Top 10 Best Michigan State College Football Players of All Time
The Michigan State Spartans have been playing the sport of football since way back in 1896. They were especially dominant during the 1950s and 1960s, taking home all six of their national titles during that run (1951, 1952, 1955, 1957, 1965, 1966). Over the years, they have had some incredibly talented players. The remainder of this piece talks about the best ten players in program history.
Who Are the Best Michigan State University Football Players of All Time?
- Lorenzo White
- Connor Cook
- Shilique Calhoun
- Bubba Smith
- Greg Jones
- Percy Snow
- B.J. Cunningham
- George Webster
- Le’Veon Bell
- Kirk Cousins
1. Lorenzo White
- 1987 Big Ten Player of the Year
- Two-time First Team All-American selection (1985, 1987)
- Two-time First Team All-Big Ten selection (1985, 1987)
One of the best running backs in Big Ten history, Lorenzo White deserves the title of greatest Michigan State player of all-time. White led the Spartan backfield for four years from 1984-1987. In that time, he was a two-time First Team All-American (1985, 1987), a two-time All-Big Ten First Team member, and was the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1987.
When it comes to his career numbers, White has the most rushing yards (4,887) and the most rushing touchdowns (43) in program history. With him leading the offense, Michigan State had an overall record of 28-18-1, winning a Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl in 1987. After winning that Rose Bowl, White went on to be the 22nd overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft a few months later. He had an eight year career in the NFL that included one Pro Bowl appearance in 1992. He eventually was inducted into the Michigan State Hall of Fame in 2010.
2. Connor Cook
- 2015 Johnny Unitas Award Winner
- Three-time All-Big Ten Team selection (2013-2015)
- 2013 Rose Bowl Offensive MVP
The best quarterback in Michigan State history is Connor Cook. Cook was on Michigan State’s team for four years from 2012-2015, and he led the offense for the final three years. He was a three-time All-Big Ten selection (2013-2015), won the 2015 Johnny Unitas Award, and was the Most Valuable Player of the 2014 Rose Bowl.
On Michigan State’s all-time passing leaderboards, Cook ranks first in both passing yards (9,194) and passing touchdowns (71) in school history. As for team success, Michigan State had an overall record of 43-11 in Cook’s four years, including 36-5 in the three years he was the starter.
Cook also led the team to two Big Ten Championships (2013, 2015), and two Bowl victories in the 2013 Rose Bowl and the 2014 Cotton Bowl. The Oakland Raiders would take Cook in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He bounced around for a few years in the world of professional football, but he never quite had the same level of success that he did in college.
3. Shilique Calhoun
- Three-time First Team All-Big Ten selection (2013-2015)
- 2013 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year
- Top two in Michigan State history in sacks
The greatest defensive player in Spartan history is arguably Silique Calhoun. Calhoun was on the Spartan’s team the same four years as Connor Cook from 2012-2015. He made three straight All-Big Ten First Team Selections (2013-2015) and was the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year.
Calhoun had a real knack for getting after the quarterback, and he has the second most career sacks in Michigan State history with 26. The 10.5 he had in 2015 are the fifth most in a single season in school history as well. Since Calhoun was on the team the same four years, the team had the same success in a 43-11 overall record, two Big Ten Championships (2013, 2015), and two Bowl Game victories (2013 Rose Bowl, 2014 Cotton Bowl).
Calhoun then went on to be a third round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. He played for a few different teams throughout his NFL career, but his time at Michigan State will always be his best days.
4. Bubba Smith
- 1966 UPI Lineman of the Year Award winner
- Two-time First Team All-American selection (1965, 1966)
- Number 95 retired by Michigan State
Another great defensive lineman in Spartan history is Bubba Smith. Smith was a part of some great Spartan teams for three years from 1964-1966 (freshmen were not eligible to play varsity sports at this time). He made two First Team All-American teams (1965, 1966) and was the 1966 UPI Lineman of the Year Award. He also went on to have his number 95 retired by the school.
During his senior season, Smith was able to register 30 tackles, 15 of which were for a loss, despite being regularly double and triple teamed. As was mentioned above, Smith was on some great Spartan teams, and during his three years the team had an overall record of 23-6-1. This included being 19-1-1 in 1965 and 1966, winning the Big Ten and National Championship both years.
After the second of those championships, Smith went on to be the number one overall pick in the 1967 NFL Draft by the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts. He had a great professional career and helped the Colts win one of the first Super Bowls in 1971. He has since been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame to honor his outstanding career with the Spartans.
5. Greg Jones
- 2009 Co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year
- Three-time All-Big Ten First Team selection (2008-2010)
- Two-time First Team All-American selection (2009, 2010)
The third straight defensive player, linebacker Greg Jones rounds out the first half of this list. Jones was a four year player for the Spartans and the late 2000s from 2007-2010. He made three All-Big Ten First teams, was a two-time First Team All-American, and was the 2009 Co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
An all-around talent, Jones has the third most tackles with 465 and the ninth most sacks with 16.5 in school history. Additionally, the 154 tackles he had in 2009 are the sixth most in a single season in school history. While Jones was a key player on the defense from 2007-2010, Michigan State went 33-19 and they made a Bowl game all four years. They also won the Big Ten title in 2010. In the 2011 NFL Draft, Jones was selected in the sixth round by the New York Giants. Like a few of his fellow Spartan greats, Jones’ professional career was not quite as successful as his college one. Nonetheless, his days in East Lansing will not soon be forgotten.
