Ranking the 80 best college football defenders of the 2000s

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Quarterbacks may get all the glory, but in an era of exploding offensive numbers, dominant defensive players create a unique level of exhilaration. From lockdown corners, to big-hitting safeties, to sideline-to-sideline linebackers, to triple-team-worthy tackles, to unstoppable edge rushers, we have seen plenty of dominant forces in college football this century.

Let’s rank them!

Below are the 80 best defensive players of the 2000s. (To qualify, players had to play at least two seasons in this century.) One thing to notice: No one who played in 2020 made the list. Between opt-outs, injuries and abbreviated seasons, it was hard for many players to record monster stats. Hopefully some of those who did will further compile rankings-worthy résumés in future seasons.

Even without 2020’s presence, however, one thing is clear: We have been blessed with watching some absurdly talented defensive players in recent decades. Time to celebrate them.

(Note: Defensive stats from the beginning of the century are difficult to piece together — I had to use archived web pages and old Phil Steele mags in some instances — and some of the numbers might be unofficial. But they’re brilliant all the same.)

80. LB Kyle Van Noy, BYU (2010-13)

Few players are as disruptive, for as long a period of time, as Van Noy. After a solid redshirt freshman season, he averaged 18 tackles for loss, eight sacks, three forced fumbles and seven passes defensed for some increasingly dominant Cougar defenses.

79. S Gerod Holliman, Louisville (2012-14)

How does someone make an impression after starting for only one season in college? By picking off an astounding 14 passes and winning the Thorpe Award for Bobby Petrino’s first Cardinals squad.

78. DE LaMarr Woodley, Michigan (2003-06)

The center of gravity for arguably Michigan’s best team of the 21st century, Woodley capped a solid career by recording 16.5 TFLs and 12 sacks, taking home the Lombardi Award and unanimous All-America honors in 2006.

77. LB Rey Maualuga, USC (2005-08)

USC ranked first in defensive SP+ in 2007 and second in 2008. The leading tackler for both units: the heavily tattooed Maualuga, a sideline-to-sideline missile who won the Bednarik Award and unanimous All-America honors in 2008.

76. DT Quinnen Williams, Alabama (2017-18)

Williams served as a backup on Alabama’s 2017 national title squad, then enjoyed a breakout season like few have experienced, recording 19.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks in 2018. Nick Saban’s linemen don’t always post incredibly disruptive stats; Williams did.

75. S Eric Weddle, Utah (2003-06)

Weddle did it all. He picked off 18 passes with four career return touchdowns. He played closer to the line and logged 11 TFLs as a junior. As a senior, he even played offense, rushing 52 times for five scores.

74. CB Aqib Talib, Kansas (2005-07)

Kansas went from “improving program” to “Orange Bowl champion” in 2007 thanks, in large part, to a physical, frustrating defense. Talib was the face of said unit, picking off five passes and pacing the Orange Bowl win with an early pick-six.

73. DT Christian Wilkins, Clemson (2015-18)

He was around for so long that we almost took him for granted. After a solid freshman season, he averaged 12 TFLs, five sacks and five pass breakups for the Tigers. He won two national titles … and also did this.

72. DE Derek Barnett, Tennessee (2014-16)

Tennessee enjoyed a brief renaissance under Butch Jones, winning nine games in both 2015-16, and Barnett was the best player on those teams. In just three seasons he compiled 52 TFLs and 32 sacks.

71. CB Patrick Peterson, LSU (2008-10)

A top-10 recruit who lived up to every ounce of hype, Peterson not only picked off seven passes in 2009-10, but also returned them a combined 171 yards. That made sense, considering he was also one of the most terrifying return men of the century.

70. DE Brian Orakpo, Texas (2005-08)

The Houston Lamar High School product exploded as a senior, posting 17.5 TFLs, 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles en route to winning the Nagurski, Hendricks and Lombardi awards for a team that came within decimal points of a BCS Championship Game bid.

69. LB Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington (2010-14)

What a story: Kikaha tore his ACL in 2011, then tore his ACL again before the 2012 season. And after nearly two years on the sideline, he returned to record 40 TFLs and 31.5 sacks in 2013-14. He is the Pac-12’s all-time sacks leader.

68. S Mitch Meeuwsen, Oregon State (2000-04)

Here’s a complete list of players to have recorded 20+ interceptions in the 2000s: Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard, Wake Forest’s Alphonso Smith and Meeuwsen, a two-time All-American who long roamed the secondary for an improving Beavers program.

67. DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma (2007-09)

The all-world recruit from Oklahoma City stayed home for school, then lived up to every ounce of hype. He recorded 26.5 TFLs and 12.5 sacks in his last two seasons while anchoring one of the country’s best run defenses in 2009.

66. LB Tyler Matakevich, Temple (2012-15)

As a sophomore in 2013, Matakevich recorded 106 solo tackles for a 2-10 Temple squad. As the Owls improved and got him more help, he thrived. He tallied 15.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks with five INTs in 2015 and won both the Nagurski and Bednarik awards.

65. DT Rien Long, Washington State (2000-02)

The early-2000s Wazzu defenses were nasty, blitz-heavy units. The Cougs didn’t need to blitz much in 2002, though: They had Long, a lanky tackle who recorded 13 sacks and 21 TFLs and won the Outland Trophy on a Rose Bowl squad.

64. DT Sedrick Ellis, USC (2003-07)

Multi-year star for some dominant USC defense? Yep. Quick enough to record 8.5 sacks at 300+ pounds in 2007? Yep. So strong that he required USC to go out and buy a pair of 200-pound dumbbells just so he could get a proper lift in? YEP.

63. DE Vic Beasley, Clemson (2011-14)

One of the early stars of the Dabo Swinney era, Beasley exploded for 22.5 TFLs and 13 sacks as a junior, then returned for his senior season, recorded another 17.5 and nine, respectively, and rose to eighth in the 2015 draft.

62. S Taylor Mays, USC (2006-09)

If you evaded linemen like Sedrick Ellis and linebackers like Rey Maualuga, you then had to deal with Mays, who ran a 4.4 40 at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, took part in 276 tackles over four seasons and was more than willing to sacrifice his body for a big hit.

61. DE Bradley Chubb, NC State (2014-17)

Head coach Dave Doeren has presided over two defensive SP+ top-40 defenses — they took the field in 2016-17, when Chubb happened to be recording a combined 44 TFLs and 20 sacks. Since his departure as a top-five pick, returns have steadily diminished.

60. CB Corey Webster, LSU (2001-04)

Recruited as a wide receiver, Webster flipped to the other side of the ball as a sophomore. Good idea. He picked off seven passes in both 2002 and 2003 and served as one of the best players on LSU’s first national title squad in more than 40 years.

59. DE Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech (2015-18)

Only two FBS players are on record with more tackles for loss than the Saint Francisville, Louisiana, product, and no one has more sacks. He recorded 67.5 of the former and 45 of the latter over four torrid seasons.

58. CB Javier Arenas, Alabama (2006-09)

Mike Shula left new Bama head coach Nick Saban a present in Arenas, the nation’s best return man (seven career punt return scores). By 2009, he was also the nation’s best cornerback, recording both five interceptions and 12 TFLs en route to a national title.

57. LB Rocky Calmus, Oklahoma (1998-01)

The Sporting News once called him the toughest player in college football; he was also one of the best. He played through broken bones, earned All-America status twice and still holds the school’s career TFLs record with 59.

56. DE Joey Bosa, Ohio State (2013-15)

Ohio State’s title-winning 2014 campaign is remembered primarily for late-season charges from Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones, but Bosa was the team’s steadiest star, logging 21.5 TFLs and 13.5 sacks in his first of two All-America seasons.

55. CB Antoine Cason, Arizona (2004-07)

Cason was a track star and a callback to Arizona’s 1990s Desert Swarm defenses. Physical and fast, he picked off five passes and scored four touchdowns — two via punt return, two via INT — as a senior on his way to All-America status and Thorpe Award honors.

54. DT Brodrick Bunkley, Florida State (2002-05)

After fighting injuries for much of his career, Bunkley produced one of the greatest single seasons ever seen from a nose tackle in 2005: 25 tackles for loss (from a 6-foot-2, 300-pounder!), nine sacks, 15 QB hurries and countless All-America honors.

53. S Jabrill Peppers, Michigan (2014-16)

Don Brown was an immediate hit as Michigan’s defensive coordinator, but he had a cheat code in Peppers, an early nickelback/outside linebacker prototype who recorded 13 TFLs and finished fifth in the Heisman voting in 2016.

52. DT John Henderson, Tennessee (1998-01)

One of the most intimidating players of the 2000s, Henderson was a 6-foot-7 tackle who lined up next to Albert Haynesworth and terrorized SEC offensive linemen. He won the Outland in 2000, then had to settle for merely being consensus All-American in 2001.

