Most Unstoppable Defensive College Football Players Since 2000

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2017

Most Unstoppable Defensive College Football Players Since 2000

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    Ndamukong Suh was tough to stop while at Nebraska.
    Ndamukong Suh was tough to stop while at Nebraska.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Over the last two decades, college football has trended toward the offensive side of the field, with potent offenses and high-flying schemes putting up big point and yardage totals.

    They're fun to watch, but that only makes elite defenders more important. If you have players who can shut down opposing offenses, it's a major plus for your team and a huge premium.

    Those players are still out there, and they are vital to sustained success in today's game.

    We took a look at the last 17 years and picked out the most unstoppable college football defenders since 2000. Players were judged for the stats that they put up (sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions) as well as their performance in important moments. Here are the most unstoppable defenders since 2000.

10. Ole Miss LB Patrick Willis

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    Patrick Willis had a special career at Ole Miss.
    Patrick Willis had a special career at Ole Miss.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    What made him dominant

    Unless you're a hardcore college football fan, you probably don't remember much about Ole Miss football from 2004 to 2006.

    The Rebels were, to be charitable, not very good. They didn't make a bowl game, with their high-water mark a 4-7 record in 2004. But they had one of the game's best players in linebacker Patrick Willis. He was a hard-hitting, durable 'backer who gave his all on every single play and was very productive.

    As a junior, he made 128 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. As a senior, he was even more productive, making 137 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, seven passes deflected, three sacks and two forced fumbles.

    He was a consensus first-team All-American and won the Lambert Award and Butkus Award, as well as SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

                  

    Defining moment

    The Egg Bowl isn't always a big deal outside the state of Mississippi's borders, but to Ole Miss and Mississippi State fans, it's the Super Bowl and then some. For Ole Miss in 2006, this was especially true. The Rebels entered the regular-season finale against the Bulldogs with a 3-8 record and no hope of a bowl.

    In his collegiate finale, Willis played to his typical high level and went out with a bang. The Rebels took a 20-17 win, and he finished with 13 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack. It was a perfect ending for an under-the-radar great career.

             

    Why he's here

    Willis never got a lot of run on the national radar due to the poor quality of his teams, but he was highly productive and tough, making a difference in every game he played in as a star and a cornerstone of Ole Miss' roster.

9. Miami S Sean Taylor

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    Sean Taylor had a knack for big plays during his time at Miami.
    Sean Taylor had a knack for big plays during his time at Miami.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    What made him dominant

    The late Sean Taylor spent three seasons at Miami and proved himself as a more-than-worthy successor to Ed Reed in the Hurricanes secondary.

    Taylor stepped into the starting lineup in 2002 as a sophomore as a starting safety, making 85 tackles with four interceptions and returning a punt 78 yards for a touchdown against Pittsburgh.

    Taylor showed his full potential as a junior. He made 77 tackles and tied for the first in the nation with 10 interceptions, making an interception in four consecutive games. He was named as Big East Defensive Player of the Year and as a consensus All-American. His ball skills and instincts, as well as his tackling ability, were very impressive.

                

    Defining moment

    Taylor flashed his big-play ability as a junior in 2003. Of his 10 picks, he returned three for touchdowns, finishing second in Miami history behind Reed's five.

                  

    Why he's here

    Taylor made the most of his time at Miami with impact plays. His ability and timely nature, as well as his athleticism, will never be forgotten when it comes to the Hurricanes program.

8. North Carolina DE Julius Peppers

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    Julius Peppers made a number of big plays on the gridiron for North Carolina.
    Julius Peppers made a number of big plays on the gridiron for North Carolina.Craig Jones/Getty Images

    What made him dominant

    Julius Peppers played only three seasons at North Carolina, but he made them count. The 6'7" defensive end redshirted as a freshman and truly made a name for himself as a sophomore in 2000. He finished with 15 sacks and 24 tackles for loss, earning first-team All-ACC and second-team All-America honors.

