Top 10 Best Syracuse College Football Players of All Time
The Syracuse University football team played their first official game way back in 1889. The Orange have won 16 bowl games over the years and won the National Championship in 1959. Throughout this success, they have had some incredible players. Keep reading to learn about the ten greatest players in Syracuse football history.
Who Are the Best Syracuse University Football Players of All Time?
- Jim Brown
- Marvin Harrison
- Donovon McNabb
- Floyd Little
- Dwight Freeney
- Ernie Davis
- Joe Morris
- Eric Dungey
- Chandler Jones
- Steve Ishmael
1. Jim Brown
- Two All-American Selections (1955, 1956)
- Top Five in 1956 Heisman Trophy Voting
- Voted Greatest College Football Player Ever by ESPN in 2020
One of the greatest athletes in the history of North American sports, Jim Brown is certainly the greatest football player to ever play at Syracuse. Since Brown played during the 1950s, freshmen were not eligible to play varsity sports, and thus he only played three years for the Orange. He played his seasons with the team from 1954-1956, and in those three years, he made two All-American teams and finished in the top five in the Heisman voting in 1956. Brown was also a member of the school’s basketball, track, and lacrosse team, further showing his athletic excellence.
Despite only playing three years, as opposed to the four of many other players, Brown still sits 20th in rushing yards (2,091) and tied for 15th in rushing touchdowns (19) in team history. Along with several other greats who wore the number, Brown’s number 44 was retired by Syracuse. In 2020, Brown was voted the greatest college football player of all time by ESPN. He went on to get drafted as the number six overall pick by the Cleveland Browns in the 1956 NFL draft.
2. Donovon McNabb
- 1995 Big East Rookie of the Year
- Three Big Offensive Player of the Year Awards (1996-1998)
- Four All-Big East First Team Selections (1995-1998)
Easily the greatest quarterback in Syracuse history is Donovan McNabb. A four-year starter from 1995-1998, he led the Orange to one of its best stretches of success in team history. He led the team to a bowl game each year, winning the Gator Bowl in 1995 and the Liberty Bowl in 1996. His notable awards include winning the 1995 Big East Rookie of the Year, three straight Big East Offensive Player of the Year Awards (1996-1998), and four straight All-Big East First team selections.
On Syracuse’s all-time passing leaderboards, McNabb ranks fourth in passing yards (8,389) and first in touchdown passes (77). He also was a great runner, ranking 30th in rushing yards (1,561) and tied for 15th in rushing touchdowns (19). After his great Syracuse career, McNabb was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles with the number two overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, and he went on to have a great NFL career.
3. Marvin Harrison
- 1995 All-Big East Selection
- Top Two in Syracuse History in Receiving Yards, Touchdowns
- Led Team to Two Bowl Victories (1992, 1995)
Donovan McNabb’s number one receiver for one year, Marvin Harrison is the best wide receiver in Syracuse history. Harrison was a four-year player for the Orange from 1992 to 1995. In those four years, he helped the Orange to victory in the 1992 Fiesta Bowl and the 1995 Gator Bowl. Overall, Syracuse was 32-14-1 during his tenure with the team. Additionally, he was an All-Big East selection in his senior year, 1995, when he had his best season with the Orange.
When it comes to his all-time receiving numbers at Syracuse, Harrison ranks number two in both touchdowns with 20 and receiving yards with 2,728. His senior year was McNabb’s freshman year, and the two formed arguably the greatest quarterback-wide receiver duo in school history. Harrison would go on to be drafted by the Indianapolis Colts with the 19th overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft.
4. Floyd Little
- Two All-American Selections (1965, 1966)
- Finished Top Five in Heisman Trophy Voting Twice (1965, 1966)
- Led Team to Two Bowl Appearances (1964, 1966)
Another one of the greats in a long list of great running backs at Syracuse is Floyd Little. Like Jim Brown, Floyd was not eligible to play as a freshman, so he had three years on the Orange football team from 1964 to 1966. In that time, he made two All-American teams (1965, 1966), finished in the top five in the Heisman voting twice (1965, 1966), and led the team to two Bowl Games in 1964 and 1966, although they lost both of them.
As for his all-time rushing ranks, Little comes in at number seven in rushing yards with 2,750 yards and number two in rushing touchdowns with 45. Again like Jim Brown, Little wore the number 44, and he was a major part of why the number itself was retired in recognition of all of the greats who wore it. In 1967, the Denver Broncos took Little with the sixth overall pick in the NFL Draft.
5. Dwight Freeney
- 2001 All-American Selection
- 2001 Big East Defensive Player of the Year
- Helped Team Win the 2001 Insight.com Bowl
The greatest defensive player in Syracuse history, Dwight Freeney rounds out the first half of this list. Freeney played four years for the Orange from 1998 to 2001. His senior season in 2001 was his best, when he was named an All-American and won the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award. He also was twice named to the All-Big East first team (2000, 2001). In 2001, he led the team to victory in the Insight.com Bowl.
Freeney was a sack artist during his time at Syracuse. His 17.5 sacks in 2001 is still the school record, and his 13 sacks in 2000 ranks fifth in team history. Overall, his 34 career sacks rank second all-time At Syracuse. Like Marvin Harrison before him, Freeney went on to be drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, as they took him with the 11th overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
6. Ernie Davis
- 1961 Heisman Trophy Winner
- 1959 National Champion
- Two All-American Selections (1960, 1961)
The only member of this list who was a part of Syracuse’s national championship team in 1959 is Ernie Davis. Like Jim Brown and Floyd Little, Davis only played three years with the Orange due to freshman being ineligible. In his three years from 1959-1961, Davis was named to two All-American teams (1960, 1961) and became the first and only player from Syracuse to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. Additionally, as was mentioned above, Davis helped the Orange win their first and only national championship in 1959.
