If you are a defensive player, rarely will you get the accolades of someone on the offensive side. The final stats, highlights and game stories always include how many yards a running back garnered up, how many passing yards a quarterback had or how many times a receiver caught the football.
To make matters worse for a defensive player, he will only get serious Heisman consideration if he contributes either on special teams or plays both ways. (Case in point: Charles Woodson in 1997.)
It’s just not fair, I say. So I have put together a ranking of the top 10 defensive players in the nation, who so seldom will get the credit they very much deserve.
1. Julius Peppers, Defensive End, North Carolina: Many were surprised that Peppers decided to stay for his junior season at UNC. After all, he did lead the nation with 15 sacks last year. But he has elevated himself this season to a potential No. 1 draft pick come April, since he has already decided to forego his senior season of eligibility.
What he has to done to turnaround a once-struggling Tarheel squad is record 43 tackles (17 for losses) and sack the quarterback 8.5 times. Also, Peppers is tied for the ACC lead with three interceptions, including one of the plays of the year last week, when he tipped a Woody Dantzler pass and lunged forward to pick it off. Not bad for a defensive lineman.
2. Dwight Freeney, Defensive End, Syracuse: Finally, the Syracuse defensive lineman gets a chance. Through his first three years in college he has been continually banged up, suffering through hand and ankle injuries, as well as a bruised spleen. Last season, he played only seven games but had 13 sacks. Already in 2001, he has 13.5 sacks, as well as an astounding 21 tackles for losses.
3. Roy Williams, Safety, Oklahoma: Williams is undoubtedly one of the fundamentally best defensive backs in the nation. His play in the Texas game alone has propelled him to the top of the charts.
Let’s go back to Week Seven. With the Longhorns deep in their own territory late in the fourth quarter, Williams came in on a blitz and hit Texas quarterback Chris Simms as he was throwing the ball. The ball fluttered out of Simms’ hand and into the hands of Teddy Lehman, who ran the ball in two yards for the score.
Then, as Texas was attempting a miracle comeback, Williams picked the ball off to seal the Sooner victory. Oh yeah, he also broke up two passes, blocked a field goal and made eight tackles. Just goes to show you that playing well in nationally televised games will give you a much bigger spotlight.
4. Alex Brown, Defensive End, Florida: Critics hounded Brown last season for his inconsistent play against the run. This year, things have turned around for the Gators right end, as his presence has led his team to consistent stellar defensive outings throughout the first half of the season. The constant double-teams that are thrown at Brown allow his teammates to fill in and make plays. Linebacker Andra Davis can vouch for that, as he fills in the holes that Brown’s double-teams open up. Brown leads one of the best defensive units in the land in tackles for a loss and sacks with 8.5 and 5.5, respectively.
5. Wendell Bryant, Defensive Tackle, Wisconsin: Despite playing on a defensive unit that has had its shares of ups and downs (to say the least), Bryant has emerged as one of the nation’s best defenders. He currently leads the Big Ten in sacks with seven. Also, he is second in the conference in tackles for loss with 13. Nonetheless, Wisconsin’s defense would be doing absolutely nothing without Bryant. He is the carrying stick of the Badgers and is a legitimate Top 10 pick in the NFL draft.
6. Rocky Calmus, Linebacker, Oklahoma: The Oklahoma middle linebacker is heading one of the strongest defense corps in the nation and is averaging more than 11 tackles per contest. Not bad. Plus, he was recently named one of the top 12 finalists for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s best linebacker. It could be renamed the Calmus Award after this season.
7. John Henderson, Defensive Tackle, Tennessee: Last season, the Vols 6-foot-7, 290-pound defensive tackle was the cornerstone of arguably the best defense in school history. In 2000, Henderson garnered up 12 sacks of his team’s school-record 50. He was awarded the Outland Trophy for his dominating play. This season, it continues, but he has been slowed by injuries. Still, Henderson is getting his numbers.
8. Robert Thomas, Linebacker, UCLA: The Bruins have a very strong chance at making a BCS bowl or even the Rose Bowl. Why? Yes, we all know DeShaun Foster. But actually, UCLA’s defense is the biggest reason for its success.
Thomas is leading a unit that is first in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, allowing 12.8 points per game. Also, the Bruins are first in the conference in total defense, giving up 291 yards a game–40 yards less than the next closest team.
9. Kalimba Edwards, Linebacker, South Carolina: South Carolina has no offense. In fact, their offense decides not to play until the other team takes the lead. But the reason why the Gamecocks are 5-1 has to do with Edwards, who is the leader of a tough defensive unit. Edwards has 55 tackles, including four for losses and two sacks. This very well could be a 1-5 team without him.
10. Ed Reed, Safety, Miami: If you are an opposing quarterback, try not to throw in the direction of Ed Reed. Not only can he break on the ball and pick it off, but he has the innate ability to return the interception for some serious yardage. As one of the best defensive backs in the country, Reed has excellent hands and even better speed. He leads the Hurricanes with four picks, returning them for 51 yards, including one for a touchdown. My advice to all you opposing quarterbacks: just throw away from him.