51. LB Scooby Wright III, Arizona (2013-15)

Injuries took away Wright’s final season (2015), but that was OK — there was no way he could have topped what he did in 2014, anyway. He recorded 31 TFLs and 15 sacks (among 164 total tackles) that season while leading Arizona to its lone Pac-12 South title.

50. DE Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (2007-10)

Before he became the Washington Football Team’s all-time sacks leader, Kerrigan improved steadily over four years in West Lafayette. From 2008 to ’10, he recorded 56 TFLs, 32.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles; he won the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year award in 2010.

49. DE Jerry Hughes, TCU (2006-09)

The personification of Gary Patterson’s speedy and fierce 4-2-5, Hughes led the nation in sacks with 15 in 2008, then posted another 11.5 in 2009 on his way to the Hendricks Award and back-to-back consensus All-America honors.

48. LB LaMarcus McDonald, TCU (1999-02)

Patterson’s early TCU teams weren’t quite as loaded from a talent perspective, but McDonald set the tone. The 217-pound missile came out of nowhere to record a school-record 25 TFLs as a junior in 2001, then broke it with 30 the next year.

47. S Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama (2015-17)

Bama had too many defensive stars to count between 2009 and 2017, a run that included five national titles and six No. 1 rankings in defensive SP+. Fitzpatrick stood out, averaging 5.5 TFLs, three INTs and eight breakups per season over three years.

46. CB Carlos Rogers, Auburn (2001-04)

A football, basketball and track star at Augusta (Georgia) Butler High, Rogers was a four-year starter at Auburn who picked off seven passes and broke up 40 more; he won the Thorpe Award in 2004 while leading the Tigers to an unbeaten record.

45. DE George Selvie, South Florida (2006-09)

USF surged to No. 2 in the polls midway through the unforgettable 2007 season. The Bulls eventually faded, but don’t blame Selvie, who finished the season with 31.5 TFLs and 14.5 sacks. For his career, he recorded a staggering 69 and 28.5, respectively.

44. DT Rodrique Wright, Texas (2002-05)

Wright checked every possible box. Disruptive? Absolutely: He took part in 42 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks and 67 QB hurries over four seasons. All over the field? That, too: He ranked third on the team with 80 tackles as a sophomore and took part in 227 overall.

43. CB Nathan Vasher, Texas (2000-03)

Let’s keep the Hook ‘Em theme going. Vasher wasn’t around for UT’s 2005 title breakthrough, but Vasher picked off 17 passes from 2001 to ’03 and technically earned All-America honors at two different positions: punt returner in 2001 and cornerback in 2003.

42. S Michael Huff, Texas (2002-05)

Huff did whatever was required of him over four years in Austin. Need a game-changing pick six? Huff had four of them. A blocked kick? He had three. A ball hawk? He defensed 51 total passes. A missile off the edge? He took part in 26 TFLs.

41. DE 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 pass-rusher, recording 37.5 sacks over four seasons and earning first-team All-America honors twice.

40. LB A.J. Hawk, Ohio State (2002-05)

Even at a school that has seemingly produced thousands of stud linebackers, Hawk stood out. He began his career helping the Buckeyes to the 2002 national title and finished it by winning the Lombardi Award and unanimous All-America honors.

39. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (2011-13)

One of the most hyped recruits in history, Clowney did his best to live up to his No. 1 ranking, especially during a sophomore breakout season that featured 23.5 TFLs, 13 sacks and one of the most famous hits in college football history.

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In 2013, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney knocked the helmet off Michigan’s Vincent Smith after a hard hit, causing a fumble that Clowney then recovered.

38. CB Desmond King, Iowa (2013-16)

A longtime Ball State commit, King flipped to the Hawkeyes late in the 2013 recruiting cycle and became an immediate star. Over four years, he picked off 14 passes, returned three for scores, broke up 33 more passes and won the Thorpe and Tatum awards in 2015.

37. DT Tommie Harris, Oklahoma (2001-03)

A two-time All-American, Harris was the center of gravity for some nasty Sooner defenses. He won the Lombardi in 2003, fighting off constant double-teams to record 10 TFLs before running a 4.68 40, at 295 pounds, at the NFL combine.

36. LB Roquan Smith, Georgia (2015-17)

Smith was the omnipresent superstar on a 2017 UGA team that came within one play of a national title. He recorded 14 TFLs and 6.5 sacks, and the fact that he was credited with only 137 tackles that year seems surprising; it felt like he made every single one.