    As a junior, he made 63 tackles, 9.5 sacks and three interceptions, returning one interception for a touchdown, earning unanimous All-America honors while winning the Lombardi and Bednarik Awards.

    Peppers' size, speed and athleticism (he moonlighted on the North Carolina men's basketball team) made him incredibly difficult for opposing offensive linemen to stop.

                   

    Defining moment

    North Carolina is hardly known for its football prowess overall, but Peppers did his best to give the Tar Heels a strong finish to his career. Sitting at 5-5, the Heels defeated Duke, SMU and Auburn (in the Peach Bowl). The Heels defense, led by Peppers, played a huge role. SMU and Auburn combined to score just 20 points.

                 

    Why he's here

    Peppers racked up 30.5 sacks in his North Carolina career and did so with power and agility. He was a handful for any offensive line he encountered and helped an average Tar Heels program reach most of its potential in the early 2000s.

7. Syracuse DE Dwight Freeney

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    Dwight Freeney made big impacts in opponents' backfields at Syracuse.
    Dwight Freeney made big impacts in opponents' backfields at Syracuse.AL BEHRMAN/Associated Press

    What made him dominant

    Dwight Freeney has put together an excellent NFL career, and it was obvious to anyone who watched him at Syracuse that he could be an impact player.

    He played only two seasons in Orange, but they were impressive. As a junior, Freeney played only seven games, missing the final four games due to illness, but still managed to rack up 13 sacks, leading the Big East.

    He played a full 11-game season as a senior and showed Orange fans what they missed. Freeney had 50 tackles, 17.5 sacks and forced eight fumbles, setting an NCAA single-season record for most fumbles forced and recovered with 11. His 17.5 sacks set (at the time) NCAA, Big East and Syracuse single-season records.

    Freeney played only one full season as a starter, but the numbers he put up and the ferocity of his hits make him a Syracuse and college football legend.

                 

    Defining moment

    The 2001 Syracuse team lost its first two games to Top 10 opponents, but it managed to put together an eight-game winning streak.

    The eighth win, a 24-13 win over West Virginia, showcased Freeney's skills. He had seven tackles (five solo, four for loss), two sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. In short, he was a handful for the Mountaineers to stop.

                        

    Why he's here

    Freeney's numbers as a senior are highly impressive. He played with speed and elusiveness that translated to the professional level. That doesn't matter here, but he was a true impact player for a 10-win Syracuse team in 2001 and a special talent.

6. Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o

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    Manti Te'o was consistently productive for Notre Dame's defense.
    Manti Te'o was consistently productive for Notre Dame's defense.JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

    What made him dominant

    Manti Te'o's Notre Dame career might be best remembered for the bizarre catfishing incident that revealed his cancer-stricken girlfriend never existed, but that overshadows his excellent play on the field. He was consistently great for a Fighting Irish team that reached the national title game in 2013 but fell to Alabama.

    As a sophomore, the 6'2", 255-pound linebacker made 133 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. He was just as impressive as a junior, making 128 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He added another dimension to his game as a senior, making 113 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and seven interceptions for an Irish group that finished the regular season 12-0.

    He was a two-time All-American and won the 2012 Lott Trophy, the Maxwell Award, the Nagurski Trophy, the Butkus Award, the Lombardi Award and the Walter Camp Award. He was runner-up for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.

    Te'o was a versatile, powerful player who was an excellent tackler, very good in coverage and a huge force on Notre Dame's defense.

                 

    Defining moment

    Notre Dame was 7-0 and pushing to make a 2013 BCS title game appearance going into a huge road game at No. 8 Oklahoma on Oct. 27. Te'o played all over the field, making 11 tackles, a sack and an interception that helped clinch a 30-13 victory.

    The Irish made the national title game, and Te'o played a huge role in the team's road to the BCS.

