The 25 best players in Michigan football history

Michigan football appears to have regained its prominence — at least for the time being. Maybe that’s a good thing for college football purists, who value tradition and legendary players.

The Wolverines certainly have their fair share of both. In terms of the latter, here are our choices for the 25 greatest college football players in Michigan history. (Spoiler alert: Tom Brady won’t be on this list.)

Listed in chronological order.

 

1 of 25

Willie Heston, Halfback (1901-’04)

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The great Heston began his college career at what is now known as San Jose State, when joined legendary coach Fielding Yost. He was a major part of those dominant offensive Michigan teams from the early 1900s, that during his four seasons at the school went 43-0-1 and outscored opponents 2,326-40. According to the school’s official records, Heston is Michigan’s all-time leader with 72 career touchdowns, though it’s also believed he totaled more.

 

2 of 25

John Maulbetsch, Halfback (1914-’16)

John Maulbetsch, Halfback (1914-'16)

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Nicknamed the “Human Bullet” for his low-running style, the 155-pound Maulbetsch is another great among Michigan halfbacks. Despite a serious ordeal with appendicitis during his run at Michigan, Maulbetsch was one of the game’s best in 1914. Following appendix surgery, he regained his form in 1916. After his playing career, Maulbetsch spent eight years as head football coach at what is now known as Oklahoma State University.

 

3 of 25

Bennie Oosterbaan, End (1925-’27)

Bennie Oosterbaan, End (1925-'27)

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In the early 1990s, there weren’t many who enjoyed consistent college football success than Oosterbaan. A talented two-way end for the Wolverines in the mid-1920s, Oosterbaan was a three-time All-American. In 1925, Oosterbaan led the Big Ten with eight touchdowns. In addition to his stellar football success, Oosterbaan, who coached the Michigan football team from 1948-’58, was also a standout basketball and baseball player for the Wolverines.

 

4 of 25

Tom Harmon, Halfback (1938-’40)

Tom Harmon, Halfback (1938-'40)

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The first of three Michigan players to win the Heisman Trophy, and one of the greatest college football players of all time. His name is still synonymous with the university’s athletic program and an icon in the realm of Big Ten sports. During his three seasons at Michigan, Harmon rushed for 2,151 yards and also threw for nearly 1,400 yards with 16 touchdowns. His 33 career touchdowns broke Red Grange’s record at the time. Harmon also led the country in scoring in both 1939 and ’40 — the latter his Heisman-winning campaign. Harmon’s No. 98 was retired by the school. He’s the father of former UCLA football player and long-time Hollywood star Mark Harmon.

 

5 of 25

Bob Chappuis, Halfback/Quarterback (1942, ’46-’47)

Bob Chappuis, Halfback/Quarterback (1942, '46-'47)

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Not only was Chappuis among the great college football players of the 1940s, but he’s also a war hero, who served as a gunner on B-25 planes during World War II. On the football field, Chappuis was a versatile force, as well. He was the star of Michigan’s undefeated 1947 squad that beat USC in the Rose Bowl and finished second in the Heisman Trophy race. A multi-school-record holder for total offense during his time at Michigan, Chappuis amassed 1,187 rushing yards and 2,068 passing for his career

 

6 of 25

Ron Kramer, End (1954-’56)

Ron Kramer, End (1954-'56)

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Before Kramer starred for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, he was a two-way standout on the Michigan football team who also happened to be quite successful in basketball and track and field on the collegiate level. On the gridiron, Kramer was a consensus first-team All-American in 1956 and his No. 87 was retired by the school. For his career with the Wolverines, Kramer totaled 53 receptions for 880 yards with six touchdowns and is still considered one of the best blocking ends of his time. 

 

7 of 25

Tom Curtis, Defensive Back (1967-’69)

Tom Curtis, Defensive Back (1967-'69)

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To the casual Michigan football fan, Curtis’ name might not stand out. Perhaps it’s time for a history lesson. In his three seasons roaming the secondary for the Wolverines, Curtis recorded 25 interceptions. A total that still stands as a school record. Ten of those picks came during the 1968 season, which also remains a school single-season mark. He also posted 431 return yards off those interceptions. Not bad for a guy who began his collegiate career as a quarterback.

 

8 of 25

Dan Dierdorf, Offensive Lineman (1967-’70)

Dan Dierdorf, Offensive Lineman (1967-'70)

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Before Dierdorf enjoyed a Hall-of-Fame career with the St. Louis “football” Cardinals and become a blowhard analyst, he was one of legendary coach Bo Schembechler’s favorite players at Michigan. Dierdorf has been praised for both his collegiate talent and leadership, which blossomed every season with the Wolverines. He was a consensus All-American for the 1970 Michigan team that finished 9-1.