6. Percy Snow
- 1989 Dick Butkus Award member
- 1989 Lombardi Award winner
- 1989 All-American selection
Yet another defensive star for the Spartans kicks off the second half of this list in Percy Snow. Snow was a linebacker who was a member of the Michigan State football team from 1986-1989. After his senior year in 1989, he was an All-American selection, won the Dick Butkus Award, and won the Lombardi Award.
Snow was a terrific tackler of the ball carrier, and throughout his career, he racked up 473 tackles, the second most in program history. In one game in 1989 against Illinois, he had 23 tackles, the fourth most in a single game ever at Michigan State. During Snow’s four year run with the team, the Spartans went 29-16-2, winning the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl in 1987 as well as the Aloha Bowl in 1989. Snow would then be drafted with the 13th overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. He had a great rookie season, but some unfortunate injuries that he suffered shortened his career greatly. Despite the sad end to his football days, Snow’s time at Michigan State was still outstanding.
7. B.J. Cunningham
- 2011 Second Team All-Big Ten
- Michigan State all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards
- 2010 Big Ten Champion
The next player on this list is the greatest wide receiver in Spartan history in B.J. Cunningham. A four year player for the Spartans, Cunningham was in East Lansing from 2008-2011. After his senior season in 2011, Cunningham was selected to the All-Big Ten Second team.
Cunningham’s career numbers with the Spartans include having the most receiving yards (3,086), the most receptions (218) and the second most receiving touchdowns (25) ever at Michigan State. In the four seasons with Cunningham catching passes, the team went 37-16, winning the Big Ten championship in 2010 and the Alamo Bowl in 2011.
After his successful college career, Cunningham was a sixth round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins in the 2012 NFL Draft. He never had much success in the NFL, but he did have a solid career in the Canadian Football League for seven seasons with the Montreal Alouettes from 2015-2021.
8. George Webster
- 1965 All-American selection
- 1966 All-American selection
- Number 90 retired by Michigan State
The final greatest defensive player on this list is the second national champion in George Webster. Webster, who played defensive back and linebacker, was Bubba Smith’s teammate for three years from 1964-1966 after not being eligible for varsity sports as a freshman, as was the case at the time for all freshmen. Webster was a two-time All-American (1965, 1966), and he has since had his number 90 retired by the Spartans as well as been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Webster was all over the place on the field, and during his senior season in 1966, he recorded 93 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. Webster was a part of the National Championship and Big Ten Championship winning teams in 1965 and 1966, going 19-1-1 in those two seasons. After the second of those titles, Webster was taken with the fifth overall pick in the 1967 American Football League (AFL) draft by the Houston Oilers, as this was when the AFL and NFL leagues were still competing. He had a great career in the AFL and is a member of the league’s all-time team.
9. Le’Veon Bell
- 2012 First Team All-American
- 2012 First Team All-Big Ten
- 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl Offensive MVP
One of the more famous Spartan Football Alumni in recent memory is running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell led the Spartan backfield for three years from 2010-2012. In 2012, he was a First Team All-American, a First Team All-Big Ten member, and was the Offensive MVP of the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Bell’s career numbers at Michigan State have him in seventh place all-time in both rushing yards (3,346) and rushing touchdowns (33) in school history. Overall, from 2010-2012, the Spartans went 29-11, winning the Big ten Championship in 2010, the Outback Bowl in 2011, and the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in 2012.
After he decided to forgo his senior season and head to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers took Bell with a second round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. His pro days are coming to end, but he had an outstanding career in the pros, particularly with the Steelers from 2013-2018.
10. Kirk Cousins
- 2011 Second Team All-Big Ten selection
- Top two in Michigan State history in passing yards and passing touchdowns
- 2010 Big Ten Champion
The final player on this list is the second quarterback in Kirk Cousins. After playing a little as a freshman in 2008, Cousins was a three year starter for the Spartans from 2009-2011. In 2011, he was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team and led the team to the Big Ten title in 2010.
Cousins’ currently sits in second place all-time in Spartan history in both passing touchdowns (66) and passing yards (9,131). Along with leading the team to the Big Ten title in 2010, Cousins led the team to an overall record of 28-12 in his three years as the starter from 2009-2011. They capped off his career with a victory in the 2011 Alamo Bowl. Cousins then was drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins (now Commanders). His teams have not always found a lot of postseason success in the NFL, but Cousins has had a nice career for the Redskins and Minnesota Vikings so far.
- Flozell Adams
- Plaxico Burress
- Darqueze Dennard
- Brad Van Pelt
- Javon Ringer
- Andre Rison
- Charles Rogers
- Jeff Smoker
- Drew Stanton
Who is the best Michigan State quarterback of all time?
The best quarterback in Michigan State history is Connor Cook. Cook was at Michigan State for four years from 2012-2015, and he was a starter for three of those seasons from 2013-2015. In that time, he was a three-time All-Big Ten selection (2013-2015), won the 2015 Johnny Unitas Award, and was the Most Valuable Player of the 2014 Rose Bowl. He also has the most passing yards and most passing touchdowns in school history.
Who is the best Michigan State wide receiver of all time?
Out of all of the wide receivers at Michigan State, the best one in school history is B.J. Cunningham. From 2008-2011, Cunningham was a key part of the Spartan offense. He was named to the All-Big Ten Second team after his senior year in 2011, and he helped the team win the Big Ten championship in 2010. He also has the most receptions, most receiving yards, and second most receiving touchdowns in program history.
Who is the best Michigan State running back of all time?
Doubling as the best player regardless of position, the best running back in Michigan State history is Lorenzo White. From 1984-1987, White led the Spartan backfield for four seasons. He was a two-time First Team All-American (1985, 1987), a two-time All-Big Ten First Team member, and was the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1987. He also ranks first in school history in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.