Notre Dame Football: The 50 Best Players in Fighting Irish History

Connor KillorenSenior Analyst IOctober 13, 2011

Notre Dame Football: The 50 Best Players in Fighting Irish History

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    Notre Dame is a program steeped in tradition and history. A slew of outstanding players have donned the blue and gold.

    This list comprises the 50 greatest players in program history. 

    It's certainly quite a challenge, but each player has been selected carefully.

    The choices were made with a creative formula that includes team success and individual success, as well as professional careers.

    Follow along as we count down the 50 greatest players in Notre Dame history.

50. Jeff Faine, C (1999-2002)

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    Center is a position that rarely receives any attention, despite the fact that it's the most crucial piece of the offensive line.

    Jeff Faine just happens to be one of, if not the best, centers in school history.

    During his time at Notre Dame, Faine helped pave the way for two outstanding running backs in Julius Jones and Ryan Grant.

    Faine was selected by the Cleveland Browns with the 21st overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.

49. Ryan Grant, RB (2001-2004)

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    While Ryan Grant may not have had spectacular numbers while playing in an Irish uniform, he remained a constant during the Bob Davie-Tyrone Willingham coaching change.

    He also filled in nicely for Julius Jones during the 2002 season, rushing for more than 1,000 yards to go along with nine touchdowns.

    Grant was not selected in the 2005 NFL Draft, but signed an undrafted free agent contract with the New York Giants in 2005, becoming a practice squad member.

    Following a brief stint with the Giants, Grant signed on with the Green Bay Packers in 2007, and has been the team's starting running back since.

48. Jimmy Clausen, QB (2007-2009)

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    Jimmy Clausen, rated as the nation's best high school player in the 2007 recruiting cycle, was lured to South Bend by Charlie Weis' multiple Super Bowl rings.

    Clausen was considered the Irish's most high-profile recruit since Ron Powlus in 1993.

    As was expected, Clausen left Notre Dame with a season of eligibility remaining after the firing of Weis. He was selected by the Carolina Panthers with the 48th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

47. Justin Tuck, DE (2001-2004)

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    Justin Tuck is, perhaps, the best defensive end to ever play at Notre Dame.

    "The Freak" compiled 43 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks during his career in South Bend, both school records.

    He was selected by the New York Giants in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft.

46. Michael Stonebreaker, LB (1986-1990)

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    Mike Stonebreaker was a key cog in the Irish defense during his career that spanned from Lou Holtz's first season in 1986 to 1990.

    Stonebreaker was a vocal leader, and was the heart and soul of the 1988 National championship defense. He was drafted in 1991 by the Chicago Bears, but was out of professional football by 1995.

45. Jim Seymour, WR (1966-1968)

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    Jim Seymour is one of the greatest receivers in Notre Dame history.

    During his first collegiate game in 1966, Seymour set the single-game record for receiving yards with 276 against Purdue.

    That record still stands today.

    Seymour was also featured on the cover of the Oct. 28, 1966 issue of Time Magazine.

44. Aaron Taylor, OL (1990-1993)

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    A two-time All-American selection at Notre Dame, Aaron Taylor was a fixture on the Irish front line during the most prominent Lou Holtz years.

    Taylor was a first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 1994 NFL Draft.

    Following his stint in professional football, Taylor moved to the television booth where he remains today with CBS College Sports.

43. Don Miller, RB (1922-1924)

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    Don Miller was one of the original Four Horsemen.

    A key part of the vaunted Irish rushing attack, Miller helped lead his team to the 1924 national title under iconic head coach Knute Rockne. 

    Miller's accomplishments landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1970.

42. Vagas Ferguson, RB (1976-1979)

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    Vagas Ferguson was a tremendous athlete who ranks third all time in yards gained by running backs at Notre Dame with 3,472.

    During his senior season in 1979, Ferguson finished fifth in the Heisman voting and was named a first-team All-American.

    He was drafted in the first round of the 1980 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots.

