Top 10 Best Notre Dame College Football Players of All Time

Top 10 Best Notre Dame College Football Players of All Time

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish has a historic football program. Their continued success in College Football has kept them in the limelight. Which players built the Notre Dame football team’s reputation? Who were the best football players in the university’s historic program? Keep reading to find out.

Who Are the Best University of Notre Dame Football Players of All Time?

  1. Johnny Lujack
  2. George Gipp
  3. Paul Hornung
  4. Joe Montana
  5. Tim Brown
  6. Raghib Ismail
  7. Ross Browner
  8. Tony Rice
  9. George Connor
  10. Frank Carideo

1. Johnny Lujack

The definition of great, Johnny Lujack was born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania and was a star athlete. The townsfolk wanted Lujack to play for West Point, but Lujack was a Notre Dame fan and decided to attend the university to play quarterback, defensive back, and punter.

Lujack would see no action his freshman year, but got the starting job at quarterback his sophomore year (after playing a little halfback) after the original starter joined the Marines. Lujack began his historic career with a win over West Point. 

After his sophomore year, Lujack left to join the Navy for three years, returning in the 1946 season. The hiatus did not make Lujack rusty; he was selected as an All-American in his junior and senior years and won the Heisman in his senior season, never losing a game.

After his college career, he was selected fourth overall by the Chicago Bears, playing just four years but still had a great career, being selected to two Pro Bowls and a First Team All-Pro.

2. George Gipp

  • Rushed for 2,341 yards (record for 58 years)
  • Led the Fighting Irish to two perfect seasons (1919, 1920)
  • 1920 consensus All-American (first for Notre Dame)

George Gipp was the definition of an old-school football player, playing quarterback, half back, defense, kick returner, and kicker. This let Gipp stay on the field the entire time, a true iron man player. Gipp racked up 156 points, scoring in every way. 

Shortly after his college career, on December 14, 1920, Gipp passed away from a throat infection and pneumonia. Shortly before his passing, Gipp talked to his coach Knute Rockne, and Gipp said, “Someday, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are going bad, and breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go on in there with all they've got and win just one for The Gipper.”

During the Army game in 1928, the Fighting Irish were down 6-0 at halftime. And during the break, Rockne made the impassioned plea “Win one for the Gipper.” The Fighting Irish would come back to win the game 12-6, forever cementing the legend of George Gipp in Notre Dame’s historic program.

3. Paul Hornung

  • 1956 Heisman Trophy winner
  • 1955 consensus All-American
  • Selected first overall in the 1957 NFL Draft

Paul Hornung was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and despite the great Bear Bryant recruiting him to the in-state Kentucky University, Hornung chose Notre Dame. Hornung began as a backup fullback in his sophomore season, accumulating 159 yards on 6.9 yards per carry.

Hornung’s career really took off in his junior season. Hornung ended up finishing fifth in Heisman voting after accumulating 1,215 total yards (passing and rushing). This gave him the platform to be named a consensus All-American.

Hornung’s senior Heisman season was individually great but lacked team success. The Fighting Irish went 2-8 during the season in spite of Hornung’s effort. Hornung accumulated 1,337 total yards, the second most in the country. Because of Notre Dame’s lack of team success, Hornung became the only Heisman winner ever to win it on a losing team.

Hornung was selected first overall by the Green Bay Packers, where he continued to have a historic career; he won a Super Bowl, MVP, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

4. Joe Montana

  • Led the Fighting Irish to the 1977 NCAA National Championship
  • Totaled 4,121 passing yards over three years
  • Won the Cotton Bowl in 1978

After garnering national attention in high school football, Joe Montana ended up choosing Notre Dame because his football hero, Terry Hanratty, also attended Notre Dame. Due to coach Parseghian’s policy of not starting freshmen, Montana would not start until his sophomore year where he separated his shoulder causing him to redshirt his true junior year.

Returning for his redshirt junior season, Montana would start off as the third-string quarterback because of his shoulder injury. In a game against Purdue, Montana would step in and lead the team to a comeback win. It was in this season that Montana led the Fighting Irish to an 11-1 record and a National Championship. Montana returned for his redshirt senior season and continued the winning ways, ending the season with a Cotton Bowl win.

Montana would be selected in the third round of the NFL draft. He had a historic NFL career and could be argued as one of the greatest players in history.

5. Tim Brown

  • 1987 Heisman Trophy winner
  • 1987 consensus All-American
  • 1987 Walter Camp Player of the Year

Tim Brown was a talented athlete at Woodrow Wilson High, excelling in the 400-meter and long jump in track and, of course, on the football field as well. Despite the team's lackluster success, going 4-25-1 during his time as a starter, Brown garnered lots of attention from colleges.

Starting out as a wide receiver, Brown would find immediate success setting the Notre Dame freshman receiving record with 28 catches and 340 yards. He continued to play wide receiver during his sophomore season but transitioned to flanker back (a hybrid of wide receiver and running back) to receive the ball more.

This position is where Brown shined. Brown’s total yards went from 427 in his sophomore season total to 1,164 in his junior season. His senior season was the pinnacle of his career, being named an All-American and winning the Heisman.

Brown would be taken sixth overall by the then-Los Angeles Raiders, beginning a historic career that would end with a Hall of Fame selection.

