Very few college football programs have the history that the University of Notre Dame has. While this past season saw one of the worst performances in program history, the Fighting Irish still have a proud history that features an all-time record of 896 wins and 321 losses. They’re an iconic team with blue jerseys, gold helmets and matching pants.
Notre Dame football has featured some of the greatest college football coaches that feature Knute Rockne and Lou Holtz. The school has claimed 11 national championships with 97 All-Americans and seven who won the Heisman Trophy. The Fighting Irish have seen some of the best in football with quarterbacks like Johnny Lujack in the 1940s to Joe Montana in the 1970s.
But not everyone who has ever worn the famous gold football helmet was able to find success on the football field. Just like any other major college football program, there are players who did not live up to expectations. For every Joe Montana, there’s a Ron Powlus. For every Tim Brown, there’s a Torii Hunter, Jr. The list can go on for both good and bad athletes. There’s a James Aldridge for every George Gipp.
Not every Irish player could “win one for the Gipper.” But there were a number of players who were key to winning big bowl games and national titles. Notre Dame has a share of both and this list takes a glimpse at the top eight and worst seven football players to have ever been part of the Notre Dame program.
15 Best – Raghib Ismail
There’s a reason he earned the nickname “Rocket.” Raghib Ismail was a wide receiver who showed a lot of versatility during his time with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. He started out in 1988 with only 12 receptions, but he did a lot with those opportunities. He finished the season with 331 yards and two touchdowns; averaging 27.6 yards per catch. He became more involved with the offense in 1989 with both passing and rushing. He had 64 rushes for 478 yards and then caught 27 passes for 535 yards.
His senior season was his best year in 1990. Ismail had 67 carries for 537 yards with three touchdowns. He also caught 32 passes for 699 yards and two touchdowns to finish with 1,236 scrimmage yards. After becoming an All-American, Ismail would enter the 1991 NFL Draft. While never becoming a Pro Bowl player or a champion, he had success with 5,295 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career.
14 Worst – Steve Beuerlein
Gerry Faust is certainly one of, if not the worst head coach Notre Dame football’s history. During the final years of his tenure with the Fighting Irish, quarterback Steve Beuerlein certainly didn’t help his case for job security. While the Irish were still viewed as a run-based offense in the 1980s, Beurelein’s numbers were horrible by most quarterback standards. He played 10 games as a freshman in 1983, finishing with just 1,061 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions; completing just 51.7 percent.
Over the next three years, he completed more passes with a four-year average of 55.6 percent. His best year was his senior season in 1986 – when Lou Holtz took over the program. Beuerlein would finish with 2,211 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Based on his college experience, it’s a surprise to see he played 14 seasons in the NFL with one 4,000-yard season with Carolina in 1999.
13 Best – Paul Hornung
Known as the Golden Boy, Paul Hornung was one of the best quarterbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. It all started during his college years with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. It was a different style of football where quarterbacks rarely threw the ball and were more of an additional option to the run game. Either way, Hornung was one of the best at Notre Dame. After little appearances through the 1954 season, Hornung would get more opportunities in 1955.
Hornung led the team with 743 passing yards with nine touchdowns; although he did throw 10 interceptions that season. But in 1956, he became a dual threat with 917 passing yards and 420 rushing yards. Despite the Irish going 2-8 in 1956, Hornung still won the Heisman Trophy that season. He would become a running back in the NFL with four league titles, one Super Bowl and an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
12 Worst – Torii Hunter, Jr.
The son of one of the best outfielders in Major League Baseball could have had a good career at Notre Dame. There was some hype considering his father’s background. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to translate his inherited athletic abilities to the football field. He didn’t see the field during his freshman season and would get a few opportunities as a sophomore; seven receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown, to be exact. However, Hunter would get a few more opportunities as a junior in 2015.
In 13 games, Hunter had 28 receptions for 363 yards and two touchdowns. Entering last season, Hunter may have had an opportunity to play a bigger role in the Notre Dame offense. However, he had just 38 receptions in eight games for 521 yards and three touchdowns. While his yards per catch average was high (13) in his three seasons, Hunter just wasn’t able to get enough opportunities to contribute.
