The quarterback can take all the credit, but in an era of exploding offensive numbers, dominant defensive players bring a unique level of joy. We’ve seen many dominant forces in college football this century, whether it’s blocking corners, big-play safeties, lateral linebackers, triple tackles or unstoppable edge rushers.
Let’s get them online!
Below are the top 80 defensive players of the 2000s. (Players had to play at least two seasons in this century to be eligible). One thing to note: No one who played in 2020 is on the list. Between waivers, injuries, and shortened seasons, many players struggle to hit monster stats. Hopefully some of them will finish in the top next season.
But even without the presence of 2020, one thing is clear: We’ve been lucky enough to see absurdly talented defensive players over the past few decades. It’s time to celebrate.
(Note: Defense statistics from the turn of the century are difficult to compile – in some cases I had to use archived websites and old Phil Steele magnets – and some of the figures may be unofficial. But they’re still brilliant).
80. LB Kyle Van Noy, BYU (2010-13)
Few players are as disruptive as Van Noy. After a freshman season, he had averaged 18 tackles for loss, eight sacks, three forced fumbles and seven stolen passes for an increasingly dominant Cougar defense.
79th S Jerod Holliman, Louisville (2012-14)
How can someone make an impact after just one season in college? After dishing out a whopping 14 assists, Bobby Petrino won the Thorpe Award for the Cardinals’ first unit.
78. EN Lamarr Woodley, Michigan (2003-06)
Like the draw for Michigan’s best team of the 21st century. Woodley had a solid career in the 21st century, with 16.5 TFLs and 12 sacks, earning Lombardi Award and unanimous All-American honors in 2006.
77. LB Rey Maualuga, USC (2005-08)
USC finished first in defensive SP+ in 2007 and second in 2008. Best tackler from both units: the tattooed Maualuga, a rocket that won the Bednarik Award and unanimous All-American honors in 2008.
76. DT Quinnen Williams, Alabama (2017-18)
Williams was a reserve on Alabama’s varsity team in 2017, and then had a breakthrough season like few have experienced. In 2018, he recorded 19.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks. Nick Saban’s linemen don’t always boast incredibly disruptive statistics; Williams does.
75th S Eric Weddle, Utah (2003-06)
Weddle did it all. He intercepted 18 passes and scored four touchdown returns. He played closer to the line and notched 11 TFLs as a junior. He even played some offense as a senior, throwing 52 times for five runs.
74. CB Aqib Talib, Kansas (2005-07)
Kansas went from an improving program to an Orange Bowl champion in 2007, thanks in large part to a disappointing physical defense. Talib was the face of this team, intercepting five passes and throwing six interceptions in the Orange Bowl victory.
73. DT Christian Wilkins, Clemson (2015-18)
It had been there for so long that it was almost taken for granted. After a solid rookie season, he had an average of 12 TFLs, five sacks and five passes broken up for the Tigers. He won two national titles… …and he did it.
Also… too much. Sauce. pic.twitter.com/iKSA1zg6w5
– ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) January 10, 2017
72. EN Derek Barnett, Tennessee (2014-16)
Tennessee had a brief resurgence under Butch Jones, winning nine games in the 2015/16 season, and Barnett was the best player on that team. In just three seasons, he has collected 52 TFLs and 32 sacks.
71. CB Patrick Peterson, LSU (2008-10)
Peterson, a top-10 recruit, not only intercepted seven passes in 2009-10, but also returned a total of 171 yards to opponents. It made sense since he was also one of the scariest comebacks of the century.
70. EN Brian Orakpo, Texas (2005-08)
The Houston Lamar High School product exploded as a senior, with 17.5 TFLs, 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles en route to winning the Nagurski, Hendricks and Lombardi awards for a team that had decimal points in its BCS championship bid.
69. LB Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington (2010-14)
What a story: Kihaha tore his ACL in 2011, and tore it again before the 2012 season. And after being sidelined for almost two years, he returned for a record 40 TFLs and 31.5 sacks in 2013/14. He’s the leader in armed robbery in the Pac-12.
68th S Mitch Meeven, Oregon (2000-04)
Here’s the full list of players who made 20+ interceptions in the 2000s: Jim Leonhard of Wisconsin, Alfonso Smith of Wake Forest and Musen, a two-time All-American who has long been in the second phase of the Beavers’ improvement program.
67. DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma (2007-09)
The world recruit from Oklahoma City stayed home to study, then took the opportunity. He averaged 26.5 TFLs and 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons and was one of the best defensive linemen in the country in 2009.