    Ferguson currently resides in his hometown of Richmond, Ind., where he works in the athletic department of the high school.

41. Tom Gatewood, WR (1969-1971)

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    Tom Gatewood is, perhaps, the best wide receiver to have ever set foot inside Notre Dame Stadium.

    Gatewood finished his illustrious career with 2,283 yards on 157 receptions to go along with 19 touchdowns.

    Those 157 receptions were a school record for nearly 30 years before it was broken by Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija in 2006.

    Gatewood was selected by the New York Giants in the fifth round of the 1972 NFL Draft.

40. Dave Casper, TE (1971-1973)

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    Interestingly enough, Dave Casper—or "The Ghost"—spent his first two seasons at Notre Dame as an offensive lineman.

    However, during his third season, Casper was moved to tight end.

    That's where the truly belonged.

    Casper finished his career at Notre Dame with 21 receptions for 355 yards to go along with four scores.

    He's considered to be Notre Dame's first true pass-catching tight end.

39. John Carlson, TE (2003-2007)

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    Like Dave Casper, John Carlson was an excellent pass-catching tight end.

    His time came after the departure of Anthony Fasano to the NFL.

    Carlson flourished in Charlie Weis' pro-style attack, ending his collegiate career with 1,093 yards on 100 receptions to go along with eight touchdowns.

    He was selected by the Seattle Seahawks with the 38th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.

38. Ken MacAfee, TE (1974-1977)

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    Sticking with the theme of tight ends here, we'll be discussing the sterling career of Ken MacAfee.

    The bruising tight end earned his stripes in the wake of Dave Casper's departure.

    A member of the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 1977, Casper was a three-time All-American during his time in South Bend. He finished his career with 128 receptions for 1,759 yards and 15 scores.

37. Bob Dove, DE (1940-1942)

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    Bob Dove starred at Notre Dame while earning two consensus All-American selections.

    Dove's claim to fame is the fact that he was the first sophomore to start for the Fighting Irish in 11 years.

    A 2002 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Dove passed away April 19, 2006 at the age of 85.

36. Jeff Samardzija, WR (2003-2006)

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    Jeff Samardzija, otherwise known as "Shark," is one of the most decorated receivers in Fighting Irish history.

    That honor is a feat, considering he was also a standout pitcher on the Notre Dame baseball squad during his four years in South Bend.

    Samardzija planned to try playing in both the NFL and MLB, but ultimately decided to stick with his first love of baseball.

35. John Huarte, QB (1962-1964)

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    John Huarte, the 1964 Heisman Trophy winner, didn't see significant action until his senior season.

    During that epic '64 season, Huarte accumulated 2,062 yards on only 205 pass attempts, good for more than 10 yards per pass.

    After playing for numerous professional teams in the AFL and NFL, Huarte retired in 1975.

    He is currently the chief executive officer of Arizona Tile Supply, Inc.

34. Elmer Layden, RB (1922-1924)

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    Elmer Layden, another one of the original Four Horsemen, is considered to be one of college football's best fullbacks to have ever played the game.

    Layden ended his college career in the 1925 Rose Bowl against Stanford, making huge contributions on the defensive side of the ball with two interceptions.

    He played two professional seasons before moving onto coaching.

33. Todd Lyght, CB (1987-1990)

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    Todd Lyght was a key component of the dominant Irish defense that helped pave the way to the team's 1988 national title.

    A two-time All-American selection, Lyght broke up 20.5 passes and recorded 11 interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

    He was selected by the Los Angeles Rams with the fifth overall pick in the 1991 NFL Draft.

32. Bob Williams, QB (1948-1950)

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    Bob Williams will forever be remembered for quarterbacking the Fighting Irish to the 1949 national title under legendary coach Frank Leahy.

    Williams is tied with former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen for the school record for passer rating at 161.4.

    Following his time at Notre Dame, Williams moved on to the professional ranks, playing for the Chicago Bears for three seasons.