11 Best – Joe Montana
Joe Montana is known as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history with four Super Bowl championships, more than 40,000 passing yards and two NFL Most Valuable Player awards. It was no surprise to see him inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which isn’t bad for someone picked in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. But Montana didn’t necessarily have the biggest numbers at Notre Dame.
He was part of the National Championship team in 1977 after throwing for 1,604 yards and 11 touchdowns. He would hit 2,010 yards and 10 touchdowns in 1978. This was during a time when the Fighting Irish still put a lot of their focus on the running game. It wasn’t until he got to San Francisco in the NFL when he was allowed to throw more and show what he was truly capable of.
10 Worst – James Aldridge
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish didn’t always have premier running backs through the years. James Aldridge is a running back who was never able to take advantage of the opportunities he had. As a freshman, he played a little bit in seven games where he carried the ball only 37 times for 142 yards. His sophomore season the best of his collegiate career. However, it’s hard to be proud of having just 463 yards in 11 games; which still led all Fighting Irish running backs.
His workload decreased in his junior season where he had just 357 yards on 91 carries in the 2008 season. Armando Allen would begin to take over more of the carries; especially when he finished with 940 total scrimmage yards in 2008. Aldridge would finish his senior season with just six carries for 17 yards. Aldridge had an average of 3.8 yards per carry and only scored three touchdowns.
9 Best – Leon Hart
There’s a lot to be said about someone who plays at Notre Dame as a 17-year-old freshman. Then throw in the fact that said player is able to play on both sides of the ball. Leon Hart was certainly an Ironman on the field during his time with Notre Dame between 1946 and 1949. As a tight end, he had a career total of 751 yards and five touchdowns. All of his scores came during the 1949 season when he won the Heisman Trophy.
Unfortunately, there are no recorded stats from the defensive side of the ball. Still, he was selected first overall in the 1950 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. Hart had a great career that saw three NFL Championships, one Pro Bowl and one selection to the All-Pro team. Even in the NFL, Hart was playing as a running back and a defensive end.
8 Worst – QB Ron Powlus
During the mid-1990s, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were certainly improving under head coach Lou Holtz. However, the offense still had struggles from 1994 to 1997 with quarterback. Ron Powlus certainly underachieved in what could have been highlight years for the entire program. When considering all of the hype he had when arrived in South Bend, he is considered one of the more hated Notre Dame quarterbacks in the last 25 years.
Powlus started off with some promise with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a freshman. But his sophomore season was rough with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Even when the Irish had the 10th highest scoring average in the country, Powlus was not the star on the team with only 1,942 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. He would regress in 1997 with just nine touchdowns against seven interceptions.
7 Best – Ross Browner
Ross Browner might have arguably been one of the strongest athletes the Notre Dame Football program has ever seen. As a 6-foot-4, 250-pound defensive end, he had a number of accomplishments both at Notre Dame and during his professional football career. As part of his time with the Fighting Irish in the 1970s. He was a Consensus All-American in 1976 and 1977. But he also won the 1976 John Outland Trophy for best interior lineman.
In 1977, he added the Maxwell Award for player of the year, as well as the Vince Lombardi Award for lineman of the year. He would go on to play 10 years in the NFL with 30.5 sacks. He also won a number of boxing titles and an invitation to compete in the World’s Strongest Man competition at one point. It’s hard to argue his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
6 Worst – Drue Tranquill
Over the last few seasons, defense has been a constant issue for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. It was evident in their season-opening loss last year to Texas, 50-47, when the Irish defense allowed 517 yards to a team that would only win five games. Safety Drue Tranquill shouldn’t be the only player singled out, but for someone who has been with the program a few years, he’s underachieved. In 10 games as a freshman, he had 33 tackles, one interceptions and one fumble recovery.
He dealt with injuries in his sophomore season in 2015 that limited him to just three games and nine tackles. Tranquill played all 12 games for the Irish in 2016 and had 79 tackles. But he only defended two passes; equal to the two he defended in just three games in 2015. Tranquill may have pressure to do well out of the gate as a senior next season if he plans to be a regular on the field.
