Notre Dame Football: Top 10 Players Of The Last 30 Years

Recently, Athlon Sports put out a Top 50 players of the last 50 years list and Notre Dame was shut out. I’m not going to spend a ton of time complaining about that, because really who cares? Do I think a school that won three national titles–and finished second three other times–over that time frame should have one player included? Yes I do. Not because they “deserve it”, but because great players tend to play on great teams. Other people disagree, and that’s fine.

That left me wondering, “who is the best player Notre Dame has had in the last 30 years?” (I use 30 because I really started following Notre Dame around 1988, and it would be unfair for me to weigh in on players I never saw play.)

When coming up with this list I did my very best to only consider their collegiate careers because what they did in the NFL should be irrelevant, especially when there are players currently in the NFL who have yet to write their career story.

Also, stats are a factor, but I did my best to factor in differences in era. For example, Rhema McKnight had far superior stats to Derrick Mayes, but I’d say Mayes was the better player at Notre Dame.

So without further adieu, my top 10:

10.) Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, 2013-2015

The most physically talented player on this list and easily could have been #1. He had the misfortune of joining around the time Notre Dame brought in a defensive coordinator who thought it’d be cool to take the most talented player he’d ever coach and make him the “cleanup guy” for the defense. He’s also not higher because while he was immensely talented and consistently good, he never had anything that could be called “the Jaylon Smith Game” where he simply takes over. I also never quite understood the celebration thing with the wiping the hand on the ground, which I had to dock points for.

That being said, he’d have started somewhere on every defense Notre Dame had in the last 30 years and given a better coach with a better idea of how to use him, he could have been unstoppable. Despite the limitations of the defense he played in, he was named the Butkus award winner as the nations best linebacker following 2015, which just goes to show how impressive people thought he was despite the lack of great stats.

Favorite Moment: That time he picked off Cody Kessler in 2013 with a play so impressive it caused Mike Mayock to have a fangasm in the booth.

9.) Zack Martin, Offensive Line, 2009-2013

Martin redshirted in 2009 and after that he started all the games. No, literally, he started 52 out of 52 games for Notre Dame from 2010-2013, which is amazing durability for an offensive linemen. He was one of the cornerstones on the 2012 undefeated regular season team, and started at left tackle in 2013 for a line that gave up four sacks with Tommy Rees(!) at quarterback. He was named second team All-American in 2012, which to me signals the lack of respect this guy got nationally. The best lineman that gives up four sacks with an immobile quarterback can’t get some love?

As you’ll notice with my list here, it’s important to me that anyone in the top 10 would start for any of the teams in the last 30 years and I think that rings true of Martin.

Favorite moment: He’s a lineman, they don’t do highlight reel stuff. So here is a video of Martin not letting the defense do anything.

8.) Jeff Burris, Safety, 1990-1993

Started as both a corner and a safety for Notre Dame and was also featured as a running back in Holtz’ vaunted full house backfield. Recorded 10 interceptions and accounted for 11 touchdowns running, receiving, and returning kicks over his Notre Dame career. Was also named a consensus first team All-American in 1993. The best game of his career came in the biggest game of his career in 1993 in the win over Florida State in the Game of the Century. Burris broke up three passes, although should have been three interceptions, and scored two rushing touchdowns in a performance that had it occurred in the present day would have made him a Heisman finalist (right, Jabrill Peppers?).

Favorite moment: There are tackles and then there are tackles. With Notre Dame needing a win in the 1994 Cotton Bowl to have any chance at a National Title, and Texas A&M driving down three, Burris put a hit on running back Rodney Thomas that was so perfect ACC refs would have flagged him for targeting and sent him on his way. Burris forced the fumble and Notre Dame went on to win only to be denied by the voters because isn’t just cute how Bobby Bowden says “dagummit”.

7.) Autry Denson, Running Back, 1995-1998

So here’s the thing: I’m not totally sure Denson starts for every team in the last 30 years and that breaks one of my rules. There are running backs who had better seasons than him (Reggie Brooks in 1992, Prosise in 2015, Julius Jones in 2003), but the guy holds the Notre Dame record for career rushing yards. He can’t not be on this list, I just won’t have it. 4,318 rushing yards, 5.1 a carry, and 46 total touchdowns. His best and most notable performance was a 24 carry, 163 yard, two touchdown extravaganza against Tom Brady and Michigan in a game when his quarterback completed four passes. And that’s the thing about Denson. He did all of this when he often had a passing game that was insufficient. Teams knew Notre Dame had to run to win, and they did it anyway, led by Denson. Can you imagine the damage he’d have inflicted in the Weis or Kelly era’s?

Favorite moment: #9 Notre Dame is down seven at #6 Texas late in the 4th quarter. It’s fourth and goal from the Texas six yard line, Notre Dame goes double tight end, two backs, one receiver, and they run option! With Ron Powlus! And it works!

6.) Chris Zorich, Nose Tackle, 1987-1990

It’s actually very simple, the guy was an All-American every year he stepped on the field for Notre Dame, was the UPI Lineman of the Year in 1989 and won the Lombardi Award as the nations top lineman in 1990. He was a unanimous first team All-American in 1989 and 1990. So yeah, he makes the top 10. With all the skill talent of the 1988-1990 Lou Holtz teams, Zorich was their beating heart. It pretty much goes like this: when the toughest guy on the team is a 280 pound nose tackle who wears a cut off jersey that displayed a lean build and everyone is a little afraid of him it’s pretty easy to play with some swagger. And that’s Zorich.