                    

    Why he's here

    Te'o made 437 career tackles for Notre Dame and was a steady force in the Irish's 2012 resurgence from back-to-back 8-5 seasons. He was a known quantity but still put together three consecutive 100-tackle seasons, a feat that can't be ignored.

5. LSU DT Glenn Dorsey

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    Glenn Dorsey ended his LSU career in perfect fashion.
    Glenn Dorsey ended his LSU career in perfect fashion.Rob Carr/Associated Press

    What made him dominant

    Glenn Dorsey had to wait his turn for a full-time role on LSU's deep defensive line, but once the 6'2", 303-pound defensive tackle got his chance, he made the most of it.

    Dorsey emerged as a starter as a junior in 2006, and he put together an impact season at defensive tackle, making 64 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

    He fought through double-teams and served as an anchor of an excellent run defense that allowed 97.1 yards per game.

    As a senior, he was even better. Dorsey continued to face double- and even triple-teams but made 69 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He won the Outland Trophy, Lott Trophy, Lombardi Award and Nagurski Award, the first college player to win all four awards in the same season.

    Dorsey played a huge role in LSU's run to the 2008 national championship, putting up big numbers despite being a centerpiece of opponents' game plans. That defines dominance.

                    

    Defining moment

    LSU needed a big effort from Dorseybattling through tailbone and knee injuriesin the 2008 BCS National Championship, and the Tigers got it. He made five tackles, a sack and forced a fumble as LSU beat Ohio State 38-24.

                    

    Why he's here

    Dorsey was a powerful, immovable force on LSU's defensive line. His overall numbers don't match up to some players, but he didn't become a full-time starter until his junior season and faced constant double-teams that only minimally slowed him down. That effort gives him a spot on this list.

4. Miami S Ed Reed

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    Ed Reed was a tremendous playmaker for Miami's great 2001 team.
    Ed Reed was a tremendous playmaker for Miami's great 2001 team.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    What made him dominant

    The 2001 Miami football team has been recognized as one of the greatest of all time, with 38 NFL draft picks. One of its cornerstones was safety Ed Reed.

    A tremendous athlete who excelled at track and field as well as football, Reed had speed, agility, great hitting and excellent instincts.

    As a junior in 2000, Reed made 80 tackles and eight interceptions, defending 23 passes. As a senior, his tackles dropped to 44, but he made nine interceptions and still defended 18 passes. He finished his career with 21 interceptions, 389 interception return yards and five interception returns for touchdowns.

    Reed was a consensus All-American as a junior and senior and helped lead Miami to the 2002 BCS National Championship as a senior, dominating Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.

                           

    Defining moment

    The 2001 Miami side was one of college football's all-time great teams, but the Hurricanes were pushed hard by Boston College. With less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter, Miami led 12-7 but BC was at the 'Canes' 9 and driving. Quarterback Brian St. Pierre's pass was deflected off cornerback Mike Rumph's leg at the 2 and into the hands of defensive end Matt Walters.

    At the 20, Reed grabbed the ball from a faltering Walters and sprinted 80 yards for the game-clinching touchdown in an 18-7 win. It was unorthodox, but it worked in the end.

                       

    Why he's here

    Reed made big plays all over the field for one of the best defenses to grace a college football field. At 6'0", 198 pounds, he wasn't the biggest player, but he consistently made big plays happen and established himself as one of the great safeties in recent memory with game-breaking ability.

3. South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney

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    Jadeveon Clowney was one of the most powerful defensive ends to come through the SEC in recent memory.
    Jadeveon Clowney was one of the most powerful defensive ends to come through the SEC in recent memory.John Raoux/Associated Press

    What made him dominant

    Jadeveon Clowney entered South Carolina with major hype as the nation's top overall recruit, according to Rivals, and more than lived up to it in three seasons on campus.

    As a freshman, the defensive end put up 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks and was the SEC Freshman of the Year. He broke out in a huge way as a sophomore. Clowney had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss (both South Carolina records) and was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and winner of the Ted Hendricks Award, given to the nation's top defensive end.

