College Football Position U: Who Is Defense University?
Welcome to the most contentious string of debates among college football fans. It's Position U Week 2.0.
Having previously completed quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive line and defensive back, Bleacher Report writers David Kenyon and Kerry Miller are identifying the college programs that have generated the most productive NFL players at tight end, offensive line, linebacker, overall offense and overall defense since 1970.
In this final edition of a five-part series, the focus is on overall defense. Please note, though evaluations are based on prowess at each of defensive line, linebacker and defensive back, we're not necessarily looking to form the best possible 11-man defense. In other words, if a school had a dozen great linebackers, half a dozen great defensive backs and no linemen worth mentioning, that's still 18 great defensive players to consider.
At every position, the discussion has several possible angles. Is your preference total NFL alumni? The number of players drafted from a certain position group? Actual NFL production? All of these measures are reasonable to use as the guide.
Throughout this Position U series, B/R's focus is on the latter point. While the total number of players is considered, on-field production since 1970 shaped the final order.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama is responsible for somewhere around 35 current NFL defensive players, several of whom have the potential for greatness. Eight active Crimson Tide alumni have already appeared in at least one Pro Bowl. The problem is they only have seven retired players who were selected to a Pro Bowl. Granted, one of those was nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker and Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas. But one Hall of Famer isn't enough in this discussion.
Speaking of schools with one Hall of Fame defender, Jack Youngblood was one hell of a defensive lineman who went to Florida. The Gators also lay claim to linemen Jevon Kearse, Kevin Carter and Carlos Dunlap. They at least warranted some consideration for Defensive Line U. But linebacker and defensive back leave much to be desired in comparison to the other contenders.
Kent State Golden Flashes
Was Kent State legitimately considered? Of course not. In program history, it has only produced two Pro Bowl defenders. But did you know that each of those linebackers—Jack Lambert and James Harrison—was once named the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year? The only other schools to produce multiple AP DPOYs are Florida State and Miami (FL). There's your fun fact for the day.
Ty Law and Charles Woodson form one heck of a one-two punch of great defensive backs. However, defensive lineman Trevor Pryce is Michigan's next-most-noteworthy defensive alum in the past half-century, so the Wolverines weren't in the running for our top three for very long.
Similar to Florida, Nebraska boasts a nice crop of defensive linemen. Ndamukong Suh, Neil Smith, John Dutton and Kyle Vanden Bosch were each selected to at least three Pro Bowls. But it's a much different story at linebacker and defensive back, where Nebraska has had just three Pro Bowlers—linebacker Lavonte David, defensive back Mike Brown and defensive back Tyrone Hughes—in the past 50 years, each receiving that honor once.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
If Nick Buoniconti's best years (1963-69) counted in this exercise, Notre Dame would have had a better case for the top three. As is, the Fighting Irish do get credit for almost all of Alan Page's Hall of Fame career, plus Harrison Smith, Bryant Young and Dave Duerson, each of whom was selected to at least four Pro Bowls. Justin Tuck was also one of the best pass-rushers in the business when he was healthy.
Ohio State Buckeyes
If we were solely focusing on active NFL players, Ohio State would have a great case for Defense U. Joey and Nick Bosa, Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Ward, Cameron Heyward and Malcolm Jenkins highlight a mighty fine list of former Buckeyes currently in the league. But we couldn't justify putting Ohio State in the top three with only two defensive players selected to more than three Pro Bowls in the past 50 years: linebackers Randy Gradishar (seven) and Chris Spielman (four).
Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State has always been one of the best linebacker schools, but it is lacking in overall defensive prowess. Outside of Tamba Hali, the Nittany Lions have no defensive linemen particularly worth mentioning, and they haven't produced a single Pro Bowl defensive back. They have some great linebackers, though.
Pitt doesn't have much depth at all, but Hall of Famers Chris Doleman and Rickey Jackson and likely future Hall of Famers Darrelle Revis and Aaron Donald make for one heck of an opening argument. Each member of that quartet was selected to at least six Pro Bowls. It's a shame the rest of the defensive alumni have combined for just eight Pro Bowls since 1970.
Casey Hampton, Doug English and Steve McMichael on the defensive line. Derrick Johnson and Brian Orakpo at linebacker. Earl Thomas, Jerry Gray and Raymond Clayborn in the secondary. There are no "best of all time" candidates in the bunch, but that's a nice collection of alumni at all three levels of the defense, featuring a dozen multiple-time Pro Bowlers. That combination of factors made Texas the toughest school to cut out of our top three.
