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.)
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.
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.