    Clowney blended power and speed and was, at times, completely unblockable with a 6'5", 266-pound frame. Just ask Clemson's offensive line, which gave up a school-record 4.5 sacks to him in a Gamecock win in Memorial Stadium.

    While nagging injuries and double-teams limited his production as a junior (11.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks) he still repeated as an All-American before becoming the top overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

                           

    Defining moment

    His is obvious. In the Outback Bowl following his sophomore season, Clowney was left totally unblocked and rushed into the backfield, slamming into Michigan running back Vincent Smith so hard that Smith's helmet flew off behind him. Clowney grabbed the fumble as well, which was a turning point in the Gamecocks' 33-28 win. The hit won Clowney an ESPY for "Best Play" and is the most memorable of his college career.

                      

    Why he's here

    Clowney's college career ended in sometimes inconsistent fashion, but there's no denying his overall impact at his peak and his pair of All-America selections. He was a monster for opposing offensive tackles to stop and earned a reputation as one of the game's most unstoppable defenders.

2. Arizona State DE Terrell Suggs

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    Terrell Suggs was essentially unblockable at Arizona State.
    Terrell Suggs was essentially unblockable at Arizona State.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    What made him dominant

    Terrell Suggs played three seasons at Arizona State, and the defensive end made the most of them.

    Suggs finished with an eye-popping 44 sacks in three seasons, and after putting up a combined 20 sacks and 34 tackles for loss as a freshman and sophomore, he took his game to another level as a junior in 2002.

    He piled up 24 sacks, setting an FBS record, and also racked up 31.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles, winning the Outland Trophy, Hendricks Award, Lombardi Award and Nagurski Award. Suggs had an unstoppable first step and put together the stat line to go with it.

                      

    Defining moment

    Suggs had an amazing 2002 season, but his finest moment came against Washingtonand gave him a share of the NCAA sack record.

    He sacked Husky quarterback Cody Pickett 4.5 times, giving him a share of the FBS single-game record held by Syracuse's Dwight Freeney. He added 6.5 more sacks over ASU's final five games to finish with 24 on the season, a record that still stands.

                   

    Why he's here

    Suggs is one of the most productive defensive ends to come out of college football in the past two decades, with speed and power and an impressive stat line. He has backed up those numbers during a productive pro career with the Baltimore Ravens, but those who watched him at Arizona State knew exactly what the NFL team were getting.

1. Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh

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    Ndamukong Suh was nearly impossible for offensive linemen to stop at Nebraska.
    Ndamukong Suh was nearly impossible for offensive linemen to stop at Nebraska.Amy Gutierrez/Associated Press

    What made him dominant

    If you're putting together a list of the most impressive defensive players in recent memory, you don't have to go far before getting to Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

    The 6'4", 300-pound DT put up huge numbers and consistently improved throughout his Cornhusker career as a powerful, nasty force in the trenches.

    As a junior, Suh emerged as a star with 76 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors. His decision to return as a senior in 2009 was smart. He was even better, making 93 tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.

    Suh was a unanimous first-team All-American, earning the Lombardi Award, the Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award. He was also a Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing tied for fourth. In short, Suh was special at Nebraska.

                            

    Defining moment

    Although Nebraska lost the 2009 Big 12 title game in controversial fashion, falling 13-12 to Texas after the Longhorns hit a field goal when one second was added to the clock following replay review, it was not Suh's fault. At all. He put together a superhuman effort, making 12 tackles, 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss.

    On a national stage, Suh was at his powerful best.

                       

    Why he's here

    Suh has a unique blend of power, size, speed and aggression that made him an impact player who put up stats more like a defensive end's from a defensive tackle spot.

    Even though teams constantly game-planned against him, he put up big numbers and made significant impacts. Players like him don't come along every year, or every decade for that matter.