NC State’s Payton Wilson highlights Bronko Nagurski award finalists, crowned in Charlotte

The five finalists have been named for the recipient of this year’s Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which will be awarded to the nation’s top defensive player on Dec. 4 in Charlotte.

The finalists, including N.C. State linebacker Payton Wilson, were announced Wednesday by the Football Writers Association of America and the Charlotte Touchdown Club. Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. has won the award in each of the past two seasons, and his successor will be crowned at the Dec. 4 reception at Charlotte Convention Center.

Payton Wilson, N.C. State

N.C. State linebacker Payton Wilson is among the finalists. The 6-foot-4, 238-pound graduate student leads the ACC and ranks fifth nationally with 11.2 tackles per game. He’s led the Wolfpack (7-3) in tackles in eight of their 10 games.

Wilson, a Hillsborough native, has been nicknamed a “wrecking ball” by N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren. In the past eight games, Wilson has led a Wolfpack defense that has limited its opponents to just 84.1 rushing yards per game.

Malaki Starks, Georgia

Georgia safety Malaki Starks marks the third straight year in which the Bulldogs field a finalist for this award. Though cornerback Champ Bailey, in 1998, represents their only winner, Georgia has had five finalists in the last six years.

Starks, a sophomore, has had some big moments on head coach Kirby Smart’s defense. He’s fifth on the team with 33 tackles and tied for second with five pass breakups.

Xavier Watts, Notre Dame

Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts leads the nation with seven interceptions — five of which have come in the team’s past three games.

The junior is the first Fighting Irish player to record multiple interceptions in consecutive games, along with becoming the first FBS player since 2020 to accomplish that feat. He looks to become the first Notre Dame player since Manti Te’o (2012) to win the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.

Jer’Zhan Newton, Illinois

Illinois junior Jer’Zhan Newton leads the country in quarterback pressures among interior defensive linemen with 39, according to Pro Football Focus.

The 6-foot-2, 295-pound junior also leads all defensive tackles in the FBS with 61.1 snaps played per game. His 42 tackles rank sixth among the Fighting Illini, who have never had a Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner, nor a finalist since Whitney Mercilus in 2011.

Cooper DeJean, Iowa

Iowa cornerback Cooper DeJean has 41 tackles this season, along with a pair of interceptions and five pass breakups. He’s been a key part of the Hawkeyes’ strong defense that currently ranks third nationally giving up 12.3 points per game.

The junior is one of the most experienced players on Iowa, which has never had a winner of this award. It has boasted finalists recently, including Daviyon Nixon in 2020.