Favorite moment: One of my favorite stories about Notre Dame football growing up was Zorich crying on the sidelines following the loss to Texas A&M in a game he didn’t even play in. I know it’s easy to say that sort of passion has been missing from the team lately, but that sort of passion has been missing from the team.

5.) Manti Te’o, Linebacker, 2009-2012

Te’o was on his way to having a Jaylon Smith type of career heading into 2012. High profile recruit, immensely talented, not really doing much of note on the field. He was accumulating tons of tackles–320 through three seasons–but not doing anything that would blow your mind.

Then the most decorated season for a middle linebacker in the history of college football happened in 2012.

Te’o won the Maxwell and Walter Camp awards for college footballs best player, the Bednarik and Nagurski awards for college footballs best defensive player, the Butkus award for the nations best linebacker, the Lomabrdi award for the nations best lineman or linebacker, and finished second in the Heisman trophy voting.

He makes the list.

Favorite moment: The pick against Oklahoma. It was the official “oh my goodness Notre Dame is going to do it and the schedule eases up” moment of the game.

4.) Tim Brown, Receiver, 1984-1987

So this one is hard for me because I didn’t actually see him play and I know the least about the college football landscape than when everyone else on this list played. I feel like he should be higher, he’s the only Heisman Trophy winner over the time frame. It’s hard though because he wasn’t on good teams (the best record one of his teams finished with was 8-4 in 1987 and that team lost three straight to end the season). But, then you can’t discount his physical talent and all the things he did on the field. He was basically The Rocket before The Rocket. This is also the hardest one because it’s almost impossible not to factor in his NFL career, which is also better than everyone else. I guess I’ll just chalk it up to bad luck playing when he did.

Favorite moment: Has to be the two punt returns against Michigan State, the second of which wasn’t even supposed to happen.

3.) Aaron Taylor, Offensive Lineman, 1990-1993

The best and most decorated offensive lineman of the last 30 years during an era from 1988-1996 when all Notre Dame wanted to do was run the ball. Was a consensus first team All-American in 1992 and 1993, won the Lombardi Award for best lineman in 1993, and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy in 1993. Led the way for players like Jerome Bettis, Reggie Brooks, Lee Becton, Rick Mirer, and Kevin McDougal to run all over defenses who knew Notre Dame was trying to do just that.

Favorite moment: The second touchdown by Burris to make it 31-17 against Florida State in 1993. Taylor comes off the line, hits Ken Alexander right in the face and drives him 7 yards into the end zone. You could see in Alexanders body language he’d had just about enough.

2.) Tony Rice, Quarterback, 1986-1989

Another rule breaker, I’m not sure Rice would have started for Charlie Weis, but when you go 24-1 in your two years as a full time starter, these things get overlooked. Rice on the field was phenomenal and was the catalyst for a national title team in 1988 and the runner up in 1989. The aforementioned 24-1 record (and 31-4 total) speaks for itself and the countless victories against the major powers of college football while under center simply can’t be overlooked. Over the course of his career Rice beat #9 Michigan, #1 Miami, #2 USC, #3 West Virginia, #2 Michigan, #17 Air Force, #9 USC, #7 Tennessee, #17 Penn State, and #1 Colorado. We can harp about his lack of passing touchdowns or overall numbers, but the man won games and he won big games. This is something those that followed didn’t do anywhere near as well as him.

Rice won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award in 1989 as the nations best quarterback and finished as a first team all-american. He also finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting that same season.

Favorite moment: I live in Southern California. What do you think it is?

1.) The Rocket, Receiver, 1988-1990

This man is the reason a kid from Southern California, with no ties to the school, fell in love with Notre Dame at all. He was the guy everyone feared and everybody wanted. They called him exclusively by his nickname, “Here comes the Rocket…“, “From the nine, here he comes, Rocket…“. He tore up #2 Michigan at the Big House, single handedly beating them with two kickoff return touchdowns. He ripped apart Miami in 1990. He shredded #1 Colorado in 1990.

The consensus All-American, and Walter Camp award winner for college footballs best player in 1990 could hit from anywhere on offense at any time. He scored on draw plays, reverses, power plays, deep bombs, middle screens, kickoff returns, and punt returns. There was a constant fear he was going to get you at any moment, in some way. And even though that was the exact thing defenses were guarding against, he got them anyway.

He was the last time Notre Dame had “the guy” in college football and a great one he was.

Favorite moment: Colorado knew not to punt to him. There was a national championship on the line for them. They kicked to him. He brought it back for a touchdown. That some ref decided he wanted to ruin one of the best moments in college football history is irrelevant.

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  1. Even our dog is named Rocket.. my all time favorite football player. I grew up in awe watching him and is probably a big reason I’ve been a life long ND fan.


  3. I enjoyed your list Greg. Always a good conversation (or argument) starter.
    I’ll never forget the “Rocket return” in the Orange Bowl and me almost getting tossed from my favorite bar due to my hysterical meltdown after the flag.
    One of my favorite quotes of all time came from a Colorado special team players after the game. In reference to Rocket’s punt return this kid said, “he went by me liked I was tied to a tree” :)

  4. Brady Quinn?? Doesn’t he own like every worthy passing record for career at ND? And him being a QB which is pretty much the most important position, I thought he would have made this list for sure.

    Also, I could be wrong but Jaylon Smith really likes bowling a lot and I’m guessing that his celebration is not just “wiping his hand on the ground” but is actually him imitating throwing a bowling ball. I actually think it’s unique and pretty cool!!

  5. If you’d gone back 50… Ross Browner would have been #1. Nobody tilted the field more than he

    1. Ross Browner was the best defensive player Ive seen. He is to ND defensive history as Anthony Munoz is to USC offensive history.

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