3. Florida State Seminoles
Florida State barely even merited consideration in our previous defensive line debate, and that kept the Seminoles from even having an argument for a spot in our top two for overall defense.
They produced Darnell Dockett, who was selected to three Pro Bowls during a solid career with the Arizona Cardinals...and that's about it. Corey Simon was the only other Florida State defensive lineman selected to a Pro Bowl in the last 50 years.
For the most part, Florida State has merely churned out linemen who weren't worth the draft pick used on them.
Maybe 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns will break the mold, but the following Seminoles were taken in the first half of the first round of their respective drafts: Andre Wadsworth (No. 3 in 1998), Corey Simon (No. 6 in 2000), Jamal Reynolds (No. 10 in 2001), Derrick Alexander (No. 11 in 1995), Alphonso Carreker (No. 12 in 1984), Brodrick Bunkley (No. 14 in 2006) and Travis Johnson (No. 16 in 2005).
Of that bunch, Bunkley probably had the best career, and the College Career section of his Wikipedia page is almost as long as the Professional Career section.
Anchored by Derrick Brooks and Peter Boulware, linebacker is a huge step back in the right direction for FSU's defensive alumni.
Brooks was the 2002 AP Defensive Player of the Year, a five-time first-team All-Pro and an 11-time Pro Bowler. He spent his entire career with Tampa Bay and was the star of the Buccaneers squad that won Super Bowl XXXVII. The Bucs were a laughingstock on defense before Brooks, consistently had one of the best defensive units in his 14 seasons and quickly reverted to terrible after he retired.
Boulware was a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker whose career was cut short by knee injuries. When he was healthy, he played one heck of a second fiddle to Ray Lewis in Baltimore's defense.
Florida State also produced linebackers Lawrence Timmons, Telvin Smith and Sam Cowart, each of whom was selected to one Pro Bowl. Marvin Jones never received that honor, but the No. 4 pick in the 1993 draft had a respectable 10-year run with the New York Jets.
If we were doing this in a report-card-grade format, Florida State's defensive line is a D-minus, the linebacker corps is a solid B, and the secondary is an A-plus.
"Prime Time" Deion Sanders is the main attraction. When he wasn't busy moonlighting as a baseball player, Sanders was a six-time first-team All-Pro. And while some guys just find their niche in a specific defensive scheme and thrive there, Sanders bounced from Atlanta to San Francisco to Dallas without any drop in production.
In fact, he was named the 1994 AP DPOY in the only season he spent with the 49ers. He won a Super Bowl there, went to Dallas and won another one the following year.
But that Hall of Fame cornerback is hardly the only star here. The Seminoles also proudly claim four-time first-team All-Pro LeRoy Butler as an alum. As far as Pro Football Reference is concerned, Butler was Green Bay's most valuable player during the 1993, 1996 and 1998 seasons, the second of which included a Super Bowl ring.
And more recently than Butler, Samari Rolle, Antonio Cromartie, Xavier Rhodes, Jalen Ramsey and Derwin James have each earned first-team All-Pro honors once.
The 'Noles have quite the all-time secondary group, but its list of active alumni—Rhodes, Ramsey, James, Ronald Darby and Lamarcus Joyner, in particular—is arguably second to none.
2. USC Trojans
This is certainly the weakest of USC's three levels of defense, especially if we're in agreement that Willie McGinest was a linebacker as opposed to a defensive end. He was a weakside defensive end at USC who then spent most of his career as a hybrid DE/OLB in New England's 3-4 defense.
And if we're not counting him as a defensive lineman, that means USC has yet to produce a defensive end or defensive tackle who spent at least 10 seasons as a starter in the NFL.
The emphasis is on yet, though, because five-time Pro Bowl (2015-19) lineman Jurrell Casey figures to be a starter for the 10th consecutive year in 2020. Everson Griffen has also been a Pro Bowl selection in four of the past five seasons, so at least the Trojans have some active defensive linemen worth mentioning.
There's not much history at all beyond that pair, though, and that kept USC from staking a better claim for the Defense University.
Including McGinest, USC has had 12 different Pro Bowl linebackers—combining for 38 Pro Bowl selections—dating back to 1969.
