James: Ranking the Top 10 quarterbacks in Notre Dame history

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

This list scared me.

Lists have become a staple of sports writing, because they’re enjoyable to write, they bring back memories and they’re fun to debate. That’s why you’ve seen so many lists in the Tribune and other publications in recent weeks.

But when I decided to pick the top 10 quarterbacks in Notre Dame football history, the task became intimidating.

There are far too many great Irish quarterbacks to fit into a list of 10. That much was clear. As I dove into media guides for bios, records and recaps, I started to realize that my list would exclude Heisman Trophy winners, national champions and first-round NFL Draft picks.

All three of those honors would be important categories for evaluating each résumé, but they represented only a fraction of the subjective formula.

When working through which quarterbacks to leave off my list, I decided to put stock in repeated success. That put John Huarte, despite his phenomenal 1964 Heisman season, on the chopping block. I also didn’t want to give a player credit for the impact he made playing other positions. That’s part of why the versatile Paul Hornung, also an elite kick return and safety, became a cruel cut from the list.

So what did I put stock in? Not all categories were given the same weight, but I tried to account for various honors (Heisman voting, All-American status, NFL Draft pick), winning (career wins, winning percentage, national titles) and statistics (completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns, rushing yards and touchdowns).

Consider this a warning for Joe Montana’s place on the list: A quarterback’s professional accolades did not hold any value. I only went as far as a player’s NFL Draft selection as another way to measure how that quarterback compared to his peers.

In order to balance the statistics of quarterbacks from vastly different eras of college football, NCAA statistical rankings from specific seasons were also considered. That combined with national honors should have leveled the playing field a bit.

But that’s enough explaining. I can almost guarantee you’re going to disagree with my list. I’m ready to hear your complaints. I want to see your top 10 lists too.

I’ve put this off for long enough. Let’s get to the list.

1. Johnny Lujack (1942-43, 46-47)


The length of Lujack’s résumé was too much for any other quarterback to overcome. He won three national championships, became a two-time unanimous All-American and took home the 1947 Heisman Trophy.

As a sophomore in 1943, Lujack was given the reins of coach Frank Leahy’s T formation when the Marine Corps called quarterback Angelo Bertelli into service for World War II with four games remaining in the season. Lujack stepped up to lead the Irish to victory over three Top 10 teams. A loss in the season finale to Great Lakes didn’t prevent Notre Dame from being crowned national champions.

Lujack left Notre Dame to serve in the Navy, but he returned in time for the 1946 season. In his final two seasons, Lujack never lost a game on his way to winning two more national titles. His 20-1-1 record as a starting quarterback remains the program’s best in winning percentage (.932).

Lujack capped his Notre Dame career with a Heisman season in which he completed 56% of his passes (61-of-109) for 777 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed 12 times for 139 yards and one touchdown. The Chicago Bears selected Lujack with the fourth overall pick of the 1948 NFL Draft.

2. Brady Quinn (2003-06)

RIGHT: Quarterback Brady Quinn still holds many of Notre Dame’s passing records. Tribune File Photos

Notre Dame’s 2019 media guide listed Quinn with at least a tie for first place in 30 different individual program records. He holds the season and career marks in completions, passing yards, touchdown passes and points responsible for, which combines passing and rushing touchdowns.

Head coach Charlie Weis poured rocket fuel on Quinn’s career when he took over the Irish in 2005. Quinn finished his junior season in 2005 ranked fifth in the country in total offense (334.1 yards per game) and seventh in passing efficiency (158.4).

Quinn continued to light up box scores in his senior season. He was named the Maxwell Award Winner (player of the year) and finished third in Heisman voting after throwing for 3,426 yards and 37 touchdowns. Quinn also set the program record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception with 226 passes between interceptions thrown against Michigan State in game 4 and Army in game 11.

But Quinn’s inability to consistently win big games kept him from receiving the top spot on this list. The Irish nearly beat No. 1 USC in 2005. Quinn also lost at No. 3 USC in 2006 and suffered bowl losses to No. 4 Ohio State (Fiesta Bowl) and No. 11 LSU (Sugar Bowl).

The Cleveland Browns selected Quinn with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft’s first round.

