Notre Dame Football: The 50 Greatest Players in the School's History

Jon GilbertCorrespondent IIFebruary 2, 2011

The 50 Greatest Players in the History of Notre Dame Football

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    3 Nov 1990:  Flanker Raghib Ismail of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish points to the crowd during a game against the Navy Midshipman at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  Notre Dame won the game 52-31. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart  /Allsport
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    One of the most storied programs in college football history is home to some of the greatest players in college football history.

    Notre Dame has a rich and fabulous history, making it nearly impossible to narrow down all of its players to a list of the 50 greatest. But ranking things is just too much fun to not undertake such a task.

    The school has 96 consensus All-Americans, 11 national titles and seven Heisman Trophy winners. They've known what they're doing when it comes to football in South Bend, Ind. for a long time.

    That success has diminished of late, making this list old-school heavy. Irish fans hope new players break into the ranks soon.

    Here are the 50 greatest players in Notre Dame football history.

Honorable Mention: Rudy Ruettiger

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    Rudy Ruettiger only ever played two plays for Notre Dame, but he is one of the most famous in Fighting Irish history.

    In two plays he recorded one sack. That's got to be some kind of a record. What if the 5'5", 165 lbs. walk-on would have been given more of an opportunity?

    With that stat line, we could be talking about a missed opportunity for a multiple consensus All-American.

    Seriously though, here's the list.

50. John Huarte, QB (1962-64)

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    Before Colt Brennan and Matt Leinart were playing football for Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, CA., it was John Huarte who graduated in 1960.

    Huarte sat on the bench for most of his sophomore and junior seasons at Notre Dame before taking over at quarterback in his senior season. He didn't disappoint.

    Huarte only threw 205 passes for 2,062 yards for an astounding 10.06 yards per attempt. He was the surprise Heisman Trophy winner and led Notre Dame to a 9-1 record.

49. Mike Stonebreaker, LB (1986-90)

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    Mike Stonebreaker would rank much higher if this were a list of the greatest names in football history.

    Stonebreaker backed up his fitting name with tremendous play at linebacker, spearheading a national championship defense in 1988.

    Although he never won the Butkus award, finishing third in balloting in 1988 and 1990, Stonebreaker was a two-time All-American.

48. Jim Seymour, WR (1966-68)

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    Jim Seymour produced three great seasons for the Irish. He was a second-team All-American in 1966 before gaining first-team status in 1967 and 1968.

    Seymour was a part of Notre Dame's move offensively to passing the ball more under coach Ara Parseghian.

    Symour's professional career wasn't very successful, but his time at Notre Dame sure was.

47. Todd Lyght CB (1987-90)

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    SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 21:  Todd Lyght #1 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish lines up for a play during the game against the USC Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium on October 21, 1989 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Todd Lyght was a two-time All-American and three-year starter for the Fighting Irish, thanks to his elite ball-hawking skills and hard hits.

    As a junior in 1989, Lyght picked off eight passes. He ended with 11 interceptions and 20.5 pass breakups for his career.

    In the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, Lyght led the Irish in tackles, helping them secure a national championship.

46. Bob Dove, DE (1940-42)

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    After starting his career as a receiver and catching 15 passes as a freshman, Bob Dove switched to defensive end and became a three-year starter.

    He earned consensus All-American honors his final two seasons. Dove was one of the premier defensive players in the country before having a successful professional career.

45. Bob Williams, QB (1948-50)

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    Bob Williams accomplished plenty while at Notre Dame. He won a national championship in 1949. He was a two-time All-American.

    He was efficient and accurate, achieving a 161.4 passer rating in 1949. It is tied for the school's all-time record with Jimmy Clausen's 2009 season.

44. Tom Gatewood, WR (1969-71)

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    Tom Gatewood was the leading receiver in Notre Dame history with 157 catches until coach Charlie Weis came in 2005 and started calling a pass-happy offense.

    Gatewood was a consensus All-American in 1970 when he caught a then-school record 77 passes for more than 1,100 yards. His single season receptions record lasted 36 years.

43. Elmer Layden, FB (1922-24)

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    Elmer Layden was one of the legendary "Four Horsemen of Notre Dame" as Grantland Rice once coined them. It's still considered one of the greatest backfields of all time, and Layden was the fullback.

    Layden rushed for more than 1,800 yards in his career and doubled as a defensive back. He was named an All-American in his senior year.

