NC’s best: The top defensive players, special teamers from the state

Many of North Carolina’s top defenders have stayed in the Old North State

NC State’s Drake Thomas (32) went to Heritage High School in Wake Forest and is now one of the ACC’s best linebackers. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

North Carolina high schools produce some of the top college football players in the nation each year. The state is packed with more than enough up-and-coming talent to support its seven FBS schools, as well as the other top programs from around the nation that annually cross the border to poach players.

Whether they decide to stay home or are willing to travel to play for a faraway team, we felt that North Carolina’s contributions to college football deserve some attention.

Each year for the past several seasons, we’ve named a North Carolina All-Bowl team in January. In addition to that, we’re unveiling our first annual Preseason All-North State Team.

Last week, we introduced you to the top players on offense. This week, we’ll unveil the defense and special teams.

The team is selected with an eye toward the high school talent they flashed right here in North Carolina, but it also gives a big nod to what the players have done afterward to live up to their potential. We used a combination of recruiting rankings (based on 247Sports) and their outlook for the 2022 season to make our selections.

Preseason All-North State Team, Defense

Defensive end: Desmond Evans, UNC (Sanford Lee County, ranked No. 2 in the state in 2020); Savion Jackson, NC State (Clayton, No. 3 in 2019)

Neither has produced huge sack numbers, but both are slotted as starting edge rushers this season. So they get the nod over Clemson’s K.J. Henry, who will be in the defensive end rotation for the Tigers.

Defensive tackle: Myles Murphy, UNC (Greensboro Dudley, No. 4 in 2020); C.J. Clark, NC State (New London North Stanly, No. 4 in 2019)

It’s the Tar Heels and Wolfpack on the interior of the line as well. UNC has an army of highly rated defensive linemen who have gained experience early in their career, as well as an impressive group of transfers, including Temple’s Xach Gill and Oregon’s Jordon Riley. Murphy is the most promising of the tackles. Clark missed most of last season and spring practice with an injury but has helped the Wolfpack to a 2-0 start at nose tackle.

Linebacker: Trenton Simpson, Clemson (Charlotte Mallard Creek, No. 1 in 2020); Drake Thomas, NC State (Wake Forest Heritage, No. 25 in 2019); Payton Wilson, NC State (Hillsborough Orange, No. 4 in 2018)

This group may look familiar — it’s also the Preseason All-ACC linebacker corps. This unit is the most talented on the All-North State Team. Virginia Tech’s Dax Hollifield and UNC’s Cedric Gray are expected to be key contributors to their teams.

Cornerback: Steven Jones Jr., App State (Rockingham Richmond, No. 102 in 2017); Shyheim Battle, NC State (Rocky Mount, No. 17 in 2019)

Jones was a first-team All-American last year and is a preseason second-team All-American this season. Battle has led the Pack in pass breakups each of the last two years. When the Duke goes to the nickel, it will bring in Tony Davis (Gastonia Hunter Huss, No. 12 in 2019).

Safety: Jireh Wilson, East Carolina (Jacksonville Northside, No. 58 in 2018); Solomon Rogers, Charlotte (Rolesville, unranked in 2019)

A pair of nearly overlooked in-state prospects head up this unit of the All-North State Team. Rogers was rated a two-star recruit but had 49 tackles and five pass defenses last season. Wilson may end up starting at linebacker instead of safety, like teammate Myles Berry (Greensboro Dudley).

Preseason All-North State Team, Special Teams

Kicker: Christopher Dunn, NC State (Lexington North Davidson, No. 77 in 2018)

This was not the no-brainer some may have expected, but that’s because of the old saying: Out of sight, out of mind. Yes, Dunn is the Wolfpack’s all-time career scoring leader and has multiple All-ACC and watch list selections. But Stanford’s Joshua Karty was the top kicker in the nation when he came out of Burlington’s Western Alamance in 2020. Karty was third-team All-Pac-12 as a redshirt freshman last year and should have plenty of time to earn the honor after Dunn departs.

Punter: Ben Kiernan, UNC (Raleigh Wakefield, No. 105 in 2019)

Again, not a no-brainer. App State’s Clayton Howell was a freshman All-American in 2018 but spent the last two seasons primarily as holder on kicks. He’s back at the Mountaineers’ punter this season.

Long snapper: Drew Little, UNC (New London North Stanly, No. 124 in 2019)

Kick returner: Will Shipley, Clemson (Matthews Weddington, No. 2 in 2021)

Also a starting running back on All-North State’s offense, Shipley averaged 27.0 yards per return last year.

Punt returner: Thayer Thomas, NC State (Wake Forest Heritage, not rated in 2017)

After walking on, Thomas has returned punts for four years, averaging 10 yards.