Top 10 ACC Defensive Linemen of the BCS Era

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Athlon Sports ranks the best ACC defensive linemen of the BCS Era.

Top 10 ACC Defensive Linemen of the BCS Era

The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.

The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.

So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.

The ACC has gone through many changes during the BCS Era with multiple rounds of expansion. This is why some of the greatest players of the BCS Era won't be found in the ACC ranks. Miami and Virginia Tech joined in 2004, Boston College joined in '05, Syracuse and Pitt played for one season last fall and Louisville enters the league in '14. This is why Virginia Tech's Corey Moore, Syracuse's Dwight Freeney, Miami's Vince Wilfork or Louisville's Elvis Dumervil won't be found below — because they never played in the league. However, names like Aaron Donald and Mathias Kiwanuka do show up since they played at least one season in the ACC. Even without the Wilforks of the world, the ACC has an impressive list of elite defensive linemen.

Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.

1. Julius Peppers, DE, North Carolina (1999-01)
From a talent standpoint, few players have ever been able to match Peppers' freakish quickness and size. As a two-sport star in Chapel Hill, Peppers was a freshman All-American in 1999 before leading the nation in sacks (15.0) as a sophomore. He capped his junior season as a consensus All-American and by winning Lombardi, Bednarik and Willis Trophy honors. Peppers finished 10th in the Heisman voting in 2001. He started 33 of 34 possible career games and finished with 167 tackles and 30.5 sacks, good for sixth all-time in ACC history and second during the BCS Era. His 53.0 tackles for a loss are 13th all-time in league history as well. Peppers was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

2. Chris Long, DE, Virginia (2004-07)
The son of NFL great Howie Long entered the starting lineup as a sophomore, totaling 46 tackles, 10.0 for a loss and two sacks. As a junior, Long posted 57 tackles, 12.0 for a loss and 4.0 sacks. As a senior, he claimed ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors as well as the Dudley and Hendricks Awards. He was a unanimous All-American after 79 total tackles, an ACC-best 19.0 tackles for a loss and ACC-best 14.0 sacks in his final season in which he finished 10th in the Heisman voting. He finished his career with 182 tackles, 36.5 tackles for a loss and 20.0 sacks before being selected No. 2 overall in the 2008 NFL Draft.

3. Aaron Donald, Pitt (2010-13)
Donald only played one season in the ACC but it was one of the, if not the, best by an ACC defensive lineman in league history. He swept the national awards by claiming the Outland, Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik as essentially the most decorated defensive player of the BCS Era not named Manti Te’o. He won ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors after posting 59 tackles, 28.5 for a loss and 11.0 sacks from his defensive tackle position. His 28.5 TFLs were second only to Keith Adams’ ACC record 33 in 1999. His career 29.5 sacks would be eighth in ACC history and his 66.0 tackles for a loss would be a new career ACC record had he played his entire career in the league. 

4. Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson (2008-10)
The No. 1 prospect in the nation battled a knee injury during his sophomore year but still posted 58 tackles — including 11 in the ACC Championship Game win over Georgia Tech — 10.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. However, Bowers exploded as a senior by leading the nation in tackles for a loss (26.0) and sacks (15.5) to go with his 67 total tackles. Those 15.5 sacks were sixth all-time in ACC history. Bowers was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, a unanimous first-team All-American and claimed both the Nagurski Trophy and the Hendricks Award. More knee issues cost him on draft day as he slipped to the end of the second round where Tampa Bay selected him with the 51st overall pick.

5. Mario Williams, NC State (2003-05)
In just three seasons, the physical freak from NC State posted 25.5 career sacks — good for 18th all-time in ACC history — and 55.5 tackles for a  loss — good for 10th all-time. In his final season, he led the ACC with 24.0 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks. As one of the most gifted athletes to ever play in any league, Williams was one of just two defensive players selected as the first overall pick in the NFL Draft during the BCS Era (Courtney Brown, 2000).

6. Jamal Reynolds, DE, Florida State (1997-00)
Reynolds helped lead the Seminoles to three consecutive BCS National Championship Games, including the 1999 title. He was named the Lombardi and Willis Trophy winner after a 58-tackle, 12-sack season in 2000 as a senior and was a finalist for the national Defensive Player of the Year award. He was named a unanimous All-American and taken with the 10th overall pick in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft. His 23.5 career sacks are 24th all-time in ACC history and are the most by any Seminole during the BCS Era.