31. Heartley Anderson, OL (1918-1921)

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    Heartley Anderson, a monstrous offensive lineman under Knute Rockne, will be better known for his years as coach of the Fighting Irish rather than as a player.

    After playing professionally for the Chicago Bears, Anderson took over as head coach of the Fighting Irish after the tragic death of Rockne.

    Following his coaching stop in South Bend, Anderson moved on to the same position at North Carolina State before leading the Chicago Bears to a 24-12 record in four seasons. 

30. Jerry Groom, OL (1948-1950)

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    Jerry Groom was the epitome of toughness during his three seasons playing for the Fighting Irish.

    A punishing lineman, Groom created gaping holes for the vaunted rushing attacks of the post-war teams of Frank Leahy.

    Groom was voted as an All-American during his senior season, later being selected by the Chicago Cardinals with the sixth overall pick in the 1951 NFL Draft.

29. Golden Tate, WR (2007-2009)

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    An explosive athlete, Golden Tate was the catalyst of the Irish offense under head coach Charlie Weis.

    Tate won the 2009 Biletnikoff Award as the top wide receiver in college football after breaking Jeff Samardzija's records for career receptions and receiving yards.

    Following the conclusion of the '09 season, Tate decided to leave Notre Dame a year early and enter the NFL Draft.

    Tate was a second-round draft choice of the Seattle Seahawks where he joined former Irish tight end John Carlson.

28. Chris Zorich, DT (1988-1990)

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    Perhaps one of the most driven individuals to ever strap up at Notre Dame, Chris Zorich will forever be remembered as a legend on the defensive side of the ball.

    His "never say die" attitude seemed to resonate with the rest of the team on the way to the 1988 National Championship.

    Zorich's hard work earned him All-American status in 1989 and 1990. He went on to play seven seasons in the NFL before returning to Notre Dame to obtain his law degree.

27. Jim Crowley, RB (1922-1924)

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    Jim Crowley, yet another one of the Four Horsemen, was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame as a player in 1966.

    Knute Rockne nicknamed the tremendous athlete "Sleepy Jim" because of his laid-back and relaxed attitude.

    Crowley's best season came in 1924 when he led the team in scoring and was selected to the All-American team.

26. Brady Quinn, QB (2003-2006)

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    Brady Quinn, oftentimes referred to as the "Golden Boy," enjoyed a very successful career in South Bend.

    He led the Irish to two BCS appearances, losing to Ohio State in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl and falling to LSU in the 2007 Sugar Bowl.

    Quinn finished his career at Notre Dame with 11,762 passing yards and 95 touchdowns. He was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft.

25. Michael Floyd, WR (2008-2011)

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    Michael Floyd is currently in his senior season at Notre Dame, but there's no doubt that he is one of the best athletes to ever don the blue and gold.

    Through three and a half seasons, Floyd has racked up 224 receptions for 3,177 yards and 32 touchdowns.

    It's scary to think that he still has six, or possibly seven, games to add to those gaudy statistics.

    The argument that Floyd is the best wide receiver in program history can certainly be made at this point.

24. Allen Pinkett, RB (1982-1985)

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    A two-time All-American, Allen Pinkett left Notre Dame as the school's all-time leading rusher with 4,131 yards.

    However, that record would later be broken by Autry Denson in 1998.

    Pinkett's claim to fame is becoming the first player in Notre Dame Football history to rush for 1,000 or more yards in three consecutive seasons.

    He also remains the program's all-time leading scorer with 53 touchdowns.

    Pinkett currently serves as color commentator for Notre Dame home games on the ISP Network.

23. Jim Martin, DL (1946-1949)

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    Jim Martin is one of the toughest linemen to have played at Notre Dame to date.

    He was a consummate leader, guiding the Fighting Irish to three National Championships during his four seasons.

    Martin was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995.

22. Joe Theismann, QB (1968-1970)

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    Joe Theismann (pronounced THEES-man) was urged by the Notre Dame public relations staff to change the pronunciation of his last name to rhyme with Heisman.

