Notre Dame Top Five Quarterbacks
Notre Dame has had a number of legendary quarterbacks throughout its history. Heisman winners, national champions and one who went on to become one of the best to ever play in the NFL.
My first recollection of Notre Dame football began in the late 1980’s. I never got a chance to see Joe Montana, Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack, Paul Hornung, John Huarte, Joe Theisman, Tom Clements, Terry Hanratty, Harry Stuhldreher and other all-time greats.
Doing a “best of all-time” is really impossible when all you can look at are stats. How could I possibly evaluate the impact those greats had on the game when all I can do is look at numbers. So when I put together my “all-time quarterbacks” list I can only truly evaluate and rank players that I have seen with my own eyes.
With that in mind, here is my breakdown of the five best quarterbacks to play for Notre Dame since the beginning of the 1988 season. (Note: Ian Book has yet to complete his Notre Dame career, so he will not be evaluated for this list until his career is complete)
1. BRADY QUINN (2003-06)
Career Stats: 11,762 passing yards, 101 total touchdowns
Quinn was thrust into the lineup as a freshman and he struggled, but you could see the flashes of what he would become during his sophomore season, when Quinn passed or 2,586 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Charlie Weis hire prior to 2005 was a game changer for Quinn. Weis built his offense around the talented quarterback, and Quinn responded with the two best passing seasons in school history.
His 7,345 passing yards in his final two seasons alone would rank fourth all-time at Notre Dame, and his 69 touchdown passes from those two seasons are still more than any other Irish quarterback has thrown in his entire career.
Beyond the numbers, Quinn was a winner. Anytime Notre Dame got the ball late with a chance to win it seemed like a given that he was going to lead the Irish down for points. His leadership and playmaking helped fuel Notre Dame’s 19-6 turnaround in 2005-06 after the program went just 26-21 the four years prior. Notre Dame went 24-26 in the four years after his departure.
That’s not a coincidence. If I can build an all-time Notre Dame team from players that I’ve watched over the years there is no doubt who I am taking number one. Quinn finished his career tied for first all-time in wins for an Irish quarterback.
2. TONY RICE (1986-89)
Career Stats: 4,882 total yards, 34 total touchdowns
No quarterback better symbolizes the importance of evaluating impact over numbers, and properly understanding context when comparing statistics than Rice. The former Irish signal caller threw more interceptions (20) during his career than he did touchdown passes (11). In fact, in 1989, Rice threw nine interceptions while tossing just two touchdowns.
The interesting part about that is Rice finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting that season, mainly because anyone that got to watch Rice play knows the impact he had on the game went far beyond passing numbers. Rice rushed for 884 yards that season and 1,921 during his career, both all-time bests for an Irish quarterback. He was the perfect point man for Lou Holtz’s power option offense.
If you want to focus on numbers, here’s one for you to take hold of — 24-1 — which is Rice’s record as a starting quarterback in his final two seasons. He was the last quarterback to lead Notre Dame to a national title, and he was at his best on the biggest stage. In Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl victory over No. 3 West Virginia, which secured the title, Rice completed 7-of-11 passes for 213 yards and two scores to go with a team-leading 75 rushing yards.
In his final game in a Notre Dame uniform, Rice led the No. 4 Fighting Irish to a win over No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl. Rice nine wins against teams that were ranked in the Top 10 when they played. Think about that … nine wins over Top 10 teams.
3. JIMMY CLAUSEN (2007-09)
Career Stats: 8,148 passing yards, 65 total touchdowns
I would imagine this is the most controversial inclusion. Clausen is the opposite of Rice in that he had brilliant numbers but also had a losing record as a starting quarterback. That, and his polarizing personality, are likely the reasons Clausen isn’t viewed as the outstanding quarterback he was at Notre Dame.
The unfortunate part of Clausen’s career is that he played on a poorly coached team with terrible defenses. Think about this, in the six losses from the 2009 season the offense averaged 28.7 points per game. Clausen was outstanding that season, completing 68% of his passes, throwing for 3,722 yards and 28 touchdowns while getting picked off just four times, all while battling a bad foot injury.
For his career, Clausen passed for 8,148 yards and 60 touchdowns. His 8,148 yards ranks second all-time and his 60 touchdowns ranks third. He also ranks second all-time in completion percentage (62.6%), attempts (1,110), completions (695), 300-yard passing games (10) and he is Notre Dame’s all-time leader in lowest interception ratio (2.43%).
4. JARIOUS JACKSON (1995-99)
Career Stats: 5,777 total yards, 47 total touchdowns
Like Clausen, he didn’t play on great teams, and I would have loved to see him play for better squads. When I watched Brandon Wimbush in 2017 I often said to myself, “I would have loved to see Jarious play in this kind of offensive system with that kind of talent and coaching.”
After backing up Ron Powlus during his first three seasons, Jackson started the final two seasons of his career. He led Notre Dame to a 9-1 regular season record before getting injured on one of the dumbest plays I have ever seen (not his fault). During Notre Dame’s 39-36 victory over LSU when he was asked to run out the clock and take a safety, but he was tackled awkwardly and injured on the play.
Jackson missed the final regular season game, which was a 10-0 loss to USC. Most Irish fans I know believe Notre Dame would have won that game with a healthy Jackson, which meant the Irish would have finished the regular season with a 10-1 record and a major bowl berth.
As a senior, Jackson passed for 2,753 yards, which at the time was a Notre Dame single-season record, and he rushed for 464 yards and four more scores. Notre Dame went just 5-7, however, due to Jackson playing on a squad that had one of the worst defenses in school history. Notre Dame averaged 31.0 points in Jackson’s final three career games …. and lost all of them.
5. RICK MIRER (1989-92)
Career Stats: 6,691 total yards, 58 total touchdowns
Mirer was tough for me to evaluate. He was highly productive and he won a lot of games. Mirer finished his career 5,997 passing yards, which at the time was the second most in school history, and his 41 career touchdown passes was then a school record. On top of that, Mirer’s teams went 29-7-1 during his career as the starter, but it just seemed like those teams were never quite as good as they should have been, and that has dogged Mirer a bit.
For me, I was 12-14 years old during his starting days, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Mirer play. He was a lot different than Rice, and the Notre Dame offense was prolific during his career. Notre Dame ranked 7th in scoring offense in 1991 (35.8 PPG) and 4th in 1992 (36.4 PPG), but they came up short in a tie to Michigan (17-17) and a home loss to Stanford (33-16).
Mirer went 2-1 in bowl games, losing to No. 1 Colorado (10-9) as a sophomore before beating No. 3 Florida (39-28) in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1991 season and No. 4 Texas A&M (28-3) in the Cotton Bowl in what was the final game of his career. Mirer was the No. 2 overall draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks in the 1993 NFL Draft.
In the comments section below leave your list of Top 5 quarterbacks at Notre Dame. You do not have to stay within my timeframe if it goes back further. Feel free to use whatever standard you want in your own ranking!