7. Gaines Adams, DE, Clemson (2003-06)
The 2006 ACC Defensive Player of the Year finished with 157 total tackles, 41.5 tackles for a loss and 28.0 sacks in 46 career games. His 28.0 QB takedowns are 10th all-time in ACC history and are fourth by any player during the BCS Era. His 15.5 sacks in 2010 led the nation and are sixth-best in ACC history. He was a unanimous All-American as a senior and was taken fourth overall in the 2007 NFL Draft. Sadly, Adams passed away at age 26 due to cardiac arrest in January 2010 but he will be forever remembered as one of the ACC’s greatest defensive linemen.

8. Corey Simon, DT, Florida State (1996-99)
A consensus All-American, Simon helped lead Florida State to back-to-back BCS championship games with a win in his final game over Virginia Tech in 1999. He left school with a then-record 44.0 tackles for a loss and was a finalist for the Lombardi and Outland Trophies as a senior. One of the most dominant interior lineman in ACC history was taken sixth overall in the 2000 NFL Draft.

9. Darnell Docket, Florida State (2000-03)
The four-year starter for Florida State was a starter and big-time contributor as a redshirt freshman in 2000 on a team that played for the national title. Eventually, Dockett was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2003 as a senior. He left Tallahassee with 247 total tackles, 10.5 sacks and an ACC-record 65.0 tackles for a loss. Dockett was a third-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft and has gone to three Pro Bowls since.

10. Calvin Pace, Wake Forest (1999-02)
A four-year starter for the Demon Deacons, Pace helped lead Wake Forest to a winning record in three of his four years and two of the team’s three bowl appearances between 1980 and 2005. Pace is eighth all-time in ACC history with 29.0 career sacks and is 12th all-time in ACC history in tackles for a loss with 54.0. He led the league in TFL as a senior (19.5) and was the 18th overall pick in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft.

Just missed the cut:

11. Mathias Kiwanuka, Boston College (2002-05)
A two-time All-American, Kiwanuka was a first-team all-league pick in two conferences as he helped moved BC from the Big East into the ACC. He was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 and posted 51 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 16.5 TFL in his senior year in the ACC.

12. Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech (2007-09)
One of the freakier athletes to play in the ACC, Morgan was an instant impact guy as a freshman. By his junior season, the Jackets end was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. He posted an ACC-best 12.5 sacks that season and 18.5 tackles for a loss before leaving early to become a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.

13. Bjoern Werner, Florida State (2010-12)
The Berlin, Germany, native played in all 14 games as a true freshman before becoming a dominant starter for two full years in Tallahassee. He led the ACC with 13.0 sacks and posted 18.0 TFL to earn ACC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American honors in 2012. He was a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

14. Shawne Merriman, Maryland (2002-04)
One of the most talented athletes to ever play in any league, Merriman was a impact player as a freshman in 2002. He constantly made plays around the line of scrimmage for three seasons in College Park for two teams that won at least 10 games.

15. Greg Gathers, Georgia Tech (1999-01)
Among every ACC player during the BCS Era, no one registered more sacks than Gathers’ 31.0 — which is good for fifth all-time in ACC history. His 57.0 tackles for a loss are eighth all-time in league history and fifth among BCS Era players. 

Best of the rest:

16. Calais Campbell, Miami (2005-07)
Long, rangy player led league in TFL (20.5) in 2006 and was a second-round pick in 2008.

17. B.J. Raji, Boston College (2004-08)
Missed all of ’07 but was an All-American in 2008 and a first-round pick in the '09 draft.

18. Eric Henderson, Georgia Tech (2002-05)
Finished career 17th in ACC history in sacks (25.5) and fifth in tackles for a loss (59.5)

19. Robert Quinn, North Carolina (2008-10)
Monster end led ACC in TFL (19.0) in 2009 before being picked 14th overall in 2011 Draft.

20. Chris Ellis, Virginia Tech (2004-07)
Freshman All-American finished with 19.0 sacks, five forced fumbles, 28.0 TFL and two ACC titles.

21. Ebenezer Ekuban, North Carolina (1995-98)
Only played defense for two years and led ACC in TFL in 1998 with 23.0. Was a first-round pick.

22. Andre Branch, Clemson (2008-11)
Led ACC in sacks (10.5) and tackles for a loss (17.5) for ACC champs in 2011.

23. Everette Brown, Florida State (2006-08)
Played 41 games posting 100 tackles, 46.5 for a loss and 22.0 sacks with five forced fumbles.

24. Clint Sintim, Virginia (2005-08)
Is 13th all-time in ACC history with 27.0 sacks, freshman All-American and second-round pick.

25. Quinton Coples, North Carolina (2008-11)
Finished 19th all-time in ACC in sacks with 24.0 and was a first-round pick in 2012.

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