Top 10 Best Michigan College Football Players of All Time
One of the oldest college football programs in the country, the Michigan Wolverines have been playing the sport since way back in 1879. They were especially dominant in the early 20th century and have won eleven national titles (1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1918, 1923, 1932, 1933, 1947, 1948, 1997). Through all of these years, they have had some incredibly talented players. Listed below are the best football players in Michigan program history.
Who Are the Best University of Michigan Football Players of All Time?
- Charles Woodson
- Desmond Howard
- Denard Robinson
- Mike Hart
- Anthony Carter
- Tripp Welbourne
- Tom Harmon
- Mark Messner
- Chad Henne
- Anthony Thomas
1. Charles Woodson
- 1997 Heisman Trophy Winner
- 1997 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
- Two First Team All-American Selections (1996, 1997)
One of the best defensive backs in college football history, Charles Woodson deserves the nod as the best Michigan player of all time. Woodson was a three-year star for Michigan (from 1995-1997) before heading off to the NFL. In those years, he was named an All-American twice (1996, 1997), made three All-Big Ten teams (1995-1997), was the 1995 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the 1997 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and won the 1997 Heisman Trophy.
Woodson had a knack for finding the ball, and even though he only played three years, his 18 career interceptions are the second most all-time at Michigan. The eight that he had in 1997 are the third-most in a single season in school history as well. With Woodson leading the defense, Michigan went a combined 29-8 from 1995-1997, including a perfect 12-0 in 1997 that led to a national championship.
After forgoing his senior season and entering the 1998 NFL Draft, the Oakland Raiders took Woodson with the fourth overall pick. He had a great pro career as well, and he is a member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2. Desmond Howard
- 1991 Heisman Trophy Winner
- 1991 All-American Selection
- 1991 Maxwell Award Winner
Desmond Howard is the greatest wide receiver to ever play for Michigan. Like Woodson, Howard left college to head to the NFL after his junior season, so he played three years at Michigan from 1989-1991. After his junior year in 1991, he racked up a number of honors, including First Team All-American, the Maxwell Award, the Heisman Trophy, the Walter Camp Award, and First Team All-Big Ten.
Even though he only played three seasons, Howard has the third-most receiving touchdowns (32) and the tenth-most receiving yards (2,146) in school history. While he was in school, Michigan went a combined 29-7, winning the Gator Bowl in 1990. In the 1992 NFL Draft, the Washington Redskins (now Commanders) drafted Howard fourth overall. Howard went on to win a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 1997, and he is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
3. Denard Robinson
- 2010 First Team All-American
- 2010 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year
- Two All-Big Ten Team Selections (2010, 2011)
The first quarterback to crack Michigan’s top ten is the athletic Denard Robinson. Robinson played four years for Michigan from 2009-2012. On two occasions, he was named to an All-Big Ten team (2010, 2011) and in 2010, he was named a First Team All-American and won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He also was the Gator Bowl MVP in 2011.
A great runner and thrower of the football, Robinson ranks fifth in school history in passing yards (6,250), fourth in passing touchdowns (49), second in rushing yards (4,495) and third in rushing touchdowns (42).
While Michigan at times disappointed while Robinson was leading them, they did go 31-19 with him on the team from 2009-2012, and they closed out his career with a victory in the Sugar Bowl. After his college career, the Jacksonville Jaguars used a fifth-round draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft on him. He did not have a noteworthy pro career, but his time in Michigan will not soon be forgotten.
4. Mike Hart
- 2004 Big Ten Freshman of the Year
- Three First Team All-Big Ten Selections (2004, 2006, 2007)
- Top Five Finish in 2006 Heisman Trophy Winner
The greatest running back in Michigan history is Mike Hart. Hart was a four-year starter for the Wolverines from 2004-2007. He was the 2004 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, a three -time All-Big Ten team member (2004, 2006, 2007), and finished in the top five in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2006.