In Orange history, Davis has the 13th most rushing yards (2,386) and the 12th most rushing touchdowns (24). After his great Syracuse career, Davis was the number one overall pick in the 1962 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins (now Commanders) and traded to the Cleveland Browns. Tragically, however, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia not long after the draft, and he lost his battle with the disease in 1963 at just 23 years old. He may have been gone too soon, but Davis will long be remembered at Syracuse as one of the great number 44s who has his number retired.
7. Joe Morris
- Two All-American Selections (1979, 1981)
- 1980 ECAC Offensive Player of the Year
- Helped Team to Victory in the 1979 Independence Bowl
The fourth of five great running backs on this list is the legendary Joe Morris. Morris had the benefit of playing for four years since he played in the late 70s and early 80s, as he played from 1978 to 1981. In those four seasons, he was named to two All-American teams and won the 1980 ECAC Offensive Player of the Year award. As a sophomore, he led the Orange to a victory in the 1979 Independence Bowl.
A four-year starter, Morris is Syracuse’s all-time leader in rushing yards (4,299), and he ranks seventh in rushing touchdowns (25). Morris went on to be selected by the New York Giants with the number 45 overall pick in the second round of the 1982 NFL Draft. Even though he played more than some of the other greats, being the all-time leading rusher at a school with some of the great running backs that Syracuse has had is a great accomplishment.
8. Eric Dungey
- 2018 All-ACC Third Team Selection
- 2018 All-ECAC First Team Selection
- Led Team to Victory in the 2018 Camping World Bowl
The second quarterback on this list is one of Syracuse’s more recent stars, Eric Dungey. Dungey came to Syracuse in 2015 and started all four years from 2015-2018, although injuries did cost him some time throughout his career. His senior year was by far his best, as this was the only year he did not miss any time with injuries, was named to the All-ACC Third Team, the All-ECAC First team, and led the Orange to victory in the Camping World Bowl.
Dungey’s career passing ranks at Syracuse include having the most career passing yards (9,340) and the third most touchdown passes (58). Like McNabb before him, he was a great runner as well, ranking twenty-fourth in rushing yards (1,993) and third in rushing touchdowns (35) in Orange history. After bouncing around to a few different NFL teams, for a couple of seasons, Dungey currently plays for the DC Defenders of the XFL.
9. Sean Tucker
- 2021 First Team All-American
- Two All-ACC Team Selections (2021, 2022)
- Top Fifteen Finalist for the Maxwell Award in 2021
The most recent Syracuse star and the final of the five great running backs listed here is Sean Tucker. Tucker only played three seasons for the Orange from 2020 to 2022 before deciding to leave early for the NFL Draft. In three years, he made two All-ACC teams (2021, 2022), was a 2021 First Team All-American, and was a top 15 finalist for the 2021 Maxwell Award for the most outstanding player in college football.
Of all of the great running backs, Tucker comes in at number three in rushing yards (3,182) and number six in rushing touchdowns (27) in school history. In 2022, he helped the Orange reach the Pinstripe Bowl, although they were defeated by Minnesota. In the 2023 NFL Draft, Tucker wound up signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent after not being selected during the draft itself.
10. Steve Ishmael
- 2017 All-America Selection
- 2017 All-ACC First Team Selection
- 2017 Semi-Finalist for the Biletnikoff Award
The final player on this list is the second wide receiver, Steve Ishmael. Ishmael played the position for the Orange for four years, from 2014 to 2017. In his senior season, he was named to the 2017 All-ACC First Team and was selected as a 2017 All-American. He also was a semi-finalist for the Biletnikoff Award in 2017, the award for the nation’s most outstanding wide receiver.
Out of all of the wide receivers in Syracuse history, Ishmael has the most receiving yards in team history with 2,891 yards, and he is tied for the fourth most touchdowns with 18. The Orange did not have a lot of success with Ishmael on the team, failing to reach a Bowl game in any of his seasons. It was certainly not because of Ishmael, however, and he went on to sign with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent in 2018.
While the players listed below did not quite make the top 10, they still deserve some recognition as honorable mentions. They are listed in alphabetical order by last name:
- Keith Bulluck
- Rob Burnett
- Larry Csonka
- John Mackey
- Jack McBride
- Art Monk
- Rob Moore
- Jim Ringo
- Walt Sweeney
Who is the best Syracuse quarterback of all time?
Easily the greatest quarterback in Syracuse history is Donovon McNabb. McNabb was a four-year starter for the Orange from 1995 to 1998. In that time, he won the 1995 Big East Rookie of the Year, three straight Big East Offensive Player of the Year Awards from 1996 to 1998, and was named to four straight All-Big East First teams. Additionally, McNabb ranks fourth in passing yards at 8,389 and first in touchdown passes with 77.
Who is the best Syracuse wide receiver of all time?
The greatest wide receiver in Syracuse history is Marvin Harrison. From 1992 to 1995, Harrison played a key role on some of the best Syracuse teams ever. Overall, Syracuse was 32-14-1 during his tenure with the team. When it comes to his all-time receiving numbers at Syracuse, Harrison ranks number two in both touchdowns with 20 and receiving yards with 2,728. Additionally, he was an All-Big East selection after his senior year in 1995.
Who is the best Syracuse running back of all time?
The greatest player ever, regardless of position in Syracuse history, the best running back ever is Jim Brown. Brown played three seasons from 1954 to 1956 (freshmen were not eligible to play at this time). In three years, he made two All-American teams and finished in the top five in the Heisman voting in 1956. Despite only playing three years, Brown still sits 20th in rushing yards (2,091) and tied for 15th in rushing touchdowns (19) in team history. In 2020, Brown was voted the greatest college football player of all time by ESPN.