 

9 of 25

Mark Donahue, Offensive Lineman (1975-’77)

Mark Donahue, Offensive Lineman (1975-'77)

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Dan Dierdorf gets plenty of pub as one of college football’s all-time great offensive linemen, but Donahue should earn similar recognition within Michigan football lore. Donahue also earned plenty of love from Bo Schembechler. The Chicago-area native started in 1975 and was then named a consensus, first-team All-American guard in both 1976 and ’77. In 2016, Donahue was added to Michigan’s Hall of Honor.

 

10 of 25

Rick Leach, Quarterback (1975-’78)

Rick Leach, Quarterback (1975-'78)

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The pride of Flint’s famed Southwestern High School, Leach earned the starting nod as a freshman for the Wolverines. By the time his career at Ann Arbor ended, he was one of the most versatile quarterbacks in the history of this storied program. Leach threw for 4,045 career yards with 46 touchdowns (fifth in school history). He also ran for 2,171 yards and his 34 rushing touchdowns rank third all-time at Michigan. Leach finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1978.

 

11 of 25

Anthony Carter, Wide Receiver (1979-’82)

Anthony Carter, Wide Receiver (1979-'82)

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During the late 1970s and into the ’80s, there weren’t many pass-catchers in the country better than Carter. At 5-feet-11, Carter didn’t let his overall lack of size deter him from being a big-time college football star. The Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player as a senior in 1982, “AC” finished his career as Michigan’s all-time leading receiver with 3,076 yards — which are now second in school history. His 161 receptions and 37 touchdowns also rank within the top five all-time for the Wolverines.   

 

12 of 25

Jim Harbaugh, Quarterback (1983-’86)

Jim Harbaugh, Quarterback (1983-'86)

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Harbaugh is one of those players who when we think of Michigan football, his name is among the first to come to mind. Younger college football fans likely know Harbaugh mostly for coaching the Wolverines, but when he left Michigan as a player, was the school’s all-time record holder with 5,449 passing yards. He completed 62.4-percent of his passes and threw 31 touchdowns. Harbaugh finished third in the Heisman race for the 1986 season when he led Michigan to the Rose Bowl.

 

13 of 25

Mark Messner, Defensive Lineman (1985-’88)

Mark Messner, Defensive Lineman (1985-'88)

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Michigan has obviously produced some of college football’s elite defenders, but Messner just might be the best of the bunch. He’s the first position player to be named a first-team All-Big Ten performer for each of his four years at Michigan. Messner’s 36 career sacks are still the most in school history and his five versus Northwestern during the 1987 season remain a Michigan record. He finished his career as a consensus All-American in 1988.

 

14 of 25

Desmond Howard, Wide Receiver (1989-’91)

Desmond Howard, Wide Receiver (1989-'91)

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Perhaps more intoxicating than Howard’s entertaining play is his personality. So, it’s no wonder he’s become a popular pundit for ESPN. He was the second Michigan football player to win the Heisman Trophy, doing so after his stellar 1991 season, in which he set a school record with 19 receiving touchdowns. Howard, one of the more charismatic players in college football history, is third all-time in Michigan history with 32 career touchdowns while totaling 134 receptions for 2,146 yards. And, who can forget his infamous Heisman pose?

 

15 of 25

Charles Woodson, Defensive Back (1995-’97)

Charles Woodson, Defensive Back (1995-'97)

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Michigan’s third and most-recent Heisman winner (1997). Woodson also remains the only player whose primary position was on defense to win the prestigious award. His 18 interceptions rank second all-time in school history. Eight of those picks came in 1997, which are tied for third-most in the annals of Michigan football in terms of single-season accomplishments. Following his time with the Wolverines, Woodson enjoyed a Hall-of-Fame career in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay.

 

16 of 25

Jon Jansen, Offensive Lineman (1995-’98)

Jon Jansen, Offensive Lineman (1995-'98)

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Whether protecting his quarterback or helping pave the way for Michigan running backs to eat up yards, there weren’t many better upfront in school history than Jansen. A two-time All-Big Ten first-team selection at right tackle, Jansen, like Charles Woodson, helped the Wolverines win a national championship for the 1997 season. He made 50 career starts during his collegiate career and recorded 106 “knockdowns” while at Michigan.