On Michigan’s all-time rushing leaderboards, Hart ranks first in rushing yards by a wide margin (5,040), and fourth in rushing touchdowns (41). From 2004-2007, Michigan had an overall record of 36-14, and they won the final game of Hart’s career in the 2007 Capitol One Bowl.
After his four years in Ann Arbor, the Indianapolis Colts drafted Hart in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL Draft. He had a short professional career and has since become a coach at the college level. His playing days will certainly be remembered for a long time in Michigan.
5. Anthony Carter
- Three First Team All-American Selections (1980-1982)
- 1982 Big Ten Most Valuable Player
- Three All-Big Ten Selections (1980-1982)
The second wide receiver rounds out the first half of this list in Anthony Carter. Carter was an early 1980s star for the Wolverines from 1979-1982. In four years, Carter made three All-Big Ten Teams (1980-1982), was a three-time First Team All-American (1980-1982), and won the 1982 Big Ten Most Valuable Player Award.
When it comes to his career numbers, Carter is in second place in both receiving yards (3,076) and receiving touchdowns (37). While he was in school, Michigan had an overall record of 35-13, winning the Rose Bowl in 1980 and the Bluebonnet Bowl in 1981.
Carter then went on to be a twelfth-round draft pick in the 1983 NFL draft, back when the draft had far more rounds than it does today. Rather than go to the NFL, he chose to play in the new United States Football League (USFL). He had a nice career in the USFL, and he was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
6. Tripp Welbourne
- Two First Team All-American Selections (1989, 1990)
- Two First Team All-Big Ten Selections (1989, 1990)
- 1990 National College Defensive Player of the Year Award
The second defensive back to make this list, Tripp Welbourne kicks off the second half. Welbourne came to Michigan in the late 1980s and played four years for the team from 1987-1990. In his four years, he was a two-time First Team All-American (1989, 1990), a two-time First Team All-Big Ten selection (1989, 1990), and was the 1990 National College Defensive Player of the Year.
After initially coming to Michigan as a wide receiver, Welbourne made the switch to defensive back after not playing much as a freshman. That change ended up working out well for him, and in three years at the position, he registered 238 tackles, nine interceptions, 15 pass breakups, and two fumble recoveries.
As for the team's success, Michigan went 36-11-1 from 1987-1990, winning the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1987, the Rose Bowl in 1988, and the Gator Bowl in 1990. Welbourne then went on to be a seventh-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in the 1991 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, knee injuries derailed his pro career, but his time at Michigan was certainly great.
7. Tom Harmon
- 1940 Heisman Trophy Winner
- Three First Team All-Big Ten Selections (1938-1940)
- Two First Team All-American Selections (1939, 1940)
The third of Michigan’s three Heisman Trophy Winners on this list was actually the first to win the award in Tom Harmon. Harmon was a running back in the late 1930s for the team, playing three years from 1938-1940 (freshmen were not eligible for varsity sports at this time). In addition to winning the Heisman Trophy, Big Ten Player of the Year, and Maxwell Award in 1940, Harmon was a three time First Team All-Big Ten team member (1938-1940), and a two-time two First Team All-American (1939, 1940).
Doing a little bit of everything for the Wolverines, Harmon ran for 2,134 yards, passed for 1,304 yards, and scored 46 total touchdowns during his time at Michigan. Additionally, he led the team to an overall record of 19-4-1 between 1938 and 1940. Unsurprisingly, after his outstanding decorated college career, the Chicago Bears took Harmon with the first overall pick in the 1941 NFL draft.
Interestingly, rather than go to the NFL, Harmon chose to pursue an acting career. He also spent some time serving in the military in World War II. Deservedly so, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his time at Michigan.
8. Mark Messner
- 1988 All-American Selection
- Four First Team All-Big Ten Selections (1985-1988)
- 1988 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year
The first and only defensive lineman to make this list is Mark Messner. Messner was a sack artist, starring for Michigan for four years from 1985-1988. In that time, he made the All-Big Ten First team all four years, was the 1988 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, and was an All-American in 1988.
