There are 77 nominees on this year’s College Football Hall of Fame ballot, with three of them from Notre Dame: Linebacker Bob Crable (1978-81), receiver/tailback/return man Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (1988-90) and offensive lineman Aaron Taylor (1990-93).
To appreciate just how difficult it is to be among the dozen or so enshrined each year, consider that 4.92-million people have played college football, with more than 1,900 having earned first-team All-America notice. Among them, 918 (less than .0002 percent) are in the Hall.
Now pare that down to 77 candidates this year — and choose about 15 from that. The decision will be announced May 7.
To be eligible, a player must have been named first-team All-America by an NCAA recognized source — thereby making Joe Montana, an AP honorable mention choice in 1978, ineligible — not played a college game in at least 10 years and he can no longer be playing in the pros.
Other Irish quarterback icons such as Terry Hanratty (who was on the ballot in 2011), Tom Clements and Tony Rice, all of whom steered national titles and received some first-team All-America notice, have slim to virtually no chance of making it.
That’s not even including other luminaries such as 1971 Lombardi Award winner Walt Patulski, two-time All-America lineman Steve Niehaus (1974-75), or wide receiver Jim Seymour (1966-68), who in each of his three varsity seasons made first-team All-American on at least one outlet.
Here, in our humble opinion, are the top 5 Notre Dame players who aren’t yet in the Hall:
1. Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (1988-90)
One of the most electrifying performers in NCAA history, Ismail’s 1,015 yards rushing averaged 7.7 yards a pop and didn’t even include the 108 in the 1990 Orange Bowl victory versus No. 1 Colorado that earned him MVP honors (back then bowl stats weren’t counted in career stats). His 22.0 yards per catch (1,565 yards) also is a Notre Dame career record.
Ismail also had more than 1,000 yards in return yardage, scoring six times, to complete the unique 1,000-yard hat trick. (The graduated Theo Riddick is the only other Notre Dame players to have more than 1,000 yards in each category of rushing, receiving and returns, but he played four seasons.) Ismail was the consummate triple threat as a runner, receiver and return man, even more so than Tim Brown, who was enshrined in 2010.
When Ismail took the field, it was like spotting the Irish 14 points — seven for any touchdown he was about to score or set up, and seven more for the psychological fear he instilled in defenses or kicking teams.
In Ismail’s first two seasons, Notre Dame was 24-1, highlighted by the 1988 national title and a school record 23-game winning streak.
In his final season the Irish were 9-3. They lost one of those games (Stanford) when Ismail couldn’t play because of an injury. In the second loss (Penn State), the Irish led at halftime 21-7 while Ismail played, but lost in the second half (24-21) when he was sidelined the entire time with an injury. In the third loss, to No. 1 Colorado, his spectacular 91-yard punt return in the final minute was called back because of a debatable clip.
The phrases “game-changer” or “difference-maker” often are thrown around indiscriminately, but Ismail was the consummate definition.
2. Luther Bradley (1973, 1975-77)
The best all-around defensive back ever to line up for Notre Dame, Bradley started all 46 games the Irish played during his career. He and classmate/defensive end Ross Browner were two of the most dominant freshmen in NCAA history.
Bradley was big and strong enough to line up at strong safety as a freshman for the 1973 national champs, and he led that team in interceptions (6) and passes broken up (11). His performance against USC All-American Lynn Swann— including two interceptions, knocking Swann’s helmet off on USC’s first play and coming clear across the field to tip away a potential TD — was one of the greatest efforts by a Notre Dame defensive back.
For the 1977 national champs, he played at cornerback and earned consensus All-America notice. He also received some first-team All-America recognition as a junior in 1976 and as a sophomore in 1975.
Bradley might be the lone defensive back in history to start for one national title winner at safety and another at corner. His 17 interceptions, highlighted by the fourth quarter, game-changing 99-yard TD return at Purdue in 1975, remains the school standard — yet he’s not even been on the ballot. That’s ridiculous. He needs to be in the Hall some day.
3. Bob Crable (1978-81)
There have been 16 two-time consensus All-Americans in Notre Dame’s football history, and Crable is one of four not yet in the Hall. The others are cornerback Todd Lyght (1989-90), linebacker Michael Stonebreaker (1988, 1990) and offensive lineman Aaron Taylor (1992-93).
Crable’s 521 career tackles fall into the school’s “unbreakable” category. Beyond the stats, nobody at Notre Dame played with greater passion, tenacity and ferocity, even though Crable’s senior year in 1981 ended with a 5-6 finish. Crable is the lone linebacker in Irish history taken in the first round. He’s been on the ballot in the past but didn’t make the final cut.
4. Bob Golic (1975-78)
Second to Crable on the Irish all-time tackles chart (479), he was a second-team All-America by AP and UPI for the 1977 national champs at middle linebacker and nose guard, and a consensus All-America pick in 1978 at middle linebacker. He was powerful enough to line up at nose, yet fluid enough to play linebacker. How many college players could do that, in his time or any other time?
Also an All-America heavyweight wrestler, Golic has been on the ballot in the past but not the last three years.
5. George Kunz (1966-68) & Aaron Taylor (1990-93)
Offensive linemen can easily get overshadowed, but these two may have been the best to suit up for Notre Dame there the past 60 years. Kunz was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1969 NFL Draft (behind O.J. Simpson) and became an eight-time Pro Bowl player (although that has nothing to do with college performance).
A two-time consensus All-American for Irish teams that were 21-2-1, Taylor lined up at both guard and tackle for the Irish and was the 1993 Lombardi Award recipient. His leadership as a captain during the 11-1 season in 1993 was as strong as any we’ve seen at Notre Dame.
Honorable mention: Todd Lyght (1987-90) — Originally he was thought to be Tim Brown’s heir on offense, but for the Irish defense to become elite under Lou Holtz, it needed a game-changer at corner. Lyght provided that role during the record 23-game unbeaten string.