66. LB Tyler Matakevich, Temple (2012-15)
As a sophomore in 2013, Matakevich registered 106 solo tackles for Temple (2-10). As the Owls get better and get more help, he thrives. In 2015, he notched 15.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks with five INTs and won the Nagur and Bednarik awards.
65. DT Rien Long, Washington State (2000-02)
In the early 2000s, Wazzu’s defense was terrible, with many blitzes. However, the Capes were not particularly favorable to lightning in 2002: He had a successful long tackle who recorded 13 sacks and 21 TFLs and won the Outland Trophy as a member of the Rose Bowl team.
64. DT Cedric Ellis, USC (2003-07)
A steady star for a dominant USC defense? Yes. Fast enough to make 8.5 sacks with over 300 pounds in 2007? Yes. So strong that USC had to buy him a pair of 200 pound dumbbells to lift him properly? DAEP.
63. DE Vic Beasley, Clemson (2011-14)
One of the first stars of the Dabo Swinney era, Beasley finished with 22.5 TFLs and 13 sacks as a junior, then returned for his senior season in which he recorded 17.5 and nine more sacks, respectively, and was taken eighth overall in the 2015 draft.
62nd S Taylor Mays, USC (2006-09)
When you avoided linemen like Cedric Ellis and linemen like Ray Maualuga, you had to deal with Mays, who ran a 4.4 40 time in four seasons at 6-foot-4, weighed 230 pounds, was involved in 276 tackles and was more than willing to sacrifice his body for a big hit.
61. EN Bradley Chubb, NC (2014-17)
Head coach Dave Doeren has led two top-40 SP+ defenses – they clashed in 2016-17 when Chubb inadvertently recorded 44 total TFLs and 20 sacks. Since he left the top 5, his earnings have steadily declined.
60. CB Corey Webster, LSU (2001-04)
Enrolled as a wide receiver, Webster switched sides in his sophomore year. Good point. In 2002 and 2003, he had seven assists and was one of the best players on LSU’s first national championship team in more than 40 years.
59. DE Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech (2015-18)
Only two FBS players are more likely to lose than the San Francisville, Louisiana product, and neither has more sacks. In four agonizing seasons, he recorded 67.5 from his first and 45 from his second.
58. CB Javier Arenas, Alabama (2006-09)
Mike Shula left new Bama coach Nick Saban with a gift in Arenas, the country’s leading rebounder (seven points in his career). In 2009, he was also the best cornerback in the country with five interceptions and 12 PFLs en route to a national title.
57. LB Rocky Calmus, Oklahoma (1998-01)
Sporting News once called him the toughest player in college football, he was also one of the best. He played with a broken bone, was a two-time All-American and still holds the school record for TFLs with 59.
56. DE Joey Bosa, Ohio (2013-15)
Ohio State is best remembered for winning the title in 2014 thanks to late attacks from Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones, but Bosa was the team’s most consistent star, collecting 21.5 tons and 13.5 sacks in his first of two All-American seasons.
Joey Bosa recorded 21.5 TFLs and 13.5 sacks in the first of his two All-American seasons during Ohio State’s 2014 title campaign. AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
55. CB Antoine Cason, Arizona (2004-07)
Cason was a track star and return man for Arizona’s defense in the ’90s. Physical and quick, he caught five passes and scored four touchdowns – two by punt return, two by INT – as a senior en route to his All-American status and Thorpe Award honors.
54. DT Brodrick Bankley, Florida (2002-05)
After suffering injuries for most of his career, Bunkley had one of his best individual seasons in 2005: 25 tackles for loss (for a 6-foot-2, 300-pounder!), nine sacks, 15 QB hurries and countless All-American accolades.
53rd S Pepper Grill, Michigan (2014-16)
Don Brown had immediate success as Michigan’s defensive coordinator, but he had a cheat code in Peppers, a prototypical early nickel linebacker who recorded 13 TFLs and finished fifth in the 2016 Heisman voting.
52. DT John Henderson, Tennessee (1998-01)
One of the most intimidating players of the 2000s, Henderson was tackled by a 6-foot tackle lined up next to Albert Haynesworth and terrorized SEC offensive linemen. He won the 2000 Outland and had to settle for the 2001 Consensus All-American.
51. LB Scooby Wright III, Arizona (2013-15)
Injuries took their toll in Wright’s final season (2015), but that’s not a bad thing – he still couldn’t do better than he did in 2014. He had 31 TFLs and 15 sacks (for 164 total tackles) this season, while leading Arizona to its only Pac-12 South title.