    Capping off his illustrious career, Layden scored two defensive touchdowns and another rushing in his final collegiate game, a 27-10 Rose Bowl win over Stanford.

42. Jeff Samardzija, WR (2003-06)

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    SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 4:  Jeff Samardzija #83 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish carries the ball during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels on November 4, 2006 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Imag
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Brady Quinn to Jeff Samardzija is one of the great quarterback-wide receiver duos in college football history. The duo hooked up 77 times in 2005 and 78 times in 2006.

    Samardzija become a extraordinarily reliable receiver with a knack for getting open deep.

    "The Shark" decided after college to pursue his baseball career as a pitcher rather than keep his name in the NFL Draft.

41. Golden Tate, WR (2007-09)

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    SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 03: Golden Tate #23 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs against the Washington Huskies on his way to a 67 yard touchdown on October 3, 2009 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Golden Tate is the most recent player on this list. It's all thanks to a record-breaking 2009.

    Tate holds Notre Dame's single-season records for receptions (93) and yards (1,496). He is second to only Jeff Samardzija in career receptions at 157, an honor he shares with Tom Gatewood.

    Tate won the 2009 Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top wide receiver.

40. Jim Crowley, HB (1922-24)

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    Another member of the "Four Horsemen," Jim Crowley played left halfback and helped Notre Dame win its first national championship in 1924.

    Although Crowley earned the nickname "Sleepy Jim" for is lackadaisical style, he was anything but sleepy on the field. In 1924, he led the Irish in scoring and was named an All-American as the team finished 10-0.

    Crowley's quickness was crucial in Notre Dame's unstoppable offense.

39. Heartley Anderson, OL (1918-21)

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    When Knute Rockne praises you as a the best lineman he has ever coached, it means you're pretty good. Legendary halfback George Gipp had plenty to thank Heartley Anderson for.

    Anderson was a part of two undefeated teams and was All-American as a senior in 1921. He was four-year letter winner for the Fighting Irish.

    Anderson later coached Notre Dame from 1931-33.

38. Jerry Groom OL, (1948-50)

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    Jerry Groom was captain of the 1950 Notre Dame squad as a senior. That same year, he was an All-American.

    Groom played mainly center and tackle for Notre Dame but also played linebacker.

    In all, Groom played 465 career minutes which was good for 86 percent of the time Notre Dame played in that time.

37. Allen Pinkett, RB (1982-85)

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    Allen Pinkett became the first Notre Dame player to rush for 1,000 in three consecutive seasons. He was a two-time All-American.

    His 17 rushing touchdowns in 1984 tied Vagas Ferguson's single-season record set in 1979.

    Pinkett sure could get in the end zone. He is the Fighting Irish career scoring leader with 53 touchdowns.

36. Aaron Taylor, OL (1990-93)

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Aaron Taylor was quick, strong and versatile. He was an All-American guard in 1992 and an All-American tackle in 1993. He also won the Lombardi Award in 1993 as well as becoming a finalist for the Outland Trophy.

    Injuries plagued Taylor in the NFL, but his time at Notre Dame will not be forgotten.

35. Don Miller, HB (1922-24)

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    Yet another of the "Four Horsemen," Don Miller may have been the best of the bunch. He was the only one not named an All-American in 1924 despite leading the team in rushing.

    Miller, however, was named an All-American in 1923 as a junior.

    Coach Knute Rockne called Miller, "the greatest open field runner I ever had."

34. Luther Bradley, DB (1973-77)

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    Luther Bradley started at cornerback for the 1973 Notre Dame national championship team and ended his career a champion with Notre Dame's national crown in 1977.

    Bradley is the all-time Golden Domer leader in career interceptions with 17. But he wasn't just a strong coverage man. He also racked up 153 career tackles.

33. Dave Casper, TE (1971-73)

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    Dave Casper is best known for his postseason "Ghost to the Post" heroics with the Oakland Raiders. But before he ever got to that point, he was tight end for Notre Dame.

    Casper played two seasons at tackle for the Fighting Irish before his athleticism could no longer be wasted out of a skill position.

    So, he was moved to tight end for his senior year in 1973. He became an All-American while winning a national championship.

32. Ralph Gugliemli, QB (1951-54)

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    Ralph Guglielmi was as good on defense as he was on offense. He was a three-year starter at quarterback but also notched 10 interceptions in his career on defense.

    Guglielmi was a 1954 All-American. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001.

