Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson won ACC Player of the Year in 2001. Since then, every recipient of the award has played either quarterback or running back.
It’s time for that trend to end.
NC State holds a high defensive standard for its program, and Payton Wilson has exceeded every reasonable expectation for his sixth season in Raleigh. It is not normal for a linebacker to win a conference player of the year award, but the 6-4, 238-pound athlete, who was clocked running over 23 miles per hour this year, is far from ordinary.
Wilson led the ACC in tackles (138) and tackles for loss (17.5). He also recorded 6 sacks, 3 interceptions, 9 defended passes and recovered 2 fumbles. Each of those statistical feats ranks in the top 15 for all ACC defenders.
TheWolfpacker.com received an All-ACC vote this year. I submitted a ballot for Wilson to make first-team all-conference, win defensive player of the year and take home the overall player of the year award.
NC State’s leading linebacker also ranks fifth in the nation for total tackles, and he is tied for sixth in tackles for loss.
Wilson lined up all over the field this year. Sometimes, he started the play so deep that he looked like a safety. On other occasions, he lined up as an edge rusher. The linebacker spent most of his season in the box, controlling the run game and recording 67 Pro Football Focus (PFF) stops, which are “tackles that constitute a ‘failure’ for the offense.” He ranks tied for second nationally (first among Power Five defenders) in that statistic.
Wilson is far from a one-trick Wolf and, while he essentially lived in the backfields and minds of opposing quarterbacks all season with 22 quarterback pressures, he also registered an elite 90.1 PFF coverage grade. That ranks No. 8 among all FBS linebackers.
NC State relied heavily on Wilson this year. He played at an All-America level on the field, and he filled a leadership void left by Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas with enthusiasm. After losing to Duke, the linebacker met with the media and called for his team to play with more toughness through adversity.
He helped lead the Wolfpack through a bye week full of reflection and into its current five-game winning streak, continuing to provide a controlled but emotional presence on the field and in the locker room that his teammates and coaches raved about all season.
Wilson capped his Wolfpack career with an authoritative win over UNC, the school he committed to at one point as a four-star, top-100 prospect. Against the Tar Heels, he flew around the field and recorded 15 tackles (8 solo, 2 for loss), 1 sack, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble. The linebacker impacted the senior day win in pretty much any way he could.
“He is the best defensive player in college football right now,” Doeren said in November.
Doeren believes it, and his teammates do, too. No one is having more impact on his team than Wilson is for the Wolfpack. Going into awards season, he is a finalist for two national defensive player of the year awards and the Butkus Award, which recognizes the top linebacker in the country.
Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis and UNC signal-caller Drake Maye both put up huge numbers this year to earn consideration for the ACC Player of the Year honor as well. Maye led the conference in passing touchdowns and yards, but his team lost four of its final five ACC contests.
Travis, who threw for 20 touchdowns and 2 interceptions this year as the leader of a 12-0 squad, is a close second for the honor, in my opinion, but I still believe Wilson’s impact on his team was greater than any quarterback in the conference.
The Wolfpack linebacker found a way to impact almost every single play. Whether he was rushing the passer, filling a run gap or dropping back into coverage, he ended up around the ball constantly and rarely made a mistake. He only missed 6 tackles all season.
Wilson would be the first NC State player to win the award since Philip Rivers in 2003 and the first non-quarterback since Torry Holt in 1998. He is a special player and deserves unique recognition for this year’s accomplishments.