 

17 of 25

Steve Hutchinson, Offensive Lineman (1996-2000)

Steve Hutchinson, Offensive Lineman (1996-2000)

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Hutchinson began his Michigan career on the defensive line but moved to the offensive side of the ball. Not only was it the right move for the Wolverines, but it also helped Hutchinson enjoy a storied collegiate career and an NFL run that featured seven Pro Bowl nods. During his time at Michigan, Hutchinson helped the program win a national championship (1997), did not allow a sack during his final two seasons, and was named Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and a unanimous All-American — both in 2000.

 

18 of 25

Anthony Thomas, Running Back (1997-2000)

Anthony Thomas, Running Back (1997-2000)

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Also known as the “A-Train.” Thomas burst onto the scene during Michigan’s 1997 national championship run when he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Thomas topped 100 rushing yards twice that season and finished with 4,472 for his four-year career with the Wolverines — ranking third all-time. The 1,733 yards he gained in 2000 rank second for single season at Michigan. Thomas’ 55 career rushing touchdowns are also second-most in school history.

 

19 of 25

John Navarre, Quarterback (2000-’03)

John Navarre, Quarterback (2000-'03)

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A three-year starter for Michigan, Navarre might be best known for throwing four touchdowns against Bowling Green in his first career college game. When his time at Michigan had finished, Navarre certainly left his mark within the storied program. He ranks second in career completions (765), passing yards (9,254), and touchdowns (72). Navarre also holds school single-season records with 270 completions and 3,331 yards — both set in 2003. 

 

20 of 25

Braylon Edwards, Wide Receiver (2001-’04)

Braylon Edwards, Wide Receiver (2001-'04)

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As we’ve already noted, Michigan has produced some of the great college receivers of all time. However, when it comes to statistical dominance, Edwards is arguably the best of the bunch. And, that’s saying a lot. Edwards remains Michigan’s all-time leader with 252 receptions, 3,541 yards, and 39 touchdowns. His 97 catches in 2004 are also a school record. Edwards, the No 3 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best wide receiver in 2004.

 

21 of 25

LaMarr Woodley, Defensive End/Linebacker (2003-’06)

LaMarr Woodley, Defensive End/Linebacker (2003-'06)

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Woodley enjoyed a stellar career at Michigan, ranking among the top five in school history with 24 sacks. But, his 2006 was truly one for the ages — and not just compared to other prominent Wolverines defenders. Half of Woodley’s career-sack total came in ’06, tying him for the most by any Michigan player for a single season. A first-team All-American that season, Woodley was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end.

 

22 of 25

Jake Long, Offensive Lineman (2003-’07)

Jake Long, Offensive Lineman (2003-'07)

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Long had quite the eventful career at Michigan. He overcame various injuries and even survived a house fire during his time on campus. On the football field, Long earned a starting spot during his redshirt freshman season. He was a two-time consensus first-team All-American for the Wolverines, and also earned Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors in both 2006 and ’07 before becoming the overall No. 1 pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.

 

23 of 25

Mike Hart, Running Back (2004-’07)

Mike Hart, Running Back (2004-'07)

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With 5,040 yards for his career, Hart is the all-time rushing leader in Michigan history. Quite the accomplishment considering some of the great runners the school has produced. Hart also ranks among the top 10 in Wolverines history for most single-season yards (1,562 in 2006) and career touchdowns (41). Hart was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2004, a two-time All-Big Ten first-teamer, and finished fifth in the 2006 Heisman Trophy race.

 

24 of 25

Chad Henne, Quarterback (2004-’07)

Chad Henne, Quarterback (2004-'07)

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Only two quarterbacks in Michigan history have started a college game as a true freshman. Henne was one of them (the aforementioned Rick Leach was the other). By the time his career in Ann Arbor concluded, Henne finished as Michigan’s all-time leader with 828 completions, 9,715 passing yards, and 87 touchdown passes. It wasn’t always an easy ride for Henne, but his numbers are impressive nonetheless. Henne earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for his 2007 senior season.

 

25 of 25

Denard Robinson, Quarterback (2009-’12)

Denard Robinson, Quarterback (2009-'12)

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Robinson might very well be the greatest offensive player in Michigan history. For his collegiate career, Robinson recorded 6,250 yards passing (fifth in school history) and 4,495 rushing yards (second in school history). Those 10,745 total yards are the most in school history and his 4,272 yards from 2010 are the most for a single season by a Wolverine. Robinson’s 90 total touchdowns are tied with Chad Henne for the most in program history, while his 36 in 2011 and 32 in 2010 are first and second, respectively, all-time at Michigan. Robinson was both Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and first-team All-American in 2010.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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