31. Autrey Denson, RB (1995-98)

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    31 Oct 1998:  Tailback Autry Denson #23 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during the game against the Baylor Bears at the Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. The Fighting Irish defeated the Bears 27-3. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /A
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    For all the great rushers in Notre Dame's illustrious history, Autry Denson was the most prolific of them all. He rushed for a school record 4,318 yards in his career while scoring 43 touchdowns.

    Autry never received major recognition for an individual season, but he was a four-year starter that could be relied on.

30. Reggie Brooks, RB (1989-1990)

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    Who knows what Reggie Brooks could have accomplished if he would have gotten his chance earlier.

    Only converted from defensive back to running back in 1991, Brooks broke into the starting lineup in 1992. He delivered an All-American season that earned him a fifth place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting.

    Brooks rushed for 1,372 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 8.0 yards per carry.

29. Adam Walsh, OL 1922-24)

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    There never would have been the "Four Horsemen of Notre Dame" without blockers. That's where the "Seven Mules" came in. Adam Walsh was the center for the so-famously dubbed offensive line. He led the way for possibly the most historic backfield to ever play.

    Walsh was an All-American as a senior in 1924. He was a two-way player as most were in that day.

    Walsh was a letterman in basketball, track and football at Notre Dame.

28. Bob Golic, LB 1975-78

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    Wherever the ball was, Bob Golic was going to find it and make the tackle. In 1977, Golic recorded 146 tackles as the Irish went on to win a national championship.

    He was twice selected as a first-team All-American, once in 1977 and then unanimously in 1978.

    Golic ended his Irish career with 479 tackles and went on to be a three-time Pro Bowler in the NFL.

27. Ken MacAfee, TE 1974-77

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    It sounds preposterous for a tight end to be even considered for the Heisman Trophy considering the awards long history of rarely looking beyond quarterbacks and running backs.

    But Ken MacAfee finished third in the voting in 1977 after catching 54 passes for 797 yards and six touchdowns.

    MacAfee was a first team All-American in 1975 and then a consensus selection in 1976 and 1977.

26. Bert Metzger, OL 1928-30

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    Bert Metzger was only ever selected as an All-American once when he was senior in 1930. But he made his wrath felt throughout his career.

    The two-way starter wasn't big, earning him his "watch-charm guard" nickname. He received glowing praise from Knute Rockne for his play at guard.

    Metzger helped lead the Fighting Irish to national championships in 1929 and 1930.

25. Chris Zorich, DT 1988-1990

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    15 Oct 1988:  Nose tackle Chris Zorich of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish puts the pressure on during a game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.  Notre Dame won the game 31-30. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsp
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    After being moved from linebacker to defensive tackle for his sophomore season in 1988, Chris Zorich showed the coaching staff that it made the right move by notching 1.5 sacks and 10 tackles in his first game against rival Michigan.

    Zorich earned All-American honors that season and became a consensus All-American in 1989. He earned his third All-American honors as a senior in 1990 and won the Lombardi award.

24. Vagas Ferguson, RB 1976-1979

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    Vagas Ferguson's impact has been lost over the years. When he left Notre Dame in 1979, he did so as the school's all-time leading rusher and had 32 career touchdowns.

    Feguson's senior season was an All-American campaign that left him fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

    He is still third on the Fighting Irish's all-time rushing leaders list.

23. Joe Theisman, QB 1968-1970

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    20-3-2. That was Joe Theisman's record as Notre Dame's quarterback.

    Theisman set Notre Dame records for passing yards in a season and passing touchdowns with 2,429 and 16, respectively.

    His 4,411 career passing yards is fifth in school history. Theisman was a 1971 All-American and went on to great success in the NFL.

22. Bill Fischer, OL 1945-48

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    Bill Fischer was a three-year starter at guard for the Fighting Irish, including the 1946 and 1947 national championship years.

    In 1947 and 1948, Fischer was an All-American. He also was awarded the Outland Trophy in 1948.

    In 1983, Fischer was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

21. Jim Lynch, LB 1964-66

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    Jim Lynch led the Fighting Irish in 1965 with 108 tackles and again in 1966 with 107 and finished his career with 255 take-downs. He captained the 1966 national championship team.

    Lynch is one of very few defensive players to ever be given the Maxwell Award as the best player in college football. He earned the honors in 1966.

20. Justin Tuck, DE 2001-04

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    SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 11: Justin Tuck #44 of Notre Dame celebrates after stopping Michigan on third down in the fourth quarter of a game on September 11, 2004 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 28-20. (Photo by
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Justin Tuck had the size of a defensive tackle and the speed and athleticism of a defensive back. This made things very difficult for opposing offensive lineman.

