RALEIGH — Payton Wilson had made up his mind. He was confident. Determined; mentally and physically ready to take the next step in his football career.
Prior to the Wolfpack’s season finale against UNC, the NC State linebacker had privately decided that he would forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft at the end of the 2022 season. And a dramatic 30-27 win in double overtime at Chapel Hill looked like a perfect send-off for the former tar heel conscript, who famously left as a high school senior to his hated rival in the state.
It was Wilson’s first win against UNC and only the second time he has faced the Tar Heels since enlisting in 2017. He had missed three of his four opportunities with injuries, only playing during a 41–10 loss at Carter Finley Stadium in 2019.
“That was the icing on the cake,” Wilson told the USA TODAY Network.
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Yes, the 2022 season hadn’t gone as planned — the Wolfpack missed a division title and their first Atlantic Coast Conference title since 1979, and still managed to win eight games with four different quarterbacks — but Wilson had shown that his breakout -Season 2020 #1 was Fluke.
After missing most of 2021 with a shoulder blade injury, he returned with the same fury and engine that made him a legitimate NFL prospect two years ago. He finished the tournament with 86 total tackles and ranked fifth in the ACC with 4.5 sacks while NC State was the only FBS defense to hold opponents to under 30 points in every game — the first time in 42 years, that a Wolfpack defense had accomplished that feat.
Fellow linebackers Drake Thomas and Isaiah Moore had already made plans to practice in Florida for the NFL draft. Wilson’s best friend and former roommate, quarterback Devin Leary, had been transferred to Kentucky.
The timing of departure felt right.
As he prepared for his final college football game in December — a duel between Duke’s Mayo Bowl and Maryland — Wilson heard disturbing feedback from NFL agents and scouts. They started out as whispers but built into a powerful rumble.
“Can he stay healthy? Is he worth the risk?”
They were questions Wilson knew were coming, although he expected to quell some of that fear with his recent play. There was nothing he could do about his past injuries or the 10 different surgeries he’d undergone over the past half decade, mostly on stubborn shoulders that took the brunt of his intensity.
He missed minimal time in 2022, exiting the season opener with a minor stinger against ECU and sitting out the next week as a precaution against Charleston Southern. He stayed healthy and on the field for the rest of the season.
“Some of them said they think I need to get two healthy years together,” Wilson said. “I’ve heard from other guys that I could go anywhere from the third round to a drafted game or that some teams might not even look at me because of my injuries.”
He was left with a choice, one filled with opportunity and risk. Either way, nothing was certain. Nothing is ever. Wilson consulted with his parents, NC State Coach Dave Doeren and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. He texted his older brother Bryse, a right-handed pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. But ultimately he was told to do what was on his heart.
On December 31, a day after amassing 10 tackles and two sacks in a 16-12 loss to Maryland, Wilson announced his decision to return to NC State for his sixth season. That same day, he received his invite to the NFL Combine.
That’s how funny life is, he thought.
Wolfpack fans celebrated the announcement — a consolation prize after a stunning 2022 — as Wilson kicked off his plans for a new year and one final college football season. He wants to prove that his injury-prone past is behind him, that he’s learned to look after his body, and that two healthy seasons can turn into three, then four, and ultimately lead to a successful NFL career. He’s also poised to deliver on the program expectations that the wolf pack hinted at.
“I put all my balls in this basket,” Wilson said. “And then I’ll go all out.”