50. EN Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (2007-10)
For four years, Kerrigan steadily improved in West Lafayette before becoming the leader of the Washington football team. From 2008-2010, he recorded 56 TFLs, 32.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles; he was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
49. EN Jerry Hughes, TCU (2006-09)
He embodied Gary Patterson’s fast and furious 4-2-5. Hughes led the nation in sacks with 15 in 2008, and then 11.5 in 2009, which earned him the Hendricks Award and consecutive consensus All-American honors.
48. LB LaMarcus McDonald, TCU (1999-02)
Patterson’s first teams weren’t as rich in talent, but McDonald set the tone. The 217-pounder came out of nowhere and set a school record of 25 TFLs as a junior in 2001, which he surpassed the next year with 30 TFLs.
47th S Minka Fitzpatrick, Alabama (2015-17)
Between 2009 and 2017, Bama had too many stars on defense with five national titles and six No. 1 rankings in defensive SP+. Fitzpatrick has been an outlier, averaging 5.5 TFLs, three INTs and eight breaks in a season over three years.
Minkah Fitzpatrick averaged 5.5 TFLs, three interceptions and eight pass interceptions in a season during his three years at Alabama. Brett Rojo/US Sports
46. CB Carlos Rogers, Auburn (2001-04)
Rogers was a football, basketball and track star at Butler High School in Augusta, Georgia, and was a four-year starter at Auburn, where he intercepted seven passes and defended 40 others; he won the Thorpe Award in 2004 while leading the Tigers to an undefeated record.
45. EN George Selvey, South Florida (2006-09)
In the midst of a memorable 2007 season, FSU has dropped to second place in the polls. The Bulls finally settled down, but it wasn’t Selvi’s fault, as he finished the season with 31.5 TFLs and 14.5 sacks. He notched an impressive 69 of 28.5 in his career.
44. DT Rodrick Wright, Texas (2002-05)
Wright has ticked every possible box. Troubling? Absolutely: In four seasons, he was involved in 42 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks and 67 QB hurries. On the whole field? This too: As a sophomore, he finished third on the team with 80 tackles and scored 227 points.
43. CB Nathan Vacher, Texas (2000-03)
Let’s move on to the hook theme. Washer was not there to win a UT title in 2005, but Washer intercepted 17 passes from 2001-2003 and technically earned All-American honors at two different positions: punt returner in 2001 and cornerback in 2003.
42nd S Michael Huff, Texas (2002-05)
Huff has done everything asked of him in his four years in Austin. Do you need a game-changing 6? Huff had four. A blocked shot? He had three. Hawk? He defended a total of 51 passes. Ship’s missile? He was involved in 26 TFLs.
41. EN Mathias Kiwanuka, Boston College (2002-05)
At a school that produced Mike Mamula, Harold Landry and countless great linebackers, Kiwanuka was by far Boston College’s most productive player, with 37.5 sacks in four seasons and two First Team All-American placements.
40. LB A.J. Falcon, Ohio (2002-05)
Even at a school that seemed to produce thousands of student linebackers, Hawk stood out. He began his career by helping the Buckeyes win a national title in 2002 and finished with a Lombardi Award and unanimous All-American honors.
39. EN Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (2011-13)
One of the most talked about recruits in history, Clowney did his best to live up to his #1 position, including a great second season with 23.5 TFLs, 13 sacks and one of the most famous hits in college football history.
In 2013, Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina dropped his helmet on Vincent Smith of Michigan after a hard hit caused a noise that Clowney later recovered from.
38. CB Desmond King, Iowa (2013-16)
King, a former Ball State player, switched to the Hawkeyes in late 2013 and immediately became a star. In four years, he intercepted 14 passes, returned three for scores, broke up another 33 passes and won the Thorpe and Tatum awards in 2015.
37. DT Tommy Harris, Oklahoma (2001-03)
A two-time All-American, Harris was the attraction of a pesky ER defense. He won the Lombardi Award in 2003, struggled against consistent double teams and scored 10 TFLs before running a 4.68 40 and weighing 295 pounds at the NFL Combine.
36. LB Roseanne Smith, Georgia (2015-17)
Smith was the ubiquitous superstar on the 2017 UGA team that played in a national title game. He registered 14 TFLs and 6.5 sacks, and the fact that he only got 137 tackles to his name this year seems surprising; he seemed to make them all.
