These players were some of the strongest, most dominant, and physically gifted stars to ever hit the gridiron.
Matthew Jussim 1 / 14
Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State
Before he went on to break the NFL rushing record while spending his whole career with the Detroit Lions, Sanders was piling up the yards (and points) at Oklahoma State. The 5’8”, 200-pound running back was an electric college player, using his speed and agility to be a triple threat for the Cowboys—he returned kicks, played snaps on offense, and returned punts. An inimitable juke artist—he left linebackers spinning in circles—Sanders was also quantifiably unparalleled: His 1988 season, in which he racked up 3,248 total yards, 39 touchdowns, and a 7.6-yards per carry average, is one of the most impressive in the history of the sport. Sanders won the Heisman Trophy before finishing OK State as a junior.
“Rocket” earned his nickname for a reason—he was faster than anyone else in football. Ismail was a national sensation while playing for the Fighting Irish, wowing fans, reporters, and other teams with his dazzling speed and explosive agility. Ismail, who clocked a 4.28-second 40-yard dash, was a fantastic kick returner and wide receiver, as well as a lightning-fast track athlete in blue and gold. The Elizabeth, New Jersey native was voted an All-American and he got the cover treatment from Sports Illustrated twice while playing in South Bend.
The Sooner running back was a truck for Oklahoma right from the start—Peterson finished second in the Heisman voting as a freshman after rushing for nearly 2,000 yards. Peterson’s ultimate combination of size and speed at 6’1”, 217 pounds, made him nearly impossible for defenses to deal with—if they overloaded the middle, he had the speed to go outside, and if they met him head-on, he bowled right over them. Peterson played through multiple injuries during his time at Oklahoma and still managed to put up over 4,000 rushing yards in just three seasons with the team.
Woodson was one of the most dynamic players in college football history—he was a two-way star for Michigan, playing on offense and defense, and he contributed on special teams. Woodson played snaps at wide receiver, defensive back, and he returned punts for the Wolverines, showing off his fantastic athleticism with long kick returns, interceptions, and “big play” touchdowns. At 6’1”, 210 pounds, Woodson had the perfect combination of strength and speed and that helped him become just the second player in history to win the Heisman who wasn’t a primary running back or quarterback.
The Florida native took over as quarterback for the Gators as a sophomore and he went on to have one of the most impressive seasons in NCAA history en route to becoming the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. At 6’3”, 236 pounds, the burly quarterback had the strength to overrun any defender on the field, and he did just that. Tebow was dominant rushing the ball, scoring 23 touchdowns in 2007, over 50 in his college career, and ultimately leading the Gators to a national championship in 2008. Though he didn’t find success in the more traditional NFL, he left a mark as one of the most memorable and fun-to-watch college players ever.
The 6’2”, 232-pound Georgia native was a bulldozer for Syracuse during his college career, setting multiple school records with a 6.2 yards per carry average. Brown was a production machine: In just eight games in the 1954 season, he rushed for 986 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. Brown once scored six touchdowns in a game. More impressive? He didn’t just contribute on offense, he kicked for the team too. Brown played multiple sports at Syracuse—lacrosse, basketball, and track—but he is remembered most for his hard-nosed play on the football gridiron.
Reed was an absolute beast during his time playing at “The U.” A ballhawk of a safety—he set Miami's school record with 21 career interceptions, five of which he returned for touchdowns—Reed was also one of the hardest-hitting players in college football. He was also a stalwart on special teams, blocking four kicks during his time in South Florida and helping the 'Canes win the 2001 National Championship.
Thorpe was as “All-American” as it gets. While playing at Carlisle, the Native American star played running back, defensive back, kicker, and punter for the team. In one game against Harvard, he was responsible for every point his team scored. Thorpe was a multi-sport athlete, but he was dominant in football and he even once played against future President Dwight Eisenhower when he was at Army. Thorpe was an undisputed sports star who helped make college football into an American pasttime, scoring 25 touchdowns while helping Carlisle finish 11-1 and leading his team to the 1912 national title.
The Buckeyes star was one of the most gifted runners in college history—he put up over 5,500 career rushing yards and rushed for at least 100 yards in 31 straight games, an NCAA record. That’s not the only milestone that the Columbus, Ohio native put up at tOSU: Griffin was the first (and still only) player to win the Heisman Trophy twice while in college, taking it home in his junior and senior seasons. Griffin had great speed and he helped Ohio State make it to four Rose Bowl games during his time there.
The Georgia native wowed opponents and fans alike during his time playing for the Bulldogs, showing off a sublime combination of speed and power. At 6’1”, 225 pounds, Walker was the ultimate physical running back, but he also had the speed to break off a 90-yard run for a touchdown (and he often did). Walker won the Heisman in 1982 and was the first true freshman to make the All-American team. Walker had blazing speed—he ran track in high school and recorded a 10.23-second 100-meter dash—and he used that motor to speed past defensive backs on the football field. Walker finished his career with over 5,000 rushing yards and 49 touchdowns.
Young had the combination of speed and strength that coaches drool over. At 6’5" and 228 pounds, Young could sling the ball as far as anyone in the country, and with 4.58 speed in the 40-yard dash, he was athletic enough to tuck the ball under his arm and run at any linebacker. In one of the most famous games of college football history, the Longhorns star led his team to the 2006 BCS National Championship game against the vaunted USC Trojans and their eventual Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush. Though Bush beat out Young finished in the Heisman voting, Young secured his name in football lore by scoring the winning touchdown in the final 19 seconds of the game.
At 6’2”, 190 pounds, Ward dominated college football during his time at Florida State. The athletically gifted quarterback dominated the annual awards circuit after his inspired 1993 campaign—3,032 passing yards and 31 total touchdowns—taking home the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, and Davey O'Brien Award before leading the Seminoles to their first-ever national title over an asecendant Nebraska team in 1993. While he didn’t go on to play professional football—the Knicks drafted him instead—Ward left his mark at FSU with his dazzling combination of accuracy and agility.
After playing at Florida and Blinn College, Newton made his way to Auburn and made a mark like no one had for the Tigers since Bo Jackson in the 80s. Newton took college football by storm, using his near-superhuman combination of size, speed, and power to dominate even the top-tier teams of the SEC. At 6’5”, 248 pounds, no player in the nation could match what Newton could do on the field. Even against teams like Oregon and Alabama, Newton seemed to defy every defense imaginable, trucking over opponents and throwing touchdowns when it seemed impossible. Newton won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide over Andrew Luck in 2010, finishing the season with 50 combined touchdowns. Newton led his team to the national championship that year and went on to become the first “modern” college football player to take home the Heisman, win a title, and be taken first overall in the NFL draft in the same one-year range.