Is NC State’s Payton Wilson the ‘best defensive college football player in America?’

Jonas Pope IV
·8 min read

These days, Payton Wilson walks around the Murphy Center with a boulder-sized chip on his surgically repaired shoulders.

But you wouldn’t know it just by looking at him. This spring, the N.C. State redshirt sophomore linebacker was limited from playing, but was still around for meetings and every practice.

Being the competitive person he is, Wilson, who called himself “the best defensive college football player in America,” missed those reps that went to someone else. Having to watch, again, added fuel to the fire inside of him. Last season, Wilson’s first as a full-time starter, he finished with 108 tackles, leading the ACC in tackles per game (10.8) and fourth in the FBC in overall tackles.

The 6-4, 235-pound player out of Orange High School in Hillsborough was a unique playmaker at outside linebacker, picking off two passes against Duke and reserving enough energy to make tackles on the punt team.

At the end of the season, Wilson was rewarded for his efforts by being named First-Team All-ACC and was in the conversation for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

The award, though, went to Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Wilson received six votes despite having 52 more tackles than Owusu-Kormoah, who also won the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker. Wilson said he doesn’t care much about individual awards, but he was curious as to why he didn’t win or even get more votes despite a breakout year. He went to coach Dave Doeren, who didn’t have an answer for Wilson. In fact, Doeren wondered the same.

“Some of my responses are the same as his,” Doeren told The News & Observer. “Personally, I think (he) got completely screwed on ACC Defensive Player of the Year.”

Doeren doesn’t think Wilson has let it get to him that much. Instead, the conversation and motivation has shifted to what Wilson can do better in 2021 to not get overlooked again.

“You can see that it’s something that motivates him,” Doeren said. “What can I do to be a First-Team All-American? What can I do to be on the Butkus Award list? Those things motivate him.”

Doeren used former defensive end Bradley Chubb as an example. Chubb put up good numbers as a junior, which Doeren said put him on the map. As a senior, he made all the preseason list and at the end of the year, racked up on awards, including winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nation’s top defender) and the Ted Hendricks Award (nation’s top defensive end).

“That’s kind of how it works in a lot of cases,” Doeren said. “I don’t think people expected him to have the year that he did. They knew he would be a good player, but nobody thought he would do what he did as a first-year starter.”

‘The best defensive college football player in America’

Wilson came off the bench as a freshman and still led the team in tackles. In 2020 he led the team in tackles and interceptions despite missing two games. In his last game, versus Georgia Tech, he led the team with 11 tackles despite playing with two dislocated shoulders (more on that later), showing the type of throwback grit Doeren loves. It’s that type of determination, plus the snub, that makes Wilson think he’s the best of the best.

“I think I’m the best defensive college football player in America,” Wilson said. “I don’t think I received that recognition. It’s just something to fuel me this offseason to go out there next year and make sure there’s no doubt about it.”

N.C. State linebacker Payton Wilson (11) tackles Georgia Tech running back Jordan Mason (27) for a loss during the Wolfpack’s game against Georgia Tech at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. In the game, Wilson led the team with 11 tackles despite playing with two dislocated shoulders.
N.C. State linebacker Payton Wilson (11) tackles Georgia Tech running back Jordan Mason (27) for a loss during the Wolfpack’s game against Georgia Tech at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. In the game, Wilson led the team with 11 tackles despite playing with two dislocated shoulders.

An upset, ticked off, motivated, Payton Wilson is a scary sight for opponents in 2021.

As a first-time starter in 2020, Wilson had to adjust to playing so many snaps. He said defensive coordinator Tony Gibson devised a scheme that simplified things for him.

Last year, Wilson admitted, he knew his assignment on every snap. This year, while watching during the spring, he has learned the role of the other 10 guys. Doeren laughed when asked if fans have seen Wilson’s best football?

“No we haven’t,” Doeren said. “He’s got so much he can do better. He could have made a lot more plays. He could have and he’ll tell you that.”

For a guy who averaged 10.8 tackles a game, what more was there to do?

For starters, Doeren explained, Wilson wasn’t always “looking at the right stuff.” Because he’s so fast, Wilson can quickly explode to the ball carrier and bring him down after a two-yard gain. This year, Doeren said, Wilson won’t waste any movements and can make stops in the backfield for a two-yard loss.

“There’s times when his eyes were in the wrong place and he got away with it,” Doeren said. “Had he looked at this maybe he would have gotten an interception or he definitely would have had a sack. I expect his production to be better.”

One game, two dislocated shoulders

His production is expected to be better — especially if he’s healthy. That’s where the story goes back to the Dec. 5 Georgia Tech game. Wilson came off the field after dislocating his shoulder earlier in the game. He got it popped back in on the sideline, went back in the game, and dislocated the other shoulder.

Wilson missed the Gator Bowl against Kentucky on Jan. 2 and underwent double shoulder surgery this offseason, forcing him to miss spring practices.

Wilson realizes the importance of games, the rare opportunities to perform, which explains why he toughed it out against Georgia Tech.

“I was in a lot of pain, but at the same time we only get 12 opportunities to play football,” Wilson said. “We train all year, every day to only get 12 (games), so it’s really hard to come out of the game because we don’t get that many opportunities.”

If he can stay on the field, injury-free or because he hasn’t worn himself out, Wilson will be fun to watch. Because he goes all out on every snap, he gets gassed in a hurry. He’s also chatty on the field. Doeren likes the energy but would like to see him channel it better in 2021.

“Like I tell him, you have to learn how to use the fuel,” Doeren said. “It’s got to be there when you need it, you can’t waste it on nothing, like yelling at a ref or yelling at an opponent, when you can be harboring that energy and using it between the whistle. It’s just a matter of learning how to use the emotion to feed your chip and let you play better and sometimes I feel like there is wasted energy that ends up being counterproductive with guys like that. I thought Bradley Chubb did that from his junior to his senior year and we’ve talked about that with Payton, using that the right way.”

N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren laughs with Payton Wilson (11) after N.C. State’s 31-20 victory over Duke at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020.
N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren laughs with Payton Wilson (11) after N.C. State’s 31-20 victory over Duke at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020.

‘A lot of making up to do’

When N.C. State returns to camp this fall, Wilson is expected to be 100% healthy.

Since he’s been at N.C. State, he’s had issues with his knees, shoulders and missed time with a concussion.

The shoulders were part of the reason Wilson returned to school instead of declaring for the NFL draft. Sitting out this spring was hard, but watching his teammates get his reps motivated him. Wilson said he has “a lot of making up to do” when camp starts.

While he was out, Wilson spent time coaching up the young linebackers and studying the playbook, getting a better understanding of schemes and assignments.

“I think it just comes down to last year I knew what I needed to do,” Wilson said. “But this year I’m going to know what everyone is supposed to do on every play. If we bust a coverage I’m going to know who busted it, like, I’m going to know everybody’s position like I know mine.”

Doeren believes there is only one person standing in Wilson’s way of greatness in an N.C. State uniform.

“Really the only thing that gets in his way is him,” Doeren said. “He has all the tools, he’s got the right heart, he’s got everything, and I’m not saying he’s in his own way. But he plays so hard he gets tired and he has to come out of the game. Or he’s had injuries that were out of his control that will get him out of the game. That’s the only thing that’s limiting him right now. I’m hoping that none of those factors are against him this year.”