CFN Tuesday Question - Greatest Defenders
Posted Aug 28, 2006

CFN's Tuesday Question - The All-Time Greatest Defensive Players

- 10 Greatest Quarterbacks of All-Time | 10 Worst Heisman Winners
- 10 Greatest Regular Season Games of All-Time | 10 Greatest Playmakers of All-Time
- All-Time Offensive Team | All-Time Defensive Team

Pete Fiutak     
Q: The ten greatest defensive players of all-time are ...

A: Obviously there's no way to have seen all the great defenders over the 100-plus years of college football. When ranking players for something like this, I always go by who made the biggest impact on the game, who made the biggest plays in key moments, and who was considered the most dominant. It's obviously easier to choose the players who played over the last several years, so it's important to check and recheck all the documented opinions on the legends.

The players that just missed the cut (in order of how close they came). They all belong on the list....
- Charles Woodson, CB Michigan - Yeah he won the Heisman, but that was as much for his play as a dramatic punt returner and receiver. Even with no one ever throwing his way, Woodson still picked off eight passes in the 1997 championship season highlighted by a brilliant one handed grab against Michigan State. Want clutch? Along with the game-saving pick against Ohio State, he killed a drive in the Rose Bowl intercepting Ryan Leaf in the end zone.
- Ronnie Lott, DB USC - You think of Lott and you think of the devastating hits and peerless toughness. While he could pop, he could also pick off passes finishing his career with 14 interceptions and lead the nation with eight in his senior year. He could return them as well averaging 20.8 yards per interception and scored two touchdowns. 
- Chris Spielman, LB Ohio State - In his four year career he made a total of 546 tackles setting the OSU record with 283 solo stops. In 1986, his junior year, he made 105 solo tackles.
- Brian Bosworth, LB Oklahoma - The Boz wasn't just hype. He made 395 tackles in his three years including a school record 22 in the 1986 classic loss to Miami. He was the model of consistency improving each year making 128, 131 and 136 stops.
- Lee Roy Jordan, LB Alabama - Bear Bryant said Jordan was the finest player he ever coached. Along with being considered the greatest linebacker in Alabama history, he was also a superior center.
- Steve Emtman, DT Washington - The rock in the middle of a stellar Husky defense, the 300 pounder combined power and speed rare for a player of his size. He was the definition of an anchor.
- Rich Glover, DL Nebraska - In 1971 he made 92 tackles and finished his career with 171 total stops. He finished third in the Heisman voting in 1972.
- Jerry Robinson, LB UCLA - Robinson was the first three-time consensus All-American since SMU RB Doak Walker and the first ever in Pac 10 history.
- Randy White, DT Maryland - Considered one of the fastest defensive linemen ever, White came to Maryland as a fullback and went on to become a two-time All-American winning the Lombardi and Outland Award in 1974 with 12 sacks.
- Jamar Fletcher, CB Wisconsin - No one ever wants to believe it, but trust me, I've researched this: no defensive back in college football history made more clutch plays. Fletcher returned five interceptions for touchdowns, a Big Ten record, including game sealing picks in tight games against Purdue (twice) and against UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