As was mentioned above, Messner was a sack artist during his time in Ann Arbor. He is the school’s all-time leader in sacks with 36. He has two of the top ten single season sack totals in school history, and the five he had in a 1987 game against Northwestern are also a school record. While Messner was leading the defense up front, Michigan went 38-9-2 and won the Bowl games (1985 Fiesta Bowl, 1987 Hall of Fame Bowl, 1988 Rose Bowl).
He then went on to be a sixth-round draft pick in the 1989 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He played sparingly in his rookie season, and then a knee injury ended his career. Although his pro career did not go as planned, his college one is one of the best in Michigan history.
9. Chad Henne
- 2007 First Team All-Big Ten
- 2006 Second Team All-Big Ten
- Michigan All-Time Leader in Passing Yards, Touchdowns
The second quarterback is the penultimate player on this list in Chad Henne. Henne was a four-year starter for Michigan from 2004-2007. On two occasions, he was selected to an All-Big Ten team, making the first team in 2007 and the second team in 2006.
Statistically, Henne is Michigan’s all-time leader in both passing touchdowns with 87 and passing yards with 9,715. Those 87 passing touchdowns are also the second most in Big Ten history. While he was the quarterback, Michigan went 36-14, winning the 2007 Capitol One Bowl in Henne’s final college game.
Henne was then named the MVP of the game. After his decorated college career, the Jacksonville Jaguars used a second-round pick on Henne in the 2008 NFL Draft. Henne had a nice fourteen-year career for three different teams. He won two Super Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020 and 2023.
10. Anthony Thomas
- 2000 First Team All-Big Ten Selection
- 1999 Second Team All-Big Ten Selection
- 1997 Big Ten Freshman of the Year
The third running back to make the cut rounds out this list in Anthony Thomas. Another four-year starter, Thomas led the Michigan backfield in the late 1990s from 1997-2000. He started his career off strong, winning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award in 1997, and he went on to make two All-Big Ten teams (1999, 2000).
Thomas has the most rushing touchdowns in Wolverine history with 49, and his mark of 4,098 career rushing yards is good enough for fifth all-time. During Thomas’ run from 1997-2000, Michigan went 41-8, winning the National Championship his freshman year in 1997. They also won the Citrus Bowl in 1998 and 2000 as well as the Rose Bowl in 1999.
Once his college days were over, Thomas was drafted in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears. He had a great first year, winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2001.
- Dave Brown
- Bob Chappuis
- Tom Curtis
- Braylon Edwards
- Jim Harbaugh
- Steve Hutchinson
- Ron Kramer
- John Navarre
- Bennie Oosterbaan
- LaMarr Woodley
Who is the best Michigan quarterback of all time?
A dynamic runner and passer of the football, Denard Robinson is the best quarterback in Michigan history. From 2009-2012, Robinson led the Michigan offense. In that time, he was named to an All-Big Ten team (2010, 2011) and in 2010, he was named a First Team All-American and won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He also was the Gator Bowl MVP in 2011. He is in the top five in Michigan history in passing yards, passing touchdowns, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns.
Who is the best Michigan wide receiver of all time?
One of the best wide receivers in college football history, Desmond Howard is the greatest wide receiver in Michigan history. From 1989-1991, Howard was a star for the Wolverines. After his junior year in 1991, he racked up a number of honors, including First Team All-American, the Maxwell Award, the Heisman Trophy, the Walter Camp Award, and First Team All-Big Ten. He’s in the top three all-time in Michigan history in receiving touchdowns and the top ten in receiving yards.
Who is the best Michigan running back of all time?
A player who had one of the best running back careers in Big Ten history, Mike Hart is the greatest running back ever at Michigan. From 2004-2007, Hart headlined the Michigan backfield. In those four years, he was the 2004 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, a three -time All-Big Ten team member (2004, 2006, 2007), and finished in the top five in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2006. In addition to having the most rushing yards in school history, he is fourth in rushing touchdowns.