Hall of Famer and six-time first-team All-Pro Junior Seau was the best of the bunch. It didn't take long for him to become the San Diego Chargers' most valuable player, and he held that distinction for nearly a decade. His defensive prowess helped pace the Chargers to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1994 season.
USC also lays claim to the father-son duo of Clay Matthews Jr. and Clay Matthews III, who combined for 10 Pro Bowl selections. The younger Matthews was drafted in 2009, which was the last time the Trojans introduced a noteworthy linebacker to the NFL. But they did a ton of good from 1969-2009.
USC isn't as deep in the secondary as it is at linebacker, but it sure does pack a punch at the top of the list.
Ronnie Lott (six), Troy Polamalu (four) and Joey Browner (three) combined for 13 first-team All-Pro honors. That trio plus Dennis Smith, Tim McDonald, Mark Carrier and Sammy Knight also racked up 40 Pro Bowl selections. That's more than 50 percent better than the next-closest school (Florida State), which has had 26 Pro Bowl selections among its defensive backs.
Similar to linebacker, there's a bit of a "What have you done for me lately?" dilemma in putting USC on this list. Among players whose careers began in 2004 or later, only five USC defensive backs—Terrell Thomas, Kevin Ellison, Shareece Wright, Adoree' Jackson and T.J. McDonald—have spent so much as one season as a starter, and Jackson and McDonald are the only ones with three or more years of experience as a starter.
But keep in mind we're looking at 50 years' worth of data and trying to avoid applying a recency bias. From that perspective, it's hard to argue with a program that has had five defensive backs voted to at least six Pro Bowls each.
1. Miami (FL) Hurricanes
Bleacher Report's David Kenyon ranked Miami at No. 1 in the Defensive Line U debate back in April, and it's almost impossible to argue against that.
Warren Sapp is easily one of the NFL's best defensive linemen of the past quarter-century, and he's a solid candidate for the top 10 on the all-time list. He racked up nearly 100 career sacks, which is preposterous for an interior lineman. He was a four-time first-team All-Pro and a seven-time Pro Bowler. He was also the 1999 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year.
Cortez Kennedy isn't too far behind Sapp in terms of all-time greatness, either. The No. 3 pick in the 1990 draft was a three-time first-team All-Pro and an eight-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle. Like Sapp, he was chosen as the AP's 1992 DPOY.
That duo alone would be enough for serious DL U consideration, but Miami also produced Vince Wilfork, Calais Campbell, Jerome Brown, Rubin Carter and the 1991 No. 1 overall pick, Russell Maryland. No other program can even come close to that.
Incredibly, Miami is almost as loaded at linebacker as it is at defensive line.
Ray Lewis is arguably one of the 25 greatest players in NFL history, and he's certainly one of the five greatest linebackers. He was selected to 13 Pro Bowls, was voted first-team All-Pro seven times, was named AP DPOY twice (2000 and 2003) and had the most iconic pregame dance/pump-up speech combo in any sport ever. (Seriously, who among us between the ages of 25 and 45 hasn't tried to emulate Lewis' "What time is it?!" ritual?)
The Hurricanes also produced Hall of Fame linebacker Ted Hendricks, as well as multiple-time Pro Bowlers Jessie Armstead, Jonathan Vilma, Jon Beason and Dan Conners—although Conners' best years were 1966-69 and technically shouldn't be considered here.
Even if we exclude Conners, though, we're still talking about two Hall of Famers and nine other linebackers who spent at least five years as a starter in the past 30 years. Miami's list of active NFL linebackers is nearly nil, but maybe 2020 draft pick Shaquille Quarterman can get the U back on the map in that regard.
First Sapp and Kennedy. Then Lewis and Hendricks. Now Ed Reed.
Reed was a no-brainer choice as a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2019. Yet another AP DPOY who began his career at Miami, Reed secured that honor in 2004. He also was a first-team All-Pro five times and had nine Pro Bowl selections. With all due respect to USC's Ronnie Lott and Troy Polamalu, Reed is probably the greatest safety in NFL history.
Miami's crop of talent in the secondary drops off a cliff from there, though.
Reed was the only Hurricane defensive back named first-team All-Pro, and Antrel Rolle (three), Brandon Meriweather (two) and Sean Taylor (two) were the only others with multiple Pro Bowl selections.
Compared to USC's loaded secondary, this weakness nearly bumped Miami out of the top spot. But having four different players named AP Defensive Player of the Year is one heck of a bragging right.