    Tuck holds Notre Dame records with his 24.5 career sacks and 43 career tackles for loss. If injuries hadn't slowed him down, those numbers would be off the charts.

19. Angelo Bertelli, QB 1941-43

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    Angelo Bertelli was called into service for the United States Marine Corps six games into the Notre Dame 1943 season. In those six games, Bertelli only threw 36 passes, completing 25 of them with 10 touchdowns.

    It was enough to earn Bertelli the Heisman Trophy after finishing second and sixth in voting in 1941 and 1942, respectively.

18. Brady Quinn, QB 2003-06

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    SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 18:  Brady Quinn #10 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish passes against the Army Black Knights at Notre Dame Stadium November 18, 2006 in South Bend, Indiana.  The Fighting Iris beat the Black Knights 41-9.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwana
    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Brady Quinn broke 36—36!—Notre Dame passing records in his time in the Blue and Gold. One of the more impressive records is his 239.6 passing yards per game.

    Quinn helped bring Notre Dame back to relevance with coach Charlie Weis after the program struggled under Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie.

    Quinn finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2005 and third in 2006.

17. Jim Martin, DL 1946-49

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    Jim Martin is one of the most accomplished players in Notre Dame history. He won three national championships and never lost a game in his four years with the Fighting Irish.

    "Jungle Jim" was a four-year starter, playing defensive end and offensive tackle. He was an All-American in 1949.

16. Jerome Bettis, RB 1990-92

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    12 Sep 1992:  Fullback Jerome Bettis of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tries to break through the Michigan Wolverines line during a game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.  Notre Dame won the game 17-17. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsp
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Jerome Bettis never put up huge yardage numbers. But he never failed to live up to his nickname as "The Bus" when it came to plowing people over in search of the goal line.

    Bettis racked up 27 rushing touchdowns in his career. In his final two seasons, Bettis rushed for 26 seasons while only carrying the ball 14 times per game.

15. Bob Crable, LB 1979-81

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    The all-time career leader in tackles is Jim Crable. The always well-positioned linebacker racked up 521 tackles while a Golden Domer.

    Crable notched an absurd 187 tackles in 1979 and holds the NCAA record for tackles in a game with 26 against Clemson that same season.

    His success finding the ball carrier led to two first team All-American selections.

14. Alan Page, DE 1964-66

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    Alan Page exhibited astonishing quickness and athleticism in his time at Notre Dame and then in the NFL. He's in both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

    Page had his best season in 1966, when his All-American campaign was a large part of the Fighting Irish's national championship run.

13. Frank Carideo, QB 1928-30

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    Frank Carideo is the most successful quarterback in Notre Dame history. It's one thing to be the most successful quarterback at, say, Texas Tech or Kentucky. But being the most successful quarterback at Notre Dame is something very, very special.

    Carideo was 19-0 as the starter for the Fighting Irish in two seasons. He was a two-time All-American and won back-to back national championships in 1929 and 1930.

12. Emil Sitko, HB 1946-49

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    Emil spent three seasons starting at fullback for Notre Dame and then moved to fullback for his senior year.

    He earned the nickname "Six-yard Sitko" for his reliable dashes into the defense. Despite being undersized even for those days, he was very fast and tough to bring down.

    Sitko was a consensus All-American in 1949 and won the Walter Camp Award.

11. Johnny Lattner, HB 1951-53

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    Johnny Lattner is one of only two two-time Maxwell Award winners, the other being Florida's Tim Tebow. Lattner played running back, receiver, defense and kicked and punted for Notre Dame.

    He did anything that was asked of him and the Irish benefited. Lattner led the Notre Dame to a 9-0-1 record in 1953 and won the Heisman Trophy.

10. Leon Hart, DE 1946-49

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    Twice in the history of the Heisman Trophy has a lineman won the award. Leon Hart is one of those men.

    The All-American tight end and defensive end did so much to impress voters that quarterbacks and running backs paled in comparison in 1949.

    Hart was a three-time All-American. He lined up at halfback and fullback at times and became the most dominant player in college football.

9. Raghib Ismail, WR 1988-90

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    6 Oct 1990:  Flanker Raghib Ismail of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs down the field during a game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.  Notre Dame won the game 36-31. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy  /Allsport
    Tony Duffy/Getty Images

    "The Rocket" Raghib Ismail has to be the biggest Heisman Trophy snub of all time. He lost that season to Brigham Young's Ty Detmer. Detmer had a prolific season but threw 28 interceptions.

