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Top 25 ACC Players Since 2000

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Dave Holcomb shares his top 25 ACC players from the last 20 years.

Here at Southern Pigskin, I am continuing my celebration of recent college football history, looking into the best from the ACC over the last 20 years.

We’ve already taken a look at the Top 20 offensive and defensive players, but I thought it would be fun to now combine the two lists and decide who are the best 25 overall players since 2000.

Without further ado, here is that list:

25. Russell Wilson, N.C. State -- Wilson became the first freshman in ACC history to earn first-team All-ACC honors in 2008. Two years later, he finished just shy of winning the ACC Player of the Year award, ending the year as the runner-up. Wilson transferred to Wisconsin and left N.C. State with 8,545 passing yards, 76 touchdowns and 26 interceptions.

24. C.J. Spiller, Clemson -- A two-time first-team All-ACC member, Spiller was one of the most versatile running backs of his era. He finished his career with nearly 5,000 yards from scrimmage and 43 touchdowns. As a senior, he posted 1,212 rushing yards and 1,715 yards from scrimmage with 16 touchdowns on his way to becoming a unanimous All-American.

23. Heath Miller, Virginia -- A two-time All-ACC player, Miller starred immediately with the Cavaliers, making the first-team freshman All-American team in 2002. His best statistical year came when he was a sophomore, but as a junior, Miller earned unanimous first-team All-American honors and won the John Mackey award as the best tight end in the nation. Miller also played 11 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers and won two Super Bowls.

22. Isaiah Simmons, Clemson -- Playing both safety and linebacker, Simmons displayed tremendous versatility at Clemson. He won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year with 104 total tackles, 8.0 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions in 2019. Furthermore, he won the Butkus award and became a unanimous All-American. The Arizona Cardinals picked Simmons eighth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.

21. Matt Ryan, Boston College -- Taking over the starting role as a sophomore during Boston College’s first ACC season, Ryan posted 9,313 passing yards and 56 touchdowns in his career. During his senior season, Ryan became a first-team All-American and won the ACC Player of the Year award, Manning Award and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.

20. Bradley Chubb, N.C. State -- Chubb won multiple awards as a senior in 2017, including ACC Defensive Player of the Year, but he was hardly a one-hit wonder. Chubb posted 54.5 tackles for loss in four seasons and became the all-time leader in sacks at N.C. State. In 2017, he became a unanimous first-team All-American and won the Ted Hendricks award along with the Bronko Nagurski trophy.

19. Vic Beasley, Clemson -- The 2016 NFL All-Pro’s decision to return to Clemson for his senior season landed him on this list. After becoming an All-American as a junior, Beasley did it again in 2014 and won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award. He also broke the school’s all-time sacks record during his senior year.

18. Sammy Watkins, Clemson -- Watkins had a very interesting career, as he had an average sophomore campaign sandwiched between two All-American seasons. He became just the fourth-ever player to become an All-American as a true freshman, and he recorded two seasons with 12 touchdowns. Watkins ended his career with 3,391 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns in 36 games.

17. D’Qwell Jackson, Maryland  -- A two-time first-team All-American in 2004 and 2005, Jackson makes this list despite Maryland now residing in the Big Ten. He won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award as a senior in 2005 and then became a second-round pick for the Cleveland Browns the following spring.

16. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Virginia -- Starting 49 games for the Cavaliers, Ferguson became a first-team All-ACC member as a junior and then made the team again, along with becoming a consensus All-American, during his senior year. In the 2006 NFL Draft, the New York Jets selected Ferguson fourth overall.

15. Aaron Donald, Pitt -- Despite only one ACC season, Donald is a Top 15 ACC player since 2000 because of how much he dominated in 2013. As a senior during Pitt’s first season in the conference, Donald won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Chuck Bendarik award, Lombardi award, Outland trophy and Bronko Nagurski trophy along with becoming a unanimous All-American. Donald posted 29.5 sacks in his college career and went on to become one of just eight players to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award twice.

14. Dalvin Cook, Florida State -- Finishing both first and second in single-season rushing yards in Florida State history, Cook amassed a pair of 1,600-yard rushing seasons in 2015 and 2016, earning first-team All-ACC and All-American honors in both years. Cook finished first with 4,464 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns in Florida State history.

13. Chris Long, Virginia -- Before becoming the No. 2 pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Long recorded 14.0 sacks and 19.0 tackles for loss while earning unanimous All-American honors along with the Ted Hendricks award and Dundley award in 2007. Long made second-team All-ACC in 2006 and first-team All-ACC in 2007.