3. Angelo Bertelli (1940-43)

It took Bertelli only six games of his senior season to win the 1943 Heisman Trophy. The Marines called him into World War II duty in November after Bertelli already had completed 25 of his 36 passes (69.4%) for 512 yards and 10 touchdowns. Lujack took over the No. 1 Irish offense to complete the national championship season.

But Bertelli established himself as the cog in Notre Dame’s offense before winning Notre Dame’s first Heisman. In 1941, Bertelli played his sophomore season as a single-wing tailback in the box offense, but he still handled most of the passing responsibilities. He led the country in completion percentage (56.9%) on 70-of-123 passing for 1,027 yards and eight touchdowns and finished second in Heisman voting.

Leahy installed his T-formation offense ahead of the 1942 season with Bertelli as its quarterback. His accuracy dipped (72-of-159, 45.3%), but he still threw for 1,039 yards and 10 touchdowns and finished sixth in Heisman voting.

It’s too bad the two-time All-American quarterback couldn’t finish out the 1943 season on the field. The Boston Yanks selected Bertelli with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1944 NFL Draft, but he ended up playing in the All-America Football Conference in 1946 for the Los Angeles Dons following his military service.

4. Joe Theismann (1967-70)


Theismann’s rhyming Heisman campaign fell just short in 1970. He placed as the runner-up behind Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett after throwing for 2,429 yards and 16 touchdowns on 155-of-268 passing (57.8%). Theismann also finished second in the country in total offense (281.3 yards per game).

Theismann capped his career with a 24-11 win over Texas in the 1971 Cotton Bowl in which he accounted for all three touchdowns (two rushing, one passing). The year prior, the Irish lost 21-17 to the Longhorns. Theismann put Notre Dame up 17-14 with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Jim Yoder with 6:52 left in the 1970 Cotton Bowl, but Texas milked the next 5:39 off the clock for the game-winning touchdown.

When Theismann finished his Notre Dame career, he held the Notre Dame career records for passing yards (4,411) and passing touchdowns (31). He also became just the second Irish player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a career as a quarterback behind only Paul Hornung.

The Miami Dolphins selected Theismann in the fourth round of the 1971 NFL Draft with pick No. 99.

5. Tom Clements (1971-74)


Clements cemented his spot in Notre Dame lore with a third-down completion from the end zone in Notre Dame’s 1973 Sugar Bowl victory over No. 1 Alabama. With the Irish holding a 24-23 lead, Clements hit backup tight end Robin Weber for a 35-yard completion on third-and-8 to allow Notre Dame to run out the final two minutes of the game and secure a national championship.

Clements was named the Sugar Bowl MVP with 7-of-12 passing for 169 yards and 15 rushes for 74 yards. As a senior in 1974, Clements received a pair of All-American nods and finished fourth in Heisman voting for a season in which he completed 122 of his 215 passes for 1,549 yards and eight touchdowns.

Clements set the Notre Dame record for career wins as a starting quarterback with 29 victories in 34 starts. Both Ron Powlus and Brady Quinn have since tied Clements with 29 wins, but Clements did so in 12 fewer games.

Despite his accolades, Clements was not selected in the 1975 NFL Draft and instead played in the Canadian Football League.

6. Tony Rice (1986-89)

Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice led the Irish to a national championship in 1988.

Rice’s career passing numbers look more like Lujack’s and Bertelli’s than Quinn’s and Theismann’s, but that doesn’t prevent him from claiming a spot near the middle of this list. Rice proved he belonged in Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship season.

Rice played arguably his best season in ‘88 as a junior. He finished 70-of-138 passing (50.7%) for 1,176 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for 700 yards and nine touchdowns. He wrapped up the national championship for the undefeated Irish with an Offensive MVP performance (288 total yards and two passing touchdowns) in the 34-21 win over West Virginia in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl.

In Rice’s senior season, Notre Dame extended its winning streak to 23 games in 1989 until eventual national champ Miami delivered a 27-10 defeat in the regular season finale. The loss to Miami likely ended Rice’s shot at winning the Heisman too. He threw two interceptions and managed only 50 rushing yards on 20 carries in a losing effort. Rice still finished fourth in 1989 Heisman voting and received the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the top senior quarterback in college football.

