The ACC’s best-returning linebackers are a dangerous group. The top-three list includes a pair of teammates. The conference boasts a host of strong pass-rushers as well as linebackers excelling in coverage. The players cracking this list have generally featured an ability to do both at an elite level, earning them plenty of respect heading into 2022. With no further ado, here’s a look at the ACC’s best-returning linebackers.
Three: Payton Wilson, NC State
Wilson is arguably the best ACC linebacker in coverage. The injury-plagued linebacker has been elite in his time on the gridiron. After missing his true freshman season with various injuries, Wilson posted 69 tackles in 2019, including five for loss. He recorded an interception and three pass breakups. Then, he truly broke out in the 2020 Covid season. Wilson made a name for himself as a disruptive force, recording 11.5 tackles for loss. He added 3.5 sacks and another two interceptions and a pass breakup.
Wilson looked primed for another monster 2021, listed as a top returning player in the conference. However, he suffered a season-ending injury after two games. It was the shoulder again for Wilson, a recurring injury for the linebacker. He played through two dislocated shoulders in his All-ACC 2020 season but was sidelined in 2021. Even still, he posted 1.5 tackles for loss in those two contests. Wilson returns to help lead the Wolfpack defense in 2022. NC State carries ACC Championship, and maybe even College Football Playoff, aspirations, and Wilson’s return could prove critical.
Two: Trenton Simpson, Clemson
Probably the best draft prospect on this list, Trenton Simpson could become a first-round pick. He’s posted a pair of very strong seasons with Clemson, and he’s looking to produce even more in what’s likely one final ride with the Tigers. In his freshman year, Simpson posted 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Providing nothing short of an elite encore performance, Simpson dominated his sophomore season. Posting 12.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups, and six sacks, Simpson was versatile and an elite presence in the center of Clemson’s disruptive defense. While the offense struggled, leading to several Clemson losses, Simpson’s dominance spearheaded another vaunted Tigers’ defense.
Last year, Simpson notched a tackle for loss in each of his final eight games. Amidst that stretch, he amassed at least one sack in five consecutive games. In a particularly elite two weeks, Simpson terrorized Florida State and Louisville. Against the Seminoles and Cardinals, he combined for 16 tackles, six for loss, and three sacks. Those purely elite stretches and consistent dominance showcase why Simpson is a top NFL prospect and one of the top ACC returning linebackers.
One: Drake Thomas, NC State
Drake Thomas was already a very good linebacker prior to Payton Wilson’s injury. But forced into the spotlight when Wilson went down, Thomas shone brightly.
In 2019, Thomas posted a respectable four tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, plus an interception, as a freshman. Then, in 2020, the Wolfpack linebacker exploded. He found himself in opposing backfields with increased regularity, notching 9.5 tackles for loss and another three sacks. He amassed all that production alongside Wilson’s All-ACC campaign, making the Wolfpacks a lethal defense.
Heading into 2021, one of the country’s best duos became a solo show after two games. Thomas did his best to ensure that show went on as best it could. In 12 terrific efforts, Thomas posted 13.5 tackles, six sacks, and three interceptions, including one that he housed for a touchdown. Thomas also notched 99 tackles after recording 92 in his first two seasons combined.
While not bad by any means over his first six games, Thomas provided most of his fireworks in the season’s second half. He kicked off that stretch with a two-sack, two tackle for loss effort versus Miami. The following week, he notched another two sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 15 tackles against Louisville. Ultimately, in his final six games, Thomas notched 11.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. In coverage, Thomas recorded interceptions in three separate games, including one in a big upset win over Clemson.
Now in 2022, Thomas gets to split the spotlight once more with Payton Wilson, And with two of the nation’s best linebackers roaming the same defense, ACC offenses facing the Wolfpack will have their work cut out for them this fall.