The top ten ...
10. Kenny Easley, S UCLA
Easley was the first player in Pac 10 history to be named first team All-Conference for four straight years. Considered one of the biggest hitting defensive backs of all-time, he finished his career with 374 tackles and picked off 19 passes.
9. George Webster, S Michigan State
He revolutionized the safety position. At roverback (the first ever to play the hybrid position), the 6-4, 220-pound Webster was a devastating hitter making 93 stops in 1966 to go along with ten tackles for loss. He was a menace in run support and still covered receivers as well as any corner. His speed was peerless for a player of his size. 
8. Lee Roy Selmon, DT Oklahoma
Barry Switzer called him the greatest player he ever coached. Selmon made 324 tackles (amazing for a defensive lineman) with 40 for loss. In 1975, he made 88 unassisted stops.
7. Lawrence Taylor, LB/DE North Carolina
Taylor is generally considered the most fearsome pass rusher of all-time. As the ACC Player of the Year in 1980, he recorded 16 sacks while leading the team to an 11-1 record. He was directly responsible for beating Clemson and Texas Tech that year with his game-saving tackles..
6. Bubba Smith, DE Michigan State
Lost in all of post-collegiate accomplishments was his outstanding college career as one of the most unblockable defensive ends to ever play the game on one of the great defensive teams of all-time. Smith wasn't just a big player, he was really big for the mid-1960s (6-8, 280 pounds) and really fast requiring teams to use two, three and four players on him. In 1965 and 1966, MSU went 19-1-1 winning two Big Ten and two national titles.
5. Tommy Nobis, LB Texas
As the rock on the 1963 national championship team, Nobis was something special on both sides of the ball. He made dramatic game-saving and championship-winning plays as a blocker and a tackler finishing his career averaging 20 stops a game.
4. Deion Sanders, CB Florida State
Prime Time was the greatest corner to ever play college football. Florida State has enjoyed a who's who of sensational athletes over the years, but no one has been able to touch Deion's combination of speed, quickness and leaping ability. At just over 6-1 and 195 pounds, he ran a 4.3 40-yard-dash on a slow day and was the prototype corner and punt returner.
3. Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota
The 228-pound do-it-all star was bigger than life on and off the field. In the 1920s, he was larger than everyone else earning All-America honors at three different positions making his biggest impact on defense. How tough was he? Wearing a steel corset to protect two broken vertebrae, he beat Wisconsin by forcing a fumble which went for a score and a 6-0 win. The best defensive player in college football now wins the Bronko Nagurski Award.
2. Dick Butkus, LB Illinois
Linebacker is the glamour defensive position in college football, and Butkus is considered the best to ever play.  It wasn't just the 373 tackles he made in his career, it was the way he made the stops as the most unblockable linebacker college football has ever seen. Setting the standard to which all other linebackers are measured, the Butkus Award now goes to the nation's best linebacker. He finished third in the Heisman voting in 1964.
1. Hugh Green, DE Pitt
Few linemen have ever possessed Green's mix of quickness, speed and athleticism. With long arms and superior strength, Green played bigger than his 222 pounds while his feet were so good that he could've been a decent cornerback. He finished his career with Green 441 tackles and 53 sacks.

Richard Cirminiello  
Q: The ten greatest defensive players of all-time are ...

: 1. DE Hugh Green, Pittsburgh (1977-80) – A three-time All American and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Green is the most dominant defensive player in college football history.  He was only 6-2 and 220 pounds, but was so quick and agile, opposing tackles rarely had a solution to the pass-rushing phenom.  Green finished his brilliant Panther career with 441 tackles, 53 sacks and a silver medal in the 1980 Heisman race.

2. LB Dick Butkus, Illinois (1962-1964) – No list of premier defensive players would be complete without prominently listing Butkus, one of the most feared and ferocious players to ever play the game.  He still epitomizes everything that’s tough and nasty about the sport, and also played along the offensive line for the Illini.  

3. LB Tommy Nobis, Texas (1963-65) – Younger generations won’t remember Nobis, which is too bad because he was an absolute at linebacker and a pretty darn good offensive lineman as well.  He was the emotional catalyst of the ‘Horns’ 1963 national championship, and two-time All-American and the recipient of the Outland Trophy in his final year.  During his three years, the fiercely competitive Nobis averaged almost 20 stops a game.

4. DT Lee Roy Selmon, Oklahoma (1972-75) – Selmon just might be the best Sooner to ever where the red and white, which is all you need to know about his college career.  He had it all—size, agility, power and intellect—an uncommon and devastating blend that led to the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award in 1975 and the doors of the College Football Hall of Fame a little more than a decade after that.

5. LB Lawrence Taylor, North Carolina (1977-80) – Remember all those vicious sacks and ridiculously athletic plays Taylor made for years with the New York Giants? He honed those Hall of Fame skills for three years in Chapel Hill.  Taylor revolutionized the position of outside linebacker, terrorizing opposing players, particularly quarterbacks with their backs to him.  