12. Clelin Ferrell, Clemson -- This list could have had multiple members from the 2018 Clemson defensive line, but Ferrell is the lone representative from that tremendous group. Ferrell absolutely dominated, posting 27.0 sacks and 50.5 tackles for loss in three seasons. He won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award and the Ted Hendricks award while becoming a first-team All-American in 2018. Ferrell was also an All-American in 2017.

11. Travis Etienne, Clemson -- The two-time ACC Player of the Year may be the most efficient offensive weapon in college football over the last 20 years. Etienne has averaged 7.8 yards per carry over his entire career and recorded two straight campaigns with more than 1,600 rushing yards. He’ll be back this fall as well to add to his already ACC record 56 career rushing touchdowns.

10. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State -- Ramsey starred for three years at Florida State. First, he became the first true freshman since Deion Sanders to start at cornerback for the Seminoles in 2013. Then he became a first-team All-ACC member in 2014 and a first-team All-American in 2015.

9. Philip Rivers, N.C. State -- Rivers holds such an important place in N.C. State football history that the program retired his number prior to his final home game. The last time the Wolfpack won at least 10 games was Rivers’ junior season in 2002. As a senior, he earned first-team All-ACC and won the ACC Player of the Year award. Rivers finished his career with 13,484 passing yards and 95 touchdowns.

8. Chris Weinke, Florida State -- Some might find it unusual to rank Weinke this high since he only played one season in the 21st Century, but a Heisman Trophy will get just about any player into the Top 10 on any list. Weinke posted 4,167 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a senior in 2000 to win the most coveted college football award. He also won the ACC Player of the Year, Johnny Unitas award and Davey O’Brien award the same season.

7. Luke Kuechly, Boston College -- The recently-retired Carolina Panthers linebacker may be only at No. 7 on our list, but he could easily be in the Top 5 with a lot of the players upcoming interchangeable with him. Kuechly was first-team All-ACC three times, won the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2009 and captured the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2011. Kuechly also became a first-team All-American in 2010 and 2011 while winning the Butkus award, Lombardi award, Lott trophy and Bronko Nagurski trophy in his final season as well.

6. E.J. Henderson, Maryland -- With Henderson, Maryland earns its second spot on our list, which may be very disappointing to Miami, Virginia Tech and some of the other schools with zero representatives on the list, but there’s no denying Henderson belongs. 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.

5. Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech -- “Megatron” left Georgia Tech as one of the most decorated wide receivers in ACC history. Johnson made first-team All-ACC in all three of his seasons and was first-team All-American in 2005 and 2006. As a junior, he won ACC Player of the year and the Biletnikoff award as the best receiver in the country. Johnson ended his tenure with the Yellow Jackets with 2,927 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns.

4. Julius Peppers, North Carolina -- Peppers is our top non-quarterback player from the ACC since 2000. He began his career in 1998 but emerged as a star in 2000 with 15 sacks while making first-team All-ACC. In 2001, Peppers became an All-American and also won the Chuck Bednarik award, Lombardi award and Bill Willis trophy.

3. Lamar Jackson, Louisville -- Jackson quickly became a superstar after a rout over Florida State in September 2016 and cruised to the Heisman Trophy. With 5,114 total yards and 51 total touchdowns, Jackson also won the Maxwell award, Walter Camp award, and Bert Bell award along with becoming a unanimous All-American in 2016. He mostly repeated his statistics in 2017 to win the ACC Player of the Year award for a second straight season. After becoming a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Jackson won the NFL MVP award last fall.

2. Jameis Winston, Florida State -- In two seasons as a starter, Winston never lost a regular season game. He also went 3-1 in bowl or championship games, suffering his only loss in college against Oregon in the 2015 Rose Bowl. As a redshirt freshman, Winston led Florida State to a 13-0 record and BCS National Championship while posting 4,057 passing yards and 40 touchdowns. In 2013, he won the Heisman Trophy and plethora of other accolades, including the Walter Camp, Manning and Davey O’Brien awards.

1. Deshaun Watson, Clemson -- Truthfully, the top three quarterbacks on this list are largely interchangeable and can be ranked in a different order based on various priorities. But Watson falls at No. 1 on this list because of his importance in Clemson’s budding dynasty. Before Watson, Clemson was a great program, but one that hadn’t won a national championship since 1981. Thanks in large part to his heroics in the 2016 National Championship Game, Clemson is now perhaps the top program in the country. Watson recorded a pair of 4,000-yard passing seasons with 96 total touchdowns in 2015 and 2016. During both seasons, Watson led the Tigers to the National Championship, winning one and losing the other. Watson didn’t win the Heisman Trophy, but he was a finalist twice and the runner-up in 2016. He also earned the ACC Player of the Year award and multiple other accolades, including the Manning award and Davey O’Brien award each twice. Watson left Clemson with 10,168 passing yards and 116 total touchdowns.