6. Raghib Ismail

  • Finished second in Heisman Trophy voting in 1990
  • 1990 Walter Camp Player of the Year
  • 1990 consensus All-American

Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail was an electric player. Playing in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Ismail would show his incredible athleticism earning a scholarship to Notre Dame.

Ismail’s freshman year would culminate in a National Championship. Ismail would be crucial as a kick returner, returning two for a touchdown. But Ismail would really take off as an offensive weapon in his sophomore season, racking up 1,013 all-purpose yards. This was enough to earn Ismail an All-American selection as a kick returner and ended tenth in Heisman voting.

Ismail’s junior year would prove to be his best. Finishing with 1,236 all-purpose yards, a consensus All-American, and second in Heisman voting. Although not matching the team's success in 1988, Ismail would go 9-3, losing in the Orange Bowl.

Despite being projected to be the top pick in the NFL, Ismail chose to play in the CFL. Later, he came back to play in the NFL as well.

7. Ross Browner

  • Two-time National Champion (1973, 1977)
  • 1976 and 1977 consensus All-American
  • 1977 Maxwell Award

Ross Browner started his career at Notre Dame with a National Championship. He and the Fighting Irish defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The standout defensive end was a sturdy addition to the great team.

Browner was suspended for a year for violating the school’s dorm code, but that did not leave him rusty. He came back and started the remaining three years.

In his junior year, Browner  earned the Outland Trophy for being the nation’s best defensive lineman. This year also saw Browner named a consensus All-American and United Press International (UPI) Lineman of the Year. 

Continuing his accolade abundant career, Browner won the UPI Lineman of the year award and was named a consensus All-American for a second time. He also won the Lombardi Trophy for the nation’s best lineman, the Maxwell Award as the nation’s best player, and finished fifth in Heisman voting. Browner would go on to play nine seasons for the Bengals and one for the Packers.

8. Tony Rice

  • 1988 National Champion
  • 1989 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award
  • 1989 All-American

Tony Rice was not the typical pocket-passing Notre Dame quarterback, as he was both a phenomenal passer and rusher. Rice would not start his freshman year but would take over the starting position his sophomore year and instantly became a fan favorite.

In his sophomore year, Rice showed glimpses of his talent. He racked up 663 passing yards and 337 rushing yards. But Rice’s college career really took off in his junior year. Rice would pass for 1,176 yards and rush for 700. The biggest achievement of the season was the National Championship, where Notre Dame beat West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

While not matching the team's success in his senior season, Rice would be at his personal best during his final ride for Notre Dame. He passed for 1,122 yards and rushed for 884 yards. This gave him the platform to be named an All-American and win the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, the award for the nation’s best upperclassman quarterback.

9. George Connor

  • Two-time National Champion (1946, 1947)
  • 1946 Outland Trophy
  • Two-time consensus All-American (1946, 1947)

George Connor was not originally a Fighting Irish. Connor started his collegiate football career at Holy Cross University. But after a stint fighting for the Navy, he would transfer to Notre Dame.

Connor’s impact was immediately felt. In his first season with Notre Dame, he was a consensus All-American and won the first Outland Trophy for the nation’s best interior lineman. The team finished 8-0-1 (tying Army) and were National Champions.

In the final year of his Notre Dame career, Connor would mimic his own and the team’s success. Again Connor was great for Notre Dame, being named a consensus All-American once more. The Fighting Irish went a perfect 9-0, winning a second National Championship. Although his time was short, Connor was great day in and day out for the Irish.

10. Frank Carideo

  • Two-time National Champion (1929, 1930)
  • Two time consensus All-American (1929, 1930)
  • 19-0 two years starting

Frank Carideo was perfect at Notre Dame. While at Notre Dame, he played for coach Knute Rockne during his last two seasons coaching and won every game. Carideo would play not only quarterback but also played on the defensive side of the ball and punted.

Carideo would also be named a consensus All-American in both seasons he played. Carideo would punt the ball well (consistently having the ball downed inside the three-yard line), return punts, intercept passes, and, of course, throw touchdowns himself.

Carideo is a true Fighting Irish through and through, showing his grit and all-around prowess consistently. After his playing career, Carideo coached multiple college football teams.

Honorable Mentions

  • Jerome Bettis
  • Bob Crable
  • Johnny Latner
  • Jim Lynch
  • Jim Martin
  • Alan Page
  • Brady Quinn
  • Justin Tuck
  • Golden Tate
  • Chris Zorich


Who is the best Notre Dame quarterback of all time?

Johnny Lujack was not only the best Notre Dame quarterback of all time but also the best Notre Dame player of all time. In his three seasons as a starter, Lujack never lost a game, was named an All-American twice, and won the Heisman. Lujack even joined World War II before returning to his career. He truly defines what it means to play for Notre Dame.  

Who is the best Notre Dame wide receiver of all time?

Tim Brown is the best Notre Dame wide receiver of all time, winning the Heisman Trophy and the Walter camp awards, and being named a consensus All-American. Brown would find immediate success setting the Notre Dame freshman receiving record with 28 catches and 340 yards. In his sophomore year, he only improved. In his junior season Brown would switch to flanker back where both received and ran the ball, finding great success at this modified position too.

Who is the best Notre Dame running back of all time?

Paul Hornung is the best Notre Dame running back of all time. He played halfback and his senior year was his best season, when he went for 1,337 total yards (passing and rushing). For his efforts, Hornung was awarded the Heisman Trophy and selected first in the NFL Draft.