35. CB Derrick Strait, Oklahoma (2000-03)

Strait was a four-year starter for Bob Stoops’ Sooners, winning a national title as a freshman (he had a key breakup in the title game) and vacuuming up the Nagurski and Thorpe Awards, not to mention unanimous All-America status, as a senior.

34. LB Patrick Willis, Ole Miss (2003-06)

Willis led the SEC in tackles in both 2005 and 2006, but he also recorded 21 TFLs, six sacks and eight passes defensed. A borderline three-star prospect, he turned into one of the century’s most decorated linebackers, earning CFB Hall of Fame induction in 2019.

33. DE Elvis Dumervil, Louisville (2002-05)

Standing only 5-foot-11, Dumervil was overlooked by major programs, but recorded 30.5 sacks in 2004-05 alone and won the Nagurski and Hendricks Awards as a senior. Then he did basically the same thing in the pros, going in the fourth round of the NFL draft but recording over 100 career sacks.

32. S Mike Doss, Ohio State (1999-02)

Maybe the perfect free safety. Doss started 40 games, earned All-America honors three times, combined eight INTs with six sacks, put out countless fires before they could start and earned defensive MVP honors in his final game: 2002’s BCS Championship win over Miami.

31. DT Ed Oliver, Houston (2016-18)

It was almost impossible for the blue-chipper to live up to expectations when he elected to play for the hometown Coogs. Damned if he didn’t do so: He recorded 53 TFLs, 13.5 sacks and 11 pass breakups in under three full seasons, winning the Outland Trophy in 2017.

30. LB Paul Posluszny, Penn State (2003-06)

Only Posluszny and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald have won the Bednarik Award, given to the nation’s top defender, twice. He won the Butkus Award as well, logged 100-plus tackles three times and combined 20.5 TFLs with seven pass breakups in 2005-06. He was everywhere.

29. DT Nick Fairley, Auburn (2009-10)

What Cam Newton was to the 2010 Auburn offense, Fairley nearly was to its defense. The junior exploded for 24 TFLs and 11.5 sacks — as a 290-pound tackle! — winning the Lombardi Award and giving the Tigers enough defensive firepower to allow Newton to win the game on O.

28. LB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame (2009-12)

Te’o made a staggering 374 tackles from 2010-12, 28.5 behind the line of scrimmage. He picked off seven passes in 2012 as well, finishing second in the Heisman voting while leading the Fighting Irish to their first BCS Championship Game. He, too, was everywhere.

27. LB Jarvis Jones, Georgia (2011-12)

A lit stick of dynamite, the USC transfer missed two games in 2012 but still led the country in tackles for loss (23.5), saving his best performances for the biggest moments: He had 4.5 TFLs against Florida and three in a heartbreaking SEC championship loss to Alabama.

26. DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M (2014-16)

Garrett was an immediate hit as a freshman — 12.5 TFLs, 11 sacks — and only got better from there. He made 34.5 TFLs, 20 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2015-16, earning unanimous All-America honors before going No. 1 in the 2017 NFL draft.

25. LB E.J. Henderson, Maryland (1999-02)

Maryland’s early-2000s turnaround under Ralph Friedgen was aided by having the surest tackler in the sport. Henderson made 135 solo tackles in 2002 and averaged 8.8 per game from 2000 to ’02; both remain NCAA records. He was inducted into the CFB Hall of Fame in 2020.

24. S Sean Taylor, Miami (2001-03)

Taylor stayed home to play for The U, immediately found rotation time on the Canes’ 2001 national title team, then starred in 2002-03. He had everything: track speed, fierce hitting ability and extreme ball-hawkery. He led the nation with 10 INTs in 2003 and took three back for TDs.

23. S Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin (2001-04)

A product of tiny Tony, Wisconsin, Leonhard walked on at UW and picked off 21 career passes — most of anyone this century — while also returning three punts for TDs. He embarked on a lengthy pro career before returning to UW and quickly becoming a star defensive coordinator.

22. DE Von Miller, Texas A&M (2007-10)

After a disappointing first couple of seasons in College Station, Miller put together two of the most explosive seasons of the century. In 2009-10, he recorded 39 TFLs and 27.5 sacks, earning All-America honors twice and winning the 2010 Butkus Award.

21. CB Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest (2005-08)

The best player on Wake Forest’s most successful team (the 2006 ACC title winner), Smith not only picked off 21 career passes and returned four for scores, he also recorded 23.5 TFLs and nine sacks — and a punt return score! He did everything for the Deacs.