5 Best – George Gipp
There’s a good chance you are familiar with the classic line “Win one for the Gipper!” George Gipp was the inspiration to the famous quote. Back in the early 1900s, Gipp was viewed as one of the best all-around football players in Notre Dame program history. But he met an untimely passing after dealing with a streptococcic throat infection. His death came at a time when he was two weeks removed from being selected to the All-American team by Walter Camp. Gipp was the first Fighting Irish football player to do so.
He asked the head coach Knute Rockne to hold that famous message until the team really needed it. According to the Notre Dame website, Rockne held onto the message for about eight years when the team had lost two of its first eight games. The message inspired them to a comeback victory over Army in 1928. Gipp’s career included 2,341 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.
4 Worst – Carlyle Holiday
In the early 2000s, Notre Dame was one of the worst offensive teams in the nation; often finishing somewhere between 90th and 100th in scoring offense. One quarterback who had his share of struggles during this time was Carlyle Holiday. In his first season with the Fighting Irish in 2001, he completed just 50.7 percent of his passes for 784 yards with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. But he earned playing time after rushing for 666 rushing yards; second only to Julius Jones.
He would play the entire season in 2002, he maintained a 50.2 completion rate for 1,788 yards and 10 touchdowns. But he also threw five interceptions. He also rushed for just 200 yards that season. His playing time was decreased in 2003 after a tough performance at Michigan led to Brady Quinn taking over as the starting quarterback. Holiday struggled in his brief appearances as he completed less than 50 percent of his throws for just 304 yards and four interceptions.
3 Best – Tim Brown
Despite playing in a run-first offense from 1984 to 1987, Tim Brown was certainly one of the premier wide receivers to come out of Notre Dame. It took some time, but he would earn his chance to be a top-tier receiver in college football. In 1984 and 1985, he yielded large yards per catch averages – 12.1 yards in 1984 and 15.9 yards in 1985. But he only had 28 and 25 receptions, respectively. However, he was able to put up monster numbers in his junior season.
In 1986, Brown turned 45 catches into 910 yards and five touchdowns. He also ran for 254 yards on 59 carries. He put up big numbers in his senior season with 39 receptions for 846 yards and three touchdowns. Brown would win the 1987 Heisman Trophy in the same year he was named an All-American. Brown would have a successful NFL career with nearly 15,000 yards and 100 touchdowns.
2 Worst – Joe Kantor
The Fighting Irish usually prided themselves in a great running game decades ago. But in the 1960s, Notre Dame was one of the worst offensive units in the country. Running back Joe Kantor may have been one of the worst leading rushers in program’s history. He played briefly in 1961 with just five carries for 29 yards. The small sample size did see a 5.8 yards per carry average that a good running back should have.
After not playing in 1962, Kantor led the Irish in rushing yards for the 1963 season. But with 88 carries, 330 yards and one touchdown, Kantor averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. It might have been one the Irish were ranked 93rd in the country for scoring. Kantor saw his workload decrease with the emergence of Bill Wolski and Nick Eddy in the 1964 season – where Kantor had 158 yards and an average of 3.4 yards per carry.
1 Best – Johnny Lujack
Johnny Lujack was a sophomore quarterback who took over the starting role in 1943. The former starter, Angelo Bertelli, was leaving the team to join the U.S. Marines. Lujack would go on to help the Fighting Irish win three national championships as the lead of the T-formation offense. But he was also a key plyaer on defense as a linebacker. That was evident in his first start against Army in 1943 – two passing touchdowns, another rushing and then one interception.
Lujack finished his time with Notre Dame with 2,080 passing yards and 19 touchdowns, along with 438 yards on the ground. Lujack would then be drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 1946 draft where he was a two-time Pro Bowl player. He only played four seasons, but he was had impressive numbers for the late 1940s style of NFL. In 1949, Lujack had 2,658 passing yards and 23 touchdowns.