American linebacker (and IrishRock's fellow graduate of Rockhurst HS) was moved to center in the Spring of '88 and then to guard. Heck, Heldt and Dean Brown would go on to start every game in 1988. Tim Ryan and Tim Grunhard had the vast majority of the starts at OG, but Winston Sandri, Mike Brennan and Joe Allen also started 2, 3, and 1 games, respectively.
Given the youth at OL, Holtz was smart and went out and added Joe Moore to the coaching staff. He coached the OTs and TEs and Tony Yelovich continued to coach the guards and centers. I would not have been surprised if Tony Yelovich whipped them into shape by himself, but the addition of Joe Moore, one of the greatest position coaches of all time, was a master stroke by Lou. Together, they obviously did a great job and I think the young OL's performance exceeded anyone's reasonable expectations.
At WR, we had to replace the Heisman Trophy winner. No small task, but if it has to be done, it doesn't hurt to have a Parade All American and one of the most highly coveted athletes in the country agree to move over and take a shot at it. Ricky took one for the team by moving from his beloved RB position, and we could clearly afford to do it given the half dozen or more other Parade All Americans at RB. He had rushed for 373 yards in 69 carries in 1987 (5.4 average) and three TDs. He had also caught 6 passes for 70 yards (11.7 average). At the other WR position, the three starters in '87 - Reggie Ward, Pat Terrel and Ray Dumas - were gone, with Terrell moving to FS after having started 5 games in '87.
Ultimately, Watters would start 5 games at Flanker in '88, with returning player and Yale transfer Pat Eilers starting the other 7 games after moving over from DB. At Split End, returning player Steve Alaniz started the first 5 games, with Rocket starting the last seven 7. Ismail had no receptions in the Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, and Air Force games. He had 1 reception in each of the Pitt, Navy, Rice, USC and West Va games. He had 2 receptions against Penn State, 3 against Purdue and 4 against Miami. He had 3 TD catches that year. As you note, not a lot statistically his freshman year, but his speed certainly helped stretch the defense vertically. For instance, we all recall the bomb against Miami where he tripped, and the played where old Keith thought Tony stepped out of the back of the end zone at the Coliseum.
At QB, we lost Terry Andrysiak and that was a huge blow to us in 1987. Andrysiak did very well in those first few games (before breaking his collarbone). Not bad for a guy who finally got his chance after playing behind Steve Beuerlein for three years. However, I was also pretty excited to see Tony Rice in action in 1988 after actually having some time to develop. A Parade All-American, he was obviously a very gifted athlete. We also had one of the top pro-style QB's in Kent Graham, also a Parade All-American. For good measure we also had Pete Graham and Steve Belles.
We also had to replace our punter and place kicker. Punter Vince Phelan, an Academic All-American, had just broken Bill Shakespeare's career punting average record and had the 5th best single season in our history. Kicker Ted Gradel, also an Academic All-American, also had the 5th best season in our history, hitting 14 of 18 field goals and all 33 PATs.
Billy Hackett, a sophomore, was the heir apparent at place kicker, having received the first scholarship for a place kicker since Hal Von Wyl in 1982 and Harry Oliver in '78. There was also this little 5'5" senior pre-med major named Reggie Ho. Reggie's emergence as the starting kicker and Michigan game hero was definitely something that I did not see coming in 1988.
Finally, the coaching moves: Coach Stewart moved from TE coach to outside LBs, a/k/a DEs. Barry Alvarez had coached OLBs in 1987 under Foge. Alvarez moved to DC and LB coach, Chuck Heater replaced Terry Forbes as DB coach, and John Palermo replaced the retired Joe Yonto as DL coach.
While there were a lot of key components in 1988, it was, as Lou would say, a total team effort and they proved that no one was indispensable. When the starting guard went down before the game with No. 1 Miami, a former lacrosse player (Mike Brennan) stepped in and we didn't miss a beat. Need 4 field goals to beat Michigan, the 5'5" pre-med major will get it done. The team voted to send both their leading rusher and their leading receiver home before the 1 versus 2 matchup at USC, which was the last real stumbling block to a national championship. Their crime: late to one too many meetings.
P.S. Perhaps the greatest loss from 1987 was the loss of the three senior managers. Thankfully, we had a stellar group step up in 1988 and those &%#Y#%$s have the National Championship rings to prove it.