20. DT Glenn Dorsey, LSU (2004-07)

After an All-America breakthrough in 2006, Dorsey became the face of LSU’s 2007 national title winner, sweeping the Lombardi, Outland and Nagurski trophies by recording 12.5 TFLs and seven sacks despite injuries and double-teams.

19. LB Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma (2000-03)

A 240-pounder with 4.4 speed, Lehman posted wild numbers from 2001 to ’03: 46 TFLs, six sacks, four interceptions (including one of the sport’s most famous pick sixes, which we’ll get to) and 14 pass breakups. Dynamite against the run but adept in coverage, he won the Butkus and Bednarik awards in 2003.

18. DE Jonathan Allen, Alabama (2013-16)

The most uniquely disruptive defensive lineman of the Saban era, Allen recorded 41.5 TFLs and 27.5 sacks from 2014-16. He was the best player on a defense that ranked No. 1 in defensive SP+ for three straight seasons, and he swept the Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik awards in 2016.

17. LB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (2005-08)

Laurinaitis recorded between 115-130 tackles, between 7-8.5 TFLs, between 3-4 sacks and between 2-5 INTs each year from 2006-08, earning consensus All-America honors each year and winning the Nagurski Trophy one year, the Butkus the next and the Ronnie Lott Trophy the next.

16. S Eric Berry, Tennessee (2007-09)

Berry went pro after three seasons, which made sense: He had almost literally nothing else to accomplish at UT. He picked off 14 career passes (three pick sixes) with 17.5 TFLs and won SEC freshman of the year in 2007, SEC defensive player of the year in 2008 and the Thorpe Award in 2009.

15. DE Chase Young, Ohio State (2017-19)

The former blue-chipper was good from the start, making five TFLs as a freshman backup. He came into his own as a sophomore (14.5 TFLs, 10.5 sacks, five pass breakups) before putting together one of the best pass-rushing seasons ever in 2019: 21 TFLs, 16.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, three breakups.

14. S Troy Polamalu, USC (1999-02)

Polamalu put the “strong” in “strong safety.” The famously hard hitter with the equally famous hair recorded 29 TFLs, six interceptions (three pick-sixes) and four blocked punts, fourth most this century. A College Football Hall of Famer, he was the heart and soul of Pete Carroll’s breakthrough 2002 squad.

13. CB Terence Newman, Kansas State (1999-02)

One of the scariest return men ever — 26.1 yards per kick return, 15.4 per punt return, four total TDs — Newman’s coverage skills eventually caught up to his return skills. He picked off eight passes, with 31 breakups, in 2001-02, winning the Thorpe Award and unanimous All-America honors as a senior.

12. LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College (2009-11)

The ultimate tackling machine, Kuechly averaged 14.1 tackles per game in 2010, eighth-most all-time. Then he averaged 15.9 in 2011, first. He made 35.5 career stops behind the line and somehow also found time to pick off seven passes, returning two for scores. No one has ever loved tackling more than this guy.

11. DE Dwight Freeney, Syracuse (1998-01)

His résumé speaks for itself: 34 career sacks, 17 straight games with at least one, not to mention seven Pro Bowl appearances and 125 career pro sacks. But really, all you need to know about Dwight Freeney is this: In 2000, he sacked Michael Vick 4.5 times in one game. Michael Vick! 4.5 times!

10. LB Derrick Johnson, Texas (2001-04)

A 245-pound speedster, Johnson was consistently brilliant. He not only recorded more tackles for loss than any power conference linebacker this century (65), but he had double-digits in each of his four seasons. He also forced 11 fumbles, picked off nine passes and broke up 30 more. And then he did the same thing in the pros for more than a decade.

9. DE Julius Peppers, North Carolina (1999-01)

A 6-foot-6, 270-pound force of nature, Peppers exploded for an NCAA-best 15 sacks as a sophomore, then won the Bednarik and Lombardi awards as a junior. He was also a role player on UNC’s 2000 Final Four team and scored 20 points in an NCAA tournament game in 2001. That’s — quite frankly — unfair.

8. CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (2010-11)

As a freshman cornerback, Mathieu carved out an attacking niche with 8.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. As a sophomore he officially became the Honey Badger, the face of one of the nastiest secondaries in college football history. He was everywhere, combining 7.5 TFLs with two picks, 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 nasty secondary. It wasn’t enough to combine 35 TFLs and nine sacks with nine INTs and 49 breakups in just three seasons — a great linebacking career and safety career in one.