6. S Ronnie Lott, USC (1977-1980) – Ever since he arrived at USC, Lott became the standard by which all safeties would be judged.  He was one of the most intimidating forces to ever patrol a secondary, and had uncanny football instincts and leadership skills.  Lott was a rare defensive player capable of changing the tenor of a game with a single hit or turnover.

7. ROV George Webster, Michigan State (1964-66) – Bubba Smith grabbed most of the headlines, but Webster may have been the best defensive player on those ferocious Spartan teams of the mid-1960s.  The best Spartan in school history, in fact.  He was a 6-4, 215-pound defender, who could cover the opposition’s best receiver and blow up its best back. 

8. DE Bubba Smith, Michigan State (1964-66) – A two-time All-American and member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Smith was a larger-than-life pass rusher, who always commanded the attention of multiple blockers.  To this day, he remains one of the most feared and dominating defensive linemen of all-time.

9. CB Deion Sanders, Florida State (1985-88) – If you needed a defensive back to fill a lane and support in run defense, Sanders would be an afterthought.  However, if you needed a corner to blanket the opposing receiver and render him useless, Sanders was your man.  No cornerback in history can match his lockdown skills or his playmaking ability once the ball was in his hands.

10. S Kenny Easley, UCLA (1977-80) – Easley gets somewhat overshadowed by USC’s Ronnie Lott, who played across town at the same time, but he remains one of the most complete defensive backs to ever play on Saturdays.  He could cover like a corner and deliver the payload of a linebacker, a rare combination that helped make him a three-time All-American and four-time member of the All-Pac-10 first team.   

John Harris  
Q: The ten greatest defensive players of all-time are ...

10.  Rich Glover, Nebraska DT – Perhaps one of the most overlooked dominating players of the past 40 years.  If you didn’t think that Glover was dominating, just ask former Oklahoma center Tom Brahaney who struggled blocking Glover in the Game of the Century, circa 1971 (Glover had 22 stops in one of the best games of all-time).  Although Glover played at 225, he was a two-time All-American at nose tackle and was third in the Heisman voting in 1972.

9. Jack Tatum, Ohio State S – There were hard hitters in college football and then there was Tatum (and Kenny Easley, more on him later).  But, the one game that may have cemented his place in Ohio State lore was when he shut down Purdue’s great Leroy Keyes in 1968 in the Shoe.  As one of the fabled Super Sophs of 1968, Tatum stepped right into the Buckeye lineup and left a legacy that was quite impressive - three year All-Big Ten, two year All-American and national defensive player of the year in 1970.

8.  Cornelius Bennett, Alabama LB – ‘Biscuit’ was a pass rushing menace in the SEC and his exploits need not be overlooked.  Following in the trend of LT and Hugh Green, Bennett was hard to pigeonhole as an OLB or a DE, but it didn’t matter, much.  Pass rushing was his game and he was dadgum good at it.  He was a two time All-American, a Lombardi award winner and finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting during the 1986 season.

7.  Lawrence Taylor, UNC OLB – If you are fortunate enough to obtain a tape of some of LT’s college career, you’ll see one of the most ferocious players in college football history.  Obviously, his professional career was one of the greatest ever, but his college performance set Tobacco Road on fire, especially in his last season 1980, when he registered a whopping 16 sacks.

6.  Kenny Easley, UCLA S – Somewhat overshadowed by the exploits of cross-town USC S Ronnie Lott, Easley is often lost in the conversation of the greatest defensive players of all-time.  However, the 6’1”, 205 heat seeking missile was first team All-Pac 10 four years in a row, first team All-American three years and ninth in the Heisman Trophy in 1980.  Rangy, fast and physical, Easley was a man ahead of his time.

5.  Mike Singletary, Baylor LB – Playing in Waco is one sure way to not garner much attention throughout one’s playing career, but Singletary left his mark as possibly the greatest SWC defender in history.  The debate about Singletary is how many helmets he actually broke during his career at Baylor (the number is well into the double digit range).  Regardless of the hardware he was obliterating, he was relentless and most people found that out in 1985 when he was the leader of the Bears 46 defense.  He just had been doing it before that in a big way in the green and gold.