35. CB Derrick Strait, Oklahoma (2000-03)
Strait was a four-year starter for Bob Stoops’ Sooners, won the national title as a freshman (he had a big gap in the title game) and snubbed Nagurski and Thorpe as a senior, not to mention being a unanimous All-American.
34. LB Patrick Willis, Ole Miss (2003-06)
Willis led the SEC in 2005 and 2006, but he also recorded 21 TFLs, six sacks and eight stolen passes. A three-star aspirant who became one of the most decorated linebackers of the century and will be inducted into the CFB Hall of Fame in 2019.
33. EN Elvis Dumerville, Louisville (2002-05)
At just 5’7 tall, Dumervil was overlooked by the major programs, but he notched 30.5 sacks in the 2004-05 season alone and won the Nagurski and Hendricks awards as a senior. He did about the same thing in the pros, coming in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, but making over 100 sacks in his career.
32nd S Mike Doss, Ohio (1999-02)
Maybe the perfect free security. Doss started 40 games, was named a three-time All-American, collected eight INTs and six sacks, put out countless fires before they occurred, and was named MVP in his final game, the 2002 BCS Championship against Miami.
31. DT Ed Oliver, Houston (2016-18)
It was almost impossible for the bluebeard to live up to expectations when he decided to play for his hometown Cougs. Damned if he didn’t: In three full seasons, he notched 53 TFLs, 13.5 sacks and 11 pass breakups and won the Outland Trophy in 2017.
Ed Oliver recorded 53 TFLs, 13.5 sacks and 11 pass breakups in three full seasons and won the Outland Trophy in 2017. Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire
30. LB Paul Postluszny, PA (2003-06)
Only Obedient and Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern) have twice won the Bednarik Award, which is given to the best defender in the country. He also won the Butkus Award, topped 100 tackles three times and totaled 20.5 TFL and seven assists in the 2005-06 season. It was everywhere.
29. DT Nick Fairley, Auburn (2009-10)
What Cam Newton was to Auburn’s offense in 2010, Fairley was almost to the defense. The junior exploded with 24 TFLs and 11.5 sacks — like a 290-pound tackle! — to win the Lombardi Award and give the Tigers enough defensive strength to let Newton win the game on O.
28. LB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame (2009-12)
Te’o made 374 tackles in 2010-12, including 28.5 behind the line of scrimmage. He also caught seven passes in 2012, finished second in the Heisman voting and led the Fighting Irish to their first BCS championship game. He was everywhere too.
27. LB Jarvis Jones, Georgia (2011-12)
With the dynamite stick lit, the USC transfer missed two games in 2012, yet he led the country in tackles for loss (23.5) and maintained his best numbers in his biggest moments: He had 4.5 TFLs against Florida and three in the heartbreaking SEC championship loss against Alabama.
26. DE Miles Garrett, Texas A&M (2014-16)
Garrett hurt right away as a rookie – 12.5 TFL, 11 sacks – and he only got better from then on. He had a 34.5 PFL average, 20 sacks and seven forced fumbles in the 2015-16 season and was a unanimous All-American selection before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
25. LB E.J. Henderson, Maryland (1999-02)
Maryland’s turnaround in the early 2000s under Ralph Friedgen was fueled by the sport’s most reliable sharpshooter. Henderson made 135 solos in 2002 and averaged 8.8 per game from 2000-2002; both figures remain NCAA records. He was inducted into the CFB Hall of Fame in 2020.
24th S Sean Taylor, Miami (2001-03)
Taylor stayed home to play for the U, immediately found rotation time with the Canes in 2001 and then played in 2002-03. He had everything: Lane speed, ferocious hitting and extreme ball control. He led the country with 10 INTs in 2003 and grabbed three for TDs.
23rd S Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin (2001-04)
Leonhard, a product of the small town of Tony, Wisconsin, went to UW and intercepted 21 passes in his career – the most in this century – and returned three punts for a TD. He began a long professional career before returning to UW and quickly became an outstanding defensive coordinator.
22. EN Von Miller, Texas A&M (2007-10)
After a disappointing first season in College Station, Miller has had two of the most explosive seasons of the century. In 2009-10, he registered 39 TFLs and 27.5 sacks, was twice named All-American and won the Butkus Award in 2010.
21. CB Alfonso Smith, Wake Forest (2005-08)
Smith, MVP of Wake Forest’s most successful team (2006 ACC title winner), not only intercepted 21 passes and returned four, but also recorded 23.5 TFLs and nine sacks – and a punt return! He’d do anything for the Deacs.