No, Roy Williams also had to become Superman.

6. DE David Pollack, Georgia (2001-04)

One nondescript year into his career, one would have never known was to come. But Pollack began his sophomore season with one of the most famous plays in school history — his in-one-motion strip sack and touchdown against South Carolina — and proceeded to live up to that standard in every following game.

By the end of his career, he had recorded 59 TFLs and 36 sacks. And in 2020, he became a CFB Hall of Famer as well.

5. DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh (2010-13)

Like Pollack, Donald’s career began in nondescript fashion — the three-star freshman was a backup who made 11 tackles in 2010. But then he made 16 TFLs as a sophomore … and 18.5 as a junior … and 28.5 as a senior. He won the Nagurski, Bednarik, Outland and Lombardi awards in 2013, and that didn’t feel like enough hardware.

That he fell to the 13th pick in the 2014 draft completely befuddled college football fans. That he became the best defensive player in the NFL, however, did not.

4. LB Khalil Mack, Buffalo (2010-13)

The thought of future NFL defensive player of the year Khalil Mack playing against mostly MAC opposition is unfair. So is his stat line: 75 tackles for loss (most in FBS’ recorded history), 28.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, four interceptions, two blocked kicks, etc.

His most ridiculous feat of athleticism, however, might have been a sack he didn’t make in practice.

“I just remember stepping up in the pocket and feeling pressure. I got the ball off, but I just remember feeling uncomfortable in the pocket. I go back and I watch the film, and I’m watching it with one of our other quarterbacks in the film room scrolling through, and I noticed that Khalil was one-on-one with our tackle who was 315 pounds, and he one-arm jacked him. He went flying in the air, and he was about to hit me. … As the guy is in midair, Khalil grabs him with one hand and puts him back on the ground, and I threw the football.

“He was a couple rooms over in the linebacker room, and I called him in and was like, ‘What is this!?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I just didn’t want him to hit you.'”

3. DE Terrell Suggs, Arizona State (2000-02)

A Parade All-American from nearby Chandler, Suggs was a star from the start, recording 34 tackles for loss and 20 sacks in his first two seasons in Tempe. His junior season might have been the best we’ve ever seen from a collegiate defensive end, however: 31 tackles for loss and 24 sacks. No one else this century has topped 20 sacks.

That he went on to finish in the top-10 in career NFL sacks surprised absolutely no one who saw him terrorizing poor Pac-12 QBs a couple of decades ago.

2. S Ed Reed, Miami (1998-01)

It’s staggering to think that Roy Williams might not have even been the best safety of the turn of the century, but it goes without saying that Reed’s got a heck of a case. The self-professed “two-star recruit” and pride of Destrehan, Louisiana, was used in countless ways during his four years as a starter. He was deployed as a linebacker in 1999, logging 13 TFLs and five sacks. Then, he became the best ball hawk in the country, picking off 17 passes and breaking up 35 more in 2000-01.

And yes, he took four of those interceptions back for touchdowns. He was Ed Reed, after all.

1. DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2006-09)

Like Suggs, Suh had already lived up to most of his blue-chip hype by the time his final season in Lincoln rolled around. The Portland, Oregon, native had already posted 29 TFLs and 12 sacks, and in 2008 he had taken a pair of interceptions back for touchdowns too. All good things!

The college football world was still completely unprepared for the havoc he would unleash in 2009. Despite double- and sometimes triple-teams, despite offensive game plans designed totally around avoiding him, Suh made 20.5 TFLs and 12 sacks. Head coach Bo Pelini used a dime as his base defense — since Suh counted as about three defenders, Nebraska could basically create a fierce pass rush with four players and swarm to the ball with the other seven.

Suh dominated in every way imaginable. He batted down four passes against Virginia Tech. He drew four holding penalties while recording a sack, an interception and a forced fumble against Missouri. He blocked two kicks against Iowa State, then blocked another against Oklahoma. And in the Big 12 championship game against Texas, he put together an all-time performance, recording seven tackles for loss and sacking Texas’ Colt McCoy 4.5 times.

He won virtually every defensive award available to him, and no offense to Mark Ingram, Toby Gerhart or McCoy, but it was an absolute crime that he finished fourth in the Heisman voting. His 2009 season was maybe the most dominant we’ve ever seen from a player of any position, and he was the scariest defender this sport has seen in a century full of them.

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