Look Ahead — 2022 Comeback of the Year: ‘Throwback’ Payton Wilson returns to Wolfpack for 1 more year

The NC State linebacker has fought injuries, but he can bolster both his draft stock and Dave Doeren’s defense with a big 2022 season

NC State linebacker Payton Wilson decided to return to the Wolfpack for one final season. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Nobody would have blamed Payton Wilson for cutting his losses, cashing in and declaring for the NFL Draft while he still has some value left.

But the NC State linebacker wasn’t ready to do that.

Despite an injury history that may already have affected his draft stock, including a shoulder ailment that forced him to miss all but two games this year, the ACC’s leading tackler in 2020 has decided to roll the dice and return to the Wolfpack next season.

It’s a decision that should bolster a defensive unit that ranked as one of the best in the conference without him this year and led the sports staff of the North State Journal to predict him as its choice to be the Comeback Player of the Year in 2022.

“There is a lot to talk about my injury history and what would be smart,” Wilson said in an interview with the USA Today Network before announcing his decision. “There are so many pros and cons with declaring. I know with these shoulder injuries, if I came back, I know what I would be able to do and raise my draft stock. But also, if I come back and get injured again, who knows what would happen.”

Wilson, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound wrecking ball from Hillsborough, was selected as the ACC’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year this summer after averaging 10.8 tackles per game with 3.5 sacks and a pair of interceptions a season ago.

Not only is he noted as one of the hardest hitters in the conference, but he’s also earned a reputation for being a trusted leader and a relentless competitor with a knack for always being around the ball.

“He’s a throwback,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. “He’s definitely like Jack Lambert and that old-school linebacker that’s just a vicious player. He plays extremely hard.”

That aggressiveness, however, has taken its toll on Wilson’s body.

He’s undergone two knee surgeries, the second of which forced him to redshirt his true freshman season at State. He suffered his first shoulder injury in the 2020 regular season finale at Georgia Tech, forcing him to miss State’s Gator Bowl game against Kentucky, then hurt it again while making a tackle early in the Wolfpack’s loss at Mississippi State on Sept. 11.

As painful as the injury was physically, it hurt Wilson almost as much to have to watch from the sideline as his teammates — led by his understudy Drake Thomas — put together a nine-win season that had State in the Atlantic Division race until the final game.

It’s an experience that has only added to his motivation now that his shoulder has been repaired by famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews and he looks to make yet another comeback.

“For him, this injury was really tough,” Wilson’s roommate, quarterback Devin Leary, told the USA Today Network. “He had high expectations but he’s going to come a lot better. I’m excited for him and for the world to see. He’s hungry and he’s ready to come back.”

Wilson was given a third-round draft grade before his latest injury. Where it goes from there will depend on how durable he proves to be in 2022.

He stands to make a lot of money if he can find a way to stay healthy. But that’s not why he’s chosen to come back for one final college season.

With virtually every other member of the defense also returning, Wilson’s sights are set squarely on helping State to its first ACC championship since 1979.

“This might sound corny and it might sound cliche, but (strength coach Dantonio Burnette) tells us every day that with team success comes individual success,” Wilson said at the ACC Kickoff preseason media event last July. “Nobody has higher expectations for myself than me, obviously. But I think that my whole focus, if I go out there and get one tackle but I help the team win, that’s way more important to me than if I go out there and have 20 tackles and we lose.

“The whole way that I look at the individual goals and individual success is that with team success comes individual success, and that’s been proven in the past.”