20. DT Glenn Dorsey, LSU (2004-07)
After an All-American breakthrough in 2006, Dorsey was the face of LSU’s national title win in 2007. He won the Lombardi, Outland and Nagurski trophies and recorded 12.5 TFLs and seven sacks despite injuries and double-teams.
Glenn Dorsey became the first player to win the Nagurski Award, Outland Cup, Lotta Cup and Lombardi Cup in the same season. John David Mercer/US TODAY Sports
19. LB Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma (2000-03)
A 240-pounder with a 4.4-speed engine, Lehman put up insane numbers from 2001 to 2003: 46 TFLs, six sacks, four interceptions (including one of the sport’s most famous pick-sixes, which we’ll get to in a minute) and 14 pass interceptions. Dynamic against the run but adept in coverage, he won the Butkus and Bednarik Award in 2003.
18. DE Jonathan Allen, Alabama (2013-16)
The most destructive defensive lineman of the Saban era, Allen recorded 41.5 TFLs and 27.5 sacks from 2014-16. He was a top defender, ranked #1 in defensive JV+ for three consecutive seasons and won the Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik awards in 2016.
17. LB James Laurinaitis, Ohio (2005-08)
From 2006-2008, Laurinaitis amassed 115-130 yards on the ground, 7-8.5 TFL, 3-4 sacks and 2-5 INTs each year, earning All-American honors each year and the Nagurski Trophy one year, the Butkus the next and the Ronnie Lott Trophy the next.
16th S Eric Berry, Tennessee (2007-09)
Berry turned pro after three seasons, which made perfect sense: He had almost nothing to do at UT. He intercepted 14 passes in his career (three of six) with 17.5 TFL and was the 2007 SEC Rookie of the Year, 2008 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and 2009 Thorpe Award winner.
15. DE Chase Young, Ohio (2017-19)
The former Blue Chipper was good from the start, scoring five TFLs as a reserve rookie. He came in as a sophomore (14.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks, 5 pass breakups) before putting together one of the best pass seasons of all time in 2019 : 21 TFLs, 16.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, three picks.
14th S Troy Polamalu, USC (1999-02)
Polamalu brought strength to strong security. The equally famous player recorded 29 TFLs, six interceptions (three pick-sixes) and four blocked punts, the fourth-highest number this century. A College Football Hall of Famer, he was the heart and soul of Pete Carroll’s team in 2002.
13. CB Terence Newman, Kansas (1999-02)
One of the worst returners – 26.1 yards per return, 15.4 per punt return, four TDs total – Newman’s skills eventually caught up with his returners. He had 8 assists and 31 digs in the 2001-02 season, won the Thorpe Award in 2001-02 and was a unanimous All-American as a senior.
12. LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College (2009-11)
Kuechly is a consummate catching machine, averaging 14.1 tackles per game in 2010 – eighth-most in history. It then reached an average of 15.9 in 2011. He made 35.5 career saves behind the line and also found time for seven assists, two of which he returned for points. No one has ever loved wrestling more than this man.
Luke Kuechly averaged 14.1 tackles per game in 2010 and 15.9 tackles per game in 2011. Michael Ivins/US Sports
11. EN Dwight Freeney, Syracuse (1998-01)
His resume speaks for itself: 34 sacks in his career, 17 consecutive games with at least one sack, not to mention seven Pro Bowl appearances and 125 pro sacks in his career. But really, all you need to know about Dwight Freeney is this: In 2000, he controlled Michael Vick 4.5 times in a game. Michael Vick! Four and a half times!
10. LB Derrick Johnson, Texas (2001-04)
Johnson, a lightweight speedster, was brilliant during the race. Not only has he recorded more tackles for loss (65) this century than any other linebacker in the Power Conference, but he has recorded double-digit tackles in each of his four seasons. He also forced 11 turnovers, intercepted 9 passes and stopped 30 more. And then he did the same thing in the pros for over a decade.
9. EN Julius Pepper, North Carolina (1999-01)
Peppers is a 6-foot-2, 270-pound force of nature who scored an NCAA-best 15 sacks as a sophomore and earned Bednarik and Lombardi honors as a junior. He also played a role on UNO’s 2000 Final Four team and scored 20 points in the 2001 NCAA Tournament game. It’s, uh… frankly… unfair.
8. CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (2010-11)
As a rookie cornerback, Mathieu has created an offensive niche with 8.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. As a sophomore, he officially became the Honey Badger, the face of one of the meanest students in college football history. He was all over the place, with 7.5 TFLs, two interceptions, six forced fumbles and four TDs – two fumble returns and two punt returns.