    Ismail is possibly the most dynamic athlete in Notre Dame's history. His play as a wide receiver and kick returner threatened to score a touchdown whenever he touched the ball.

    In three seasons, Ismail surpassed 4,000 all-purpose yards and was an All-American twice.

8. Ross Browner, DE 1973, 1975-77)

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    Two-time United Press International Lineman of the Year winner. Lombardi Trophy winner. Maxwell Award winner. Two-time consensus All-American.

    Ross Browner achieved all that while at Notre Dame.

    He also won national championships in 1973 and 1977. He is one of the most dominant defenders in all of college football's history, not just Notre Dame's.

7. George Connor, OL 1946-47

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    George Connor never lost a game of college football in two years at Notre Dame. If only Notre Dame would have had him for his whole career. Connor started at Holy Cross and transferred to the Irish after World War II.

    Connor twice was a consensus All-American and helped Notre Dame to two national championships. Those teams never trailed. In addition to playing offensive tackle, Connor played linebacker.

    Connor's physical attributes landed him an audition to replace Johnny Weismuller for the role of Tarzan.

6. Tim Brown, WR 1984-87

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    SOUTH BEND -1987:  Tim Brown #81 of Notre Dame Fighting Irish waits for the snap during a game in the 1987 season in South Bend, Indiana.  ( Photo by: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Tim Brown did plenty for Notre Dame in his four years with the Fighting Irish. After all, he did become the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in 1987.

    But it was Brown's electrifying play that re-elevated Notre Dame's national profile among recruits, helping coach Lou Holtz land tremendous classes and prepare for national championships to come.

    His back-to-back punt return touchdowns against Michigan State in 1987 is one of the most dynamic performances in college football history.

5. Tony Rice, QB 1987-89

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    15 Oct 1988:  Tony Rice of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs with the ball during a game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.  Notre Dame won the game, 31-30. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Tony Rice was the epitome of the dual-threat quarterback in his time at Notre Dame. He threw for more than 3,000 yards and ran for more than 2,000 yards.

    Rice led the Irish to the 1988 national championship. He was particularly good when it mattered most. Rice and USC's Matt Leinart share the record for wins against ranked opponents as starting quarterbacks at 11.

4. Joe Montana, QB 1975, 1977-78

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    My high school football coach was one of Joe Montana's backups at Notre Dame. He used to occasionally joke at our practices when we started a drill, "Me and Joe used to do this one."

    Joe was on a different planet than my coach. He's on a different planet than most.

    Although Montana's college stats are never going to blow anyone away, he was up to his same "Joe Cool" tricks with the Fighting Irish that he later displayed with the San Franciso 49ers.

    After not being the starter for the first two games of the season in 1977, Montana took over and won the final nine games and help Notre Dame claim a national title.

3. Johnny Lujack, QB 1943, 1946-47

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    Johnny Lujack is the only quarterback in college football history to ever win three national championships. The only one. That alone puts him in the top 10 on this list.

    The fact that he never lost and won the 1947 Heisman Trophy bumps him up to top five.

    Add to all that, he was nearly as renowned as a defender, was a two-time consensus All-American and he's No. 3 all time in the Notre Dame annals.

2. Paul Hornung, QB 1954-1956

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    Paul Hornung was simply an athlete and a football player. He played fullback on a 9-1 team in 1954 and then moved to quarterback for the rest of his career.

    In 1955, he finished fourth nationally in total offense. As a safety, he made five inteceptions.

    As a senior, he just got better. Hornung ranked second in the country in total offense and made 55 tackles. Even though the Fighting Irish went 2-8, Hornung won the Heisman Trophy and is still the only player on a losing team to ever win the award.

    He was just that good.

    Oh, and he also punted and kicked.

1. George Gipp, HB 1917-1920

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    You know those scenes in the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when Ace sucks in as much breath as he can and then spouts a ton of information?

    Here it goes.

    George Gipp was the first consensus All-American in Notre Dame history, was unbeaten and rushed for 1,556 yards in two seasons, averaging 7.5 yards per carry for his career; he only threw 134 passes but averaged 10.4 yards per attempt; he intercepted six passes, averaged 40 yards per punt and kicked 20 PATs and was one hell of a model American.

    "The Gipper" is the standard by which all Fighting Irish will be forever be measured.