    Despite that change, Theismann failed to win the coveted trophy.

    He guided the Fighting Irish to the 1970 Cotton Bowl, falling to the Texas Longhorns by a score of 21-17.

    However, the following season, he guided the team back to the same bowl game, this time defeating Texas, 24-11.

    Theismann ranks fifth all time at Notre Dame in career passing yards with 4,411.

21. Reggie Brooks, RB (1989-1992)

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    Reggie Brooks didn't get his first shot at playing running back until his senior season, but he certainly made the most of it.

    He finished the '92 season with 1,372 yards and 13 touchdowns. Because of his outstanding season, Brooks was deemed an All-American.

    Brooks' proudest moment at Notre Dame may have been his game-winning catch during the two-point conversion against Penn State in the "Snow Bowl."

20. Tony Rice, QB (1987-1989)

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    Tony Rice was the last quarterback to win a national title at Notre Dame.

    The dual-threat athlete led the Fighting Irish to many resounding victories on the way to a win over the Mountaineers of West Virginia in the 1988 National Championship Game.

    His efforts landed Rice on the 1989 All-American team.

    After leaving Notre Dame, Rice played two seasons in the Canadian Football League, followed by three more in Europe.

19. Bob Crable, LB (1979-1981)

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    Bob Crable may very well be the most decorated defensive player in Notre Dame history; his 521 career tackles are still a school record.

    Named a team captain in both his junior and senior seasons, Crable shares the NCAA record for tackles in a single game with 26.

    He was selected by the New York Jets with the 23rd overall pick in the 1982 NFL Draft.

18. Ralph Guglielmi, QB (1951-1954)

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    Ralph Guglielmi was Notre Dame's starting quarterback for four seasons under Frank Leahy.

    He was granted All-American status as a senior, while also racking up 10 interceptions during his career.

    Following his time at Notre Dame, Guglielmi was selected by the Washington Redskins with the fourth overall pick in the 1955 NFL Draft.

17. Bill Fischer, OL (1945-1948)

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    Bill Fischer was a behemoth offensive lineman who guided the Fighting Irish to two National Championships during his four years in South Bend.

    Aside from being named team captain for the 1948 season, Fischer was also awarded the Outland Trophy as the nation's best offensive lineman.

    He would later be inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1983.

16. Luther Bradley, CB (1973-1977)

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    Luther Bradley, an extremely gifted defensive back, was selected as an All-American during his senior season in 1977.

    He's also one of a select few players in program history to have been a member of two National Championship teams.

    Bradley still holds the school record for career interceptions with 17.

15. Bob Golic, LB (1975-1978)

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    Bob Golic, older brother of television personality Mike Golic, was a fearsome linebacker at Notre Dame during the late 1970s.

    Not only was Golic a force to be reckoned with on the football field but he was also a standout wrestler for the Fighting Irish.

    As a warrior on the gridiron, Golic was voted a first-team All-American twice (1977, 1978).

14. Emil Sitko, RB (1946-1949)

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    Another tremendous player on Frank Leahy's epic post-war teams, Emil Sitko was a critical part of the Irish offense.

    Leahy said that despite Sitko's size (5'8", 180 lbs), he was still the fastest running back he had ever coached.

    Sitko was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

13. Angelo Bertelli, QB (1941-1943)

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    Angelo Bertelli is a name that will live on forever in Notre Dame lore, as he was the school's first Heisman Trophy winner.

    A 1972 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Bertelli was twice voted as an All-American.

    He's also credited with guiding the Irish to the 1943 national title.

12. Jerome Bettis, FB (1990-1992)

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    Perhaps the most bruising runner in program history, Jerome Bettis was a beast of a man who paced the Irish ground attack in the early 1990s.

    Bettis finished his Notre Dame career with 1,912 rushing yards on 337 carries—impressive figures considering he was a fullback.

    He was a first-round draft pick of the the Los Angeles Rams in the 1993 NFL Draft.