7. S. Roy Williams, Oklahoma (1999-01)
It wasn’t enough for the Union City, California product to become a standout force for a pesky secondary. It wasn’t enough to combine 35 TFLs and nine sacks with nine INTs and 49 breakups in just three seasons – a great career linebacker and a career safety all in one.
No, Roy Williams was supposed to be Superman too.
6. EN David Pollack, Georgia (2001-04)
A year into his career, I didn’t think he’d come. But Pollack began his sophomore season with one of the most famous plays in school history – his striped sack during a drive and touchdown against South Carolina – and lived up to it in every game that followed.
By the end of his career, he had scored 59 TFLs and 36 sacks. And in 2020, he was also inducted into the CFB Hall of Famer.
5. DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh (2010-13)
Like Pollack, Donald’s career started quietly – the three-star rookie was a reserve who made 11 tackles in 2010. But he had 16 TFLs as a sophomore… and 18.5 as a junior. and 28.5 as a senior. In 2013 he won the Nagurski, Bednarik, Outland and Lombardi awards, and that wasn’t enough.
The fact that he was picked 13th in the 2014 draft completely fooled college football fans. But he didn’t become the best defensive player in the NFL.
4. LB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (2010-13)
The idea of future NFL quarterback Khalil Mack playing against the majority of MAC opponents this year is unfair. The same goes for his stats: 75 tackles for loss (the most in FBS history), 28.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, four interceptions, two blocked punts, etc.
Khalil Mack has been one of the best quarterbacks in college football over the last two decades. Kevin Hoffman-USA Sports Today
But perhaps his most ridiculous athletic performance was the sack he didn’t make during practice.
I only remember reaching into my pocket and feeling the pressure. I pulled the ball out, but I remember feeling uncomfortable in the pocket. I go back and watch the film, and one of our quarterbacks in the film room is flipping through it, and I see that Khalil was one-on-one with our 315-pound tackle, and he pushed him aside with one hand. He was flying through the air and about to hit me. … When the man is in the air, Khalil grabs him with one hand and puts him down and I throw the ball.
He was in two rooms in the cafeteria, and I called him and said: What is it? He’s like this: Yeah, I didn’t want him to hit you.
3. EN Terrell Suggs, Arizona (2000-02)
Suggs, a Parade All-American from nearby Chandler, was a star early on with 34 tackles for loss and 20 sacks in his first two seasons in Tempe. His junior season was perhaps the best we’ve ever seen from a college defense, with 31 tackles for loss and 24 sacks. No one in this century has more than 20 pockets.
The fact that he ended his career as one of the NFL’s top ten defenders is no surprise to anyone who saw him terrorize a poor Pac-12 QB a few decades ago.
2. S Ed Reed, Miami (1998-01)
It’s amazing to think that Roy Williams may not have even been the best defender at the beginning of the century, but it goes without saying that Reed has a great case. The self-proclaimed two-star recruit and pride of Destrehan, Louisiana, has been used in countless ways in his four years as a starter. He was used as a linebacker in 1999 and notched 13 TFLs and five sacks. Then he became the best ballplayer in the country, throwing 17 passes and stopping another 35 in 2000-2001.
And yes, he caught four of those interceptions for touchdowns. After all, it was Ed Reed.
1. DT Damukong Su, Nebraska (2006-09)
Like Suggs, Suh left most of his success behind in his final season in Lincoln. The Portland, Oregon native has 29 TFLs and 12 sacks to his name and two interceptions for touchdowns already in 2008. It’s good!
The college football world was not quite prepared for the chaos it would unleash in 2009. Despite double and sometimes triple teams, despite offensive schemes that completely shunned him, Suh averaged 20.5 TFLs and 12 sacks. Coach Bo Pelini used the dime as his base defense. With Suh with about three defenders, Nebraska could create a ferocious pass rush with four players and get to the ball with seven others.
Su dominated in every conceivable way. He threw four passes against Virginia Tech. He took four penalties and notched a sack, an interception and a forced fumble against Missouri. He blocked two shots against Iowa State, then another against Oklahoma. And in the Big 12 title game against Texas, he showed all his skills, with seven tackles for loss and Texas’ Colt McCoy 4.5 tackles.
He won just about every defensive award he ever won, and no offense to Mark Ingram, Toby Gerhart or McCoy, but it’s an absolute crime that he finished fourth in the Heisman voting. His 2009 season was perhaps the most dominant we’ve ever seen from a player at any position, and he was the most feared defender in sports in a century of defenders.