Rice, who was not selected in the 1990 NFL Draft, continues to hold Notre Dame’s quarterback rushing records for yards in a season (884 in 1989) and a career (1,921). He recorded more rushing touchdowns in a career (23) than any Notre Dame player since 1940. He also sits in second for career passing yards per completion (17.12).

7. Rick Mirer (1989-92)


Mirer follows Rice on this list just as he did in his career. Though Mirer had a much better career as a passer than Rice, his teams couldn’t quite reach national title contention in late November.

When Mirer took over as the starter as a sophomore in 1990, he registered 10th nationally in passing efficiency (138.8) after completing 110 of his 200 passes for 1,824 yards and eight touchdowns with six interceptions. The road wasn’t easy with wins against five teams that finished in the final AP Top 25.

Mirer bumped up his passing efficiency even higher in 1991 (No. 8, 149.3) as a junior with a stat line that included 132-of-234 passing for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.

Mirer’s signature moment came in the 1992 Snow Bowl victory over Penn State. He completed a comeback victory in Notre Dame Stadium by throwing a three-yard touchdown pass to Jerome Bettis with 20 seconds remaining. Then Mirer scrambled to find Reggie Brooks in the end zone for a two-point conversion and a 17-16 win.

The Seattle Seahawks selected Mirer with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft.

8. Joe Montana (1975-78)

Quarterback Joe Montana won a national title with Notre Dame in 1977, but his NFL career surpassed his college career.

I can already see my email inbox and Twitter mentions lighting up as a result of this decision. When I asked my Twitter followers for their nominations for best Notre Dame quarterback ever, Montana received the most submissions by a large margin. But I couldn’t convince myself to put him higher on the list based on his college résumé alone.

Montana offered a glimpse of what his NFL career would become when he led Notre Dame’s 1979 Cotton Bowl comeback against Houston. He seemed to have a knack for comebacks throughout his college and pro career. The Irish trailed 34-12 midway through the fourth quarter, but still managed to win.

Montana, who earlier threw four interceptions, set up the game-winning extra point with a dart to wide receiver Kris Haines for an 8-yard touchdown pass as time expired. Montana won bowl MVP honors in the 35-34 victory.

The Cotton Bowl was a fitting location to end Montana’s Notre Dame career. The year prior, Montana and the Irish earned a national championship by defeating No. 1 Texas. Montana started the season as the third-string quarterback before finding his way into the lineup.

Montana, who finished his Notre Dame career 268-of-515 passing (52%) for 4,121 yards with 25 passing touchdowns, 14 rushing touchdowns and 25 interceptions, was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft with the No. 82 pick.

9. Jimmy Clausen (2007-09)


Clausen’s 2009 season might be the best statistical season for a quarterback in Notre Dame history. He set the program record for 300-yard passing games in a season with seven, tied Bob Williams for the best passing efficiency mark (161.4) in a season, and he threw 160 passes in between interceptions against Washington and Navy, the second-longest streak in school history behind Quinn's 226.

Clausen’s 2009 numbers also stacked up well against his peers with his passing efficiency ranking third in the FBS and his total offensive yards per game (302.3) ranking eighth.

But wins were hard to come by for Clausen. He’s the only quarterback on this list with a losing record (16-18) as a starter. His monster 2009 season was wasted by a dreadful defense and ended with Weis being fired.

Clausen, who also holds program records for completions per game in a career (19.9) and lowest career interception percentage (2.432%), was selected by the Carolina Panthers in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft with pick No. 48.

10. Bob Williams (1947-50)

Leahy sure knew how to use quarterbacks, huh? Williams, who was on the freshman squad when Notre Dame won its national championship in 1946, led the Irish to a title in 1949. He did so by setting program records in passing yards (1,374) and passing efficiency (161.4).

Williams’ passing yards record stood until John Huarte blew by it in 1964 with 2,062 yards. Williams’ passing efficiency mark has been matched only by Clausen in 2009.

Teammate Leon Hart won the 1949 Heisman as Williams finished sixth in the country in total offense with 1,437 yards. The 1950 Irish didn’t successfully defend their title, but Williams was 10th in the country with 99 completions as he registered his second All-American honor.

The Chicago Bears selected Williams with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1951 NFL Draft.

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Notre Dame football coach Frank Leahy, left, and players Emil Sitko (14), Bob Williams (9) and Leon Hart (82).