4.  Tommy Nobis, Texas LB – The debate still rages to this day – Butkus or Nobis.  Okay, so maybe that battle still rages in my own head, but go with it anyway.  Due to the fact that Butkus’s pro career was superior to the former Horn’s, Nobis often is forgotten about, but during his mid-1960’s reign in Austin, there may not have been, arguably, a quicker and nastier linebacker running to the ball, including Butkus.  Texas funneled offenses back into Nobis and he became an All-time great because of it.

3.  Deion Sanders, Florida State CB – Passing offenses really started to take off in the mid-1980s and for a few years, defenses had no real answer as to how to slow down these vaunted passing attacks.  Well, that was before Prime Time.  Sanders changed the way corners played, talked and were allowed to perform after his run in the late 1980s.  As a cover corner, he’s had followers, but he was the original, the one and only.  His flash and dash added to his reputation, but his play solidified it.

2.  Hugh Green, Pitt OLB – As a college player, trying to block him was nearly impossible.  He flirted extensively with the Heisman in 1980, finishing second to South Carolina’s George Rogers, he capped his career at Pitt with one of the best seasons in defensive history.  A career that saw him rack up three straight years of first-team All-American honors and a Walter Camp player of the year award.  His combination of speed and quickness was lethal and very few teams found a way to completely take Green out of the game, unless they ran away from him all game long.

1.  Dick Butkus, Illinois MLB – Most people remember him as the menacing Chicago Bear, the real Monster of the Midway, but this was a guy who was controlled the middle of the Fightin’ Illini defense during the early to mid 1960s.  But, in addition to being such a great linebacker, he played center during his career as well.  Kids wanting to learn how to play linebacker could fire up a tape of him from the 1963/1964 seasons and learn all they wanted or needed to know.  Is that the real reason he’s at number one?  No – the real reason was that he was the purely the best defensive player that has played college football (of course, in my humble opinion).

The guys who didn’t make the list (subjective list, of course) aka Honorable Mention – Brian Bosworth, Lee Roy Selmon, Steve Emtman, Randy Gradishar, Chris Spielman, Charles Woodson, Lee Roy Jordan, Derrick Thomas, George Webster, Jerry Robinson, Ronnie Lott, Chuck Bednarik, Jack Ham, Bennie Blades, Reggie White, Warren Sapp, Ted Hendricks, Mark Carrier, Chris Zorich, David Pollack, George Webster, Bubba Smith, Don McNeal, Tommy Casanova, Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks, Wilber Marshall

Matthew Zemek  
Q: The ten greatest quarterbacks of all-time are ...

The ten best (to rank them other than No. 1 would only invite bitterness, so I'll skip that part):

Tommy Nobis, Lee Roy Selmon, Bubba Smith, Hugh Green, Dick Butkus, Jim Thorpe, Lee Roy Jordan, Charles Woodson, Ronnie Lott, Chris Zorich.

(Parenthetical note: The ten best defensive players I have consciously remembered seeing on TV, which technically spans the last 24 years but includes some early childhood years, would read like this: Chris Spielman, Tony Casillas, Russell Maryland, Woodson, Derrick Johnson, Al Wilson, David Pollack, LaVar Arrington, Marvin Jones, Steve Emtman.)

Best collegiate (Div. I-A) defensive player ever? Butkus. The man's reputation was enormously large even before his Bears career. Hard to imagine anyone casting more of a shadow over the college game as a player than the great linebacker. And oh, yeah: he led Illinois to a Rose Bowl, too. Over the long run of history, this is the least arguable selection one could make. Green almost won the 1980 Heisman--and many thought he should have won it, for that matter. Woodson did in fact win the '97 trophy. But those realities don't mean they eclipsed Butkus on an absolute level. Butkus is a name worthy of No. 1 distinction on this esteemed list.