11. Tim Brown, WR (1984-1987)

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    The winner of the 1987 Heisman Trophy, Tim Brown was a versatile player in every sense of the word.

    He ranks first in program history with 5,024 all-purpose yards, yet the team had limited success, going a combined 25-21 during his four years on campus.

    "Touchdown Timmy" went on to an illustrious NFL career with the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

10. Raghib Ismail, WR (1988-1990)

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    Raghib "Rocket" Ismail is, without a doubt, the most electrifying player in Notre Dame history.

    He's best known for returning two kickoffs for touchdowns against Michigan in 1989. The feat earned him a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

    Ismail's accomplishments also earned him All-American status during his junior season.

9. Paul Hornung, QB (1954-1956)

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    Paul Hornung's greatest accomplishment during his career at Notre Dame may quite possibly be becoming the first player to win the Heisman Trophy while playing for a losing team.

    During his first two seasons, Hornung was used at both fullback and halfback before making the switch to quarterback during his sophomore season.

    He also played on the defensive side of the ball and even manned the kicking duties.

    If Hornung needed a nickname, it would most likely be "Mr. Do-It-All."

8. Ross Browner, DE (1973-1977)

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    The best defensive player to ever suit up for the Fighting Irish, Ross Browner was a feared defensive end during Notre Dame's reign of dominance in the 1970s.

    During his time at Notre Dame, Browner received numerous awards including the Outland Trophy, Lombardi Trophy and Maxwell Award.

    Browner was also a consensus All-American in 1976 and 1977. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

7. Johnny Lattner, RB (1951-1953)

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    The 1953 Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Lattner was a versatile athlete on the football field.

    He was used at running back and receiver, as well as on the defensive side of the ball.

    The two-time All-American selection was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

6. Joe Montana, QB (1975-1978)

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    Joe Montana, otherwise known as "Joe Cool," led Notre Dame to the 1977 national title.

    He also guided the Fighting Irish to some of the most memorable moments in program history.

    Montana may not have won any awards or racked up any gaudy statistics, but he remains, to this day, the most clutch player in program history.

    He went on to a successful NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs before calling it quits in 1994.

5. Alan Page, DE (1964-1966)

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    Alan Page was one of the most disruptive forces coming off the edge during his time in college football.

    He anchored the stingy defense that led the Irish to the 1966 national title, the same season in which he was named an All-American.

    Page is currently a supreme court justice in the state of Minnesota.

4. George Connor, OL (1946-1948)

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    A nasty offensive lineman, George Connor was a two-time All-American and a recipient of the Outland Trophy.

    He was also a member of the Notre Dame class that never lost a game.

    Connor's lofty ranking on this list is due to the fact that he was one of the best linemen of his time.

3. Johnny Lujack, QB, (1943; 1946-1947)

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    Johnny Lujack is one of the greatest all-around players to ever suit up for Notre Dame.

    He was an outstanding quarterback and defensive back who also went on to win the 1947 Heisman Trophy.

    However, his greatest accomplishment may be the fact that he won three National Championships during his time in South Bend.

    One can certainly make the argument at Lujack is the best player to ever play at Notre Dame.

2. Leon Hart, DE (1946-1949)

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    Leon Hart was a tremendous talent who played on both sides of the ball.

    Defensively, Hart was an end who punished opposing rushers like none before him.

    On the offensive side of things, he was a bruising fullback who also had soft hands.

    Hart finished his outstanding career with 49 receptions for 751 yards and 13 touchdowns—not to mention he was a three-time All-American, as well as a member of three National Championship teams.

George Gipp, RB (1917-1920)

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    Aside from Knute Rockne, George Gipp should be the most recognizable name in Notre Dame Football history.

    During his senior year, Gipp led the team in both rushing and passing, but tragically died after contracting strep throat.

    His dying words live on to this day:

    "Win one for the Gipper."

    If that doesn't send chills down your spine, I don't know what will.