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Top 20 ACC Defensive Players the Last 20 Years

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb shares his top 20 ACC defensive players from the last 20 years.

The ACC is almost 70 years old and yet it’s still one of the younger Power 5 conferences in college football. But in recent history, the ACC has provided fans some incredible defensive stars to follow. I have already released the best ACC offensive players, so now it’s time to do the same for the defense.

Without further ado, here are the top 20 ACC defensive players since 2000:

20. Juan Thornhill, Virginia -- Although he wasn’t on the 2019 team, Thornhill was an intricate part of the Cavaliers program which just broke through with its first ACC Coastal championship. Thornhill posted 13 interceptions and 12.0 tackles for loss during a four-year career. He made first-team All-ACC in 2018 and won the Super Bowl as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs last season.

19. Jimmy Williams, Virginia Tech -- Playing half his career in the Big East and the second half in the ACC, Williams had his two best seasons in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He intercepted five passes as a junior, returning one for a touchdown, and then became a unanimous All-American during his senior season in 2005.

18. Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest -- A two-time All-ACC player, Smith recorded 21 interceptions and 9.0 sacks during his college career. He had eight interceptions as a junior and returned three of them for touchdowns in 2007. Then in 2008, Smith became a consensus All-American defensive back.

17. Antrel Rolle, Miami -- Playing for the Hurricanes during their first ACC season, Rolle made first-team All-ACC and became a unanimous All-American in 2004. He also made first-team All-Big East in 2002 and went on to win a Super Bowl with the New York Giants.

16. Mario Williams, N.C. State -- Becoming the first ACC player to go No. 1 in the NFL draft, Williams earned two first-team All-ACC nominations. He was also a freshman All-American in 2004 and a Sports Illustrated All-American during 2005. In his final season, he posted 14.5 sacks and 24.0 tackles for loss.

15. Gaines Adams, Clemson -- An eventual Top 5 pick in the NFL draft, the late Adams broke out with 8.0 sacks as a sophomore in 2004. He reportedly considered departing for the NFL during the spring of 2005, but he ended up staying in school, recording 21.0 sacks combined during his junior and senior seasons. As a senior in 2006, Adams became first-team All-ACC, a unanimous All-American and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

14. Aaron Curry, Wake Forest -- Curry racked up 331 total tackles in his college career, including 44.5 tackles for loss and 204 total tackles in his final two seasons. In 2008, Curry became a first-team All-American with 105 tackles, 16.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception. He also won the Butkus award that season before becoming the No. 4 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

13. DeMarcus Walker, Florida State -- A part of the final BCS national champion in 2013, Walker became one of the top defensive ends in the country. As a senior, he posted 16.0 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss on his way to first-team All-ACC and consensus All-American. He was also an ACC co-Defensive Player of the Year. Walker finished his career with 27.0 sacks and 41.5 tackles for loss.

12. Da’Quan Bowers, Clemson -- Bowers turned in two solid seasons to begin his college career, but he exploded as a junior, as he led the nation with 15.5 sacks and 26.0 tackles for loss. He earned first-team All-ACC and unanimous All-American honors in 2010 along with the 2010 ACC Defensive Player of the Year award, the Ted Hendricks award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.

11. Isaiah Simmons, Clemson -- The No. 8 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Simmons showcased his versatility in college by starring at both safety and linebacker. In 2019, he won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award with 104 total tackles, 8.0 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions. He also became a unanimous All-American and won the Butkus award last season on top of winning the national championship in 2018.

10. Bradley Chubb, N.C. State -- All of his accolades came during his senior season in 2017, but Chubb put together a tremendous four-year career with the Wolf Pack. He posted 10.0 sacks in each of his final two seasons and 54.5 tackles for loss in his career. In 2017, he became a unanimous first-team All-American and won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award. During the same season, Chubb also won the Ted Hendricks award and the Bronko Nagurski trophy.

9. Vic Beasley, Clemson -- Beasley elected to return for his senior season rather than enter the 2014 NFL Draft. As a result, he landed in the Top 10 of our list. A two-time All-American in 2013 and 2014, Beasley broke the all-time sacks record at Clemson during his senior season. He also won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in his final year during 2014.

8. D’Qwell Jackson, Maryland -- As a two-time first-team All-American in 2004 and 2005, Jackson had to be in the Top 10 despite going to a school no longer in the ACC. He won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award during his senior year. He became a second-round pick for the Cleveland Browns in 2006.

7. Aaron Donald, Pitt -- He only played in the ACC for one season, but in 2013, Donald won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Chuck Bednarik award, Lombardi award, Outland trophy and Bronko Nagurski trophy while becoming a unanimous All-American. Donald posted 29.5 sacks and 66.0 tackles for loss in his career and made first-team All-Big East in 2012.

6. Chris Long, Virginia -- Long edges Donald because his entire career occurred in the ACC, where he was a second-team All-ACC player in 2006 and first-team All-ACC member in 2007. Long also became a unanimous All-American, along with a Ted Hendricks award and Dundley award winner during 2007. He posted 14.0 sacks and 19.0 tackles for loss during his final season.

5. Clelin Ferrell, Clemson -- All four members of the 2018 Clemson defensive line had an argument to make this list. Ferrell represents all of them, occupying a spot in the Top 5. Ferrell had plenty of help, but he dominated with 27.0 sacks and 50.5 tackles for loss in three seasons. He was first-team All-ACC and first-team All-American in 2017 and 2018. During his final season of 2018, Ferrell also won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award and the Ted Hendricks award.

4. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State -- The first true freshman to start a game at cornerback for the Seminoles since Deion Sanders, Ramsey helped Florida State win the BCS national championship in 2013. In 2014, he became first-team All-ACC and second-team All-American while leading Florida State to the first College Football Playoffs. Ramsey earned first-team All-ACC again and was first-team All-American in 2015.

3. Luke Kuechly, Boston College -- Kuechly is one of the most decorated defensive players in ACC history. He earned a spot on first-team All-ACC three times, winning the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2009 and ACC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2011. With 532 career total tackles, Kuechly was first-team All-American in 2010 and 2011. Also in 2011, Kuechly won the Butkus award, Lombardi award, Lott trophy and Bronko Nagurski trophy.

2. E.J. Henderson, Maryland -- The ACC schools without a representative on this list will probably be disappointed to see Maryland occupying two spots in the Top 10, but like Jackson, there’s no denying Henderson’s accomplishments. He was a consensus All-American twice and won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2001 and 2002. Henderson took home the Chuck Bednarik award and Butkus award in 2001 as well.

1. Julius Peppers, North Carolina -- His college career began in 1998, but Peppers dominated in 2000 and 2001 to become the top player on our list. He led the nation with 15 sacks as a sophomore in 2000 on his way to first-team All-ACC and second-team All-ACC honors. As a junior, Peppers earned a spot unanimously as an All-American while winning the Chuck Bednarik and Lombardi awards along with the Bill Willis trophy.