Notre Dame’s Gridiron Greats: Ranking the Ultimate Fighting Irish Players

Despite not having won a national championship since 1988, Notre Dame is one of the most decorated and successful programs of all time in college football.

All in all, Notre Dame has won 885 games in program history thus far, captured eleven titles, and seven players have taken home the Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football. The Fighting Irish are tied with the USC Trojans for the most Pro Football Hall of Fame Members with 14, and since 2000, over 100 players have advanced to play in the NFL.

Here are the top five players in Notre Dame history (based on their collegiate careers, not NFL).

The Top 5 Notre Dame Players in History

5)  Jerome Bettis

Nicknamed “The Bus” due to his bruising running style, Jerome Bettis made a name for himself at Notre Dame before his Hall of Fame career in the NFL took off.

Bettis ran for 1,912 yards and 33 total touchdowns at South Bend over three years. His most impressive season came in 1991 when he ran for 972 yards and set the program record with 23 touchdowns (including the postseason). His ability to power through defenders and fight for extra yards was on full display at Notre Dame, as he averaged an impressive 5.7 yards per carry.

Bettis went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the St Louis Rams in the NFL where he was a six-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro, and a Super Bowl champion.

4) Raghib “Rocket” Ismail

Standing at 5’11″, 185 pounds, Raghib Ismail did not have the ideal size of a wide receiver, but he made up for it with blazing speed and athletic ability.

Playing running back and wide receiver for Notre Dame, Ismail ran for 1,015 yards and five touchdowns and caught 202 passes for 2,580 yards and nine touchdowns over the course of three collegiate seasons. Not only was he a factor on offense, but he also made plays on special teams, averaging 27.6 yards per kick return with six total touchdowns. His best season came in 1990 when he posted 1,236 yards from scrimmage, en route to All-American honors and the Walter Camp Award.

Ismail may not have the flashy stats that receivers of today have, but his versatility and impact on the game on offense and special teams make him one of the best players in Notre Dame football history.

3) Tim Brown

Tim Brown was a playmaker right from the start of his Notre Dame career, as he set a freshman record with 28 receptions (for 340 yards) in 1984. He elevated his level of play significantly each year, ultimately winning a Heisman Trophy in his senior year in 1987 during which he posted a stat line of 846 yards on 39 receptions and three touchdowns.

By receiving the Heisman Trophy, Brown became the first receiver to win the award and only three have earned the award since. Brown was named to two All-American teams, and at the time of his departure from South Bend, he held 19 individual school records. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame and went on to have a Hall of Fame NFL career with the Raiders and Buccaneers.

2) Paul Hornung

It’s easy to look at passing stats when it comes to a quarterback’s success. In the case of Paul Hornung, you would see that he had more interceptions than touchdowns in 1956. However, passing was only part of the story for Paul Hornung.

The impact that he had on the Notre Dame program was monumental as he led the team in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff and punt returns, punting, passes broken up on defense, and was second in interceptions and tackles. He became the first and only player to win the Heisman Trophy despite playing for a team with a losing record (2-8). He is considered arguably the greatest all-around player in Notre Dame football history.

He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986 after a decorated pro career with the Green Bay Packers.

1) Johnny Lujack

The most decorated Notre Dame football player of all time, Johnny Lujack won three national championships and was named to two All-American teams. And if that’s not enough to convince you of his legacy, he was also the winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1947.

All of those accolades are great but what seals the deal about Lujack’s place as the best Notre Dame player of all time is the fact that he was a winner, plain and simple, which is all that you want at the end of the day. Lujack finished his Notre Dame career with a .932 winning percentage at 20-1-1. He wasn’t the most flashy player or the most athletic, but Lujack found a way to win games, and combined with his many accolades, it makes him the best player to ever put on a Notre Dame uniform.

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