It’s time for another installment of the Heel Tough Blog’s offseason series. The series will place the top players in Tar Heel football history at each position group into five different tiers to determine their standings in Tar Heel history. The series will continue today by looking at the five tiers of Tar Heel defensive linemen.
Tier 1: Julius Peppers, William Fuller
Everyone knew who the first name was going to be on this list, and rightfully so. Maybe the best two-sport athlete in Carolina athletics history, Peppers wasted no time making an impact on the football field. As a freshman in 1999, he was a first-team freshman All-American and finished sixth in the ACC in sacks with 6.0. His career only took off from there. As a sophomore in 2000, Peppers led the nation with 15.0 sacks and finished third in the country with 24.0 tackles for loss while earning first-team All-American honors. In his final season on campus in 2001, Peppers’ numbers would drop off a bit, but his 19.0 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks were still enough to earn him the Chuck Bednarik, Lombardi and Bill Willis awards and be named a unanimous first-team All-American. His 30.5 sacks are currently second in school history, while his 53.0 tackles for loss are the most in school history.
It was tough to decide whether or not Peppers deserved to be in a tier by himself, but we felt that William Fuller’s accomplishments were too lofty to leave out of the first tier. The NFF College Football Hall of Famer put together one of the most impressive careers in his time in Chapel Hill, racking up consecutive first-team All-America appearances in 1982 and 1983. Fuller was a three-time first-team All-ACC member in four seasons on campus and in each of those seasons, he finished with 13.0+ tackles for loss. His 57.0 tackles for loss is still a program record to this day and his 20.0 sacks are currently 6th. While he was not named an All-American in 1981, his sophomore season (84 ttkl, 22.0 TFL, 9.0 scks) is arguably the best season of his career.
Tier 2: Greg Ellis, Marcus Jones, Paul Severin
Greg Ellis was the toughest defensive linemen to leave out of the first tier. Ellis is the school’s career sack leader with 32.5 and never finished a season with less than 4.0 sacks in the season. While Ellis got his career off to a fast start, his junior season was where he took things to the next level. As a junior, Ellis finished as a second-team All-American and first-team All-ACC while racking up 62 total tackles, 12.5 sacks, which still ranks third in school history for a single season, and a school-record 38 quarterback pressures. He would finish his career with a senior season that saw him earn consensus first-team All-American and first-team All-ACC honor, while also being named a Lombardi Trophy finalist in a season where he tallied 87 total tackles, 9.0 sacks and 32 quarterback pressures.
Marcus Jones was another difficult player to leave out of Tier 1. Jones finished his four-year career with three staright seasons of 10.0+ tackles for loss and 7.0+ sacks. Jones career was headlined by his senior season where he finished with 94 total tackles, 19.0 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks. That senior season landed Jones with consensus first-team All-American honors and first-team All-ACC honors for the second straight season. He finished his career with 46.0 tackles for loss (4th in school history) and 24.0 sacks (T-3rd in school history).
Paul Severin, who we saw earlier this offseason amongst the tight ends, closes out this second tier. Labeled one the greatest tacklers in Tar Heel history, Severin was a two-time first-team All-American in 1939 and 1940 and was the best player on a Tar Heel defense that allowed a stingy 6.2 points per game in his three seasons in Chapel Hill.
Tier 3: Dee Hardison, Andy Bershak, Quinton Coples, Robert Quinn
Dee Hardison is right on the borderline of the second and third tier, but we decided to place him as the first player in Tier 3. The 2007 North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame inductee was a first-team All-ACC member in each of his final two seasons and was a first-team All-American in 1977 as part of a Tar Heel defense that allowed just 7.4 points per game.
Andy Bershak was one of the best two-way players in Carolina history, but lands with the defensive linemen because of his label as a “defensive terror”. While defensive stats were not kept during Bershak’s era, his consensus first-team All-America selection in 1937 and second-team selection the year prior speak volumes about his defensive prowess. Bershak was the leader of a defense that shutout 13 opponents in his three-year career from 1935 to 1937.
Quinton Coples is the first member of this list that never received first-team All-American honor, but he is still deserving of a Tier 3 spot. Coples was a full-time starter at Carolina until his junior season, but as a sophomore, he still finished with 6.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks. In both of his seasons as a starter, Coples had 15.0+ tackles for loss and 7.5+ sacks. Both of those seasons resulted in first-team All-ACC honors and a Scout.com second-team All-America honor in 2010. Coples 41.0 tackles for loss are a top 10 number in program history and his 24.0 sacks are tied for third with Tier 2 member Marcus Jones.
Robert Quinn is an interesting case, but we decided that he was deserving of a spot in the third tier. Although he only played two years at Carolina before being declared ineligible, both of his seasons in Chapel Hill were strong ones. While Quinn didn’t start as a freshman in 2008, he was able to rack up 34 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. Quinn would explode on to the scene as a sophomore, though, leading the ACC in tackles for loss in 2009 with 19.0 and finished second in sacks (11.0) and forced fumbles (6). If he hadn’t be declared ineligible and eventually dismissed from the team, one would imagine Quinn would have been a member of Tier 2.
Tier 4: Sylvester Williams, Kareem Martin, Hilee Taylor, Vonnie Holliday
Tier 4 kicks off with one of the best transfer players in Carolina history. Sylvester Williams was only on campus for his junior and senior season, but in that time was extremely impactful. In his two seasons on campus, Williams wreaked havoc in the middle of the Tar Heel defense, totaling 96 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in those two seasons. Williams was named a 2012 first-team All-ACC selection and was also a Pro Football Weekly first-team All-American that same season.
Williams teammate, Kareem Martin, is the next member of this fourth tier. Martin was a three-year starter at defensive end for the Tar Heels in his four years at Carolina, finishing his career with 178 total tackles, 45.5 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks, the latter of which rank 7th in school history. Martin was a second-team All-ACC member in 2012, before earning first-team honors for his stellar senior season (82 ttkl, 21.5 TFL, 11.5 scks).
Hilee Talyor may not have had the greatest start to his career, but his move to defensive end paid dividends. Taylor struggled to make much more than a rotational impact in his first three seasons at Carolina in the linebacking corps. However, as a senior, Taylor earned second-team All-ACC and third-team All-American honors while finishing with 49 total tackles, 16.0 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Taylor’s 19.0 career sacks still rank 8th in school history.
Vonnie Holliday is the final member of the fourth tier and was one of the Tar Heels top defensive linemen during the Mack Brown-era. A first-team All-ACC member in 1997, Holliday finished his Tar Heel career with 162 total tackles, 28.0 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks. In each of his final two seasons, Holliday tallied 11.0+ tackles for loss and 5.0+ sacks.
Tier 5: Ebenezer Ekuban, Ryan Sims, Donnell Thompson, Malik Carney
Ebenezer Ekuban is another player who had to switch positions before making an impact at Carolina, but became an integral part of the defense at defensive end. In his two seasons on the defensive side of the football, Ekuban racked up 136 total tackles and 12.0 sacks. If he had spent more time at defensive end, Ekuban would likely be much higher on this list.
Ryan Sims was a four-year impact player for the Tar Heels and lands on the list thanks to a strong senior season. Sims had 51 total tackles and 5.0 sacks in his senior season, which were enough to land him on the first-team All-ACC and even earn third-team All-American honors.
Donnell Thompson may not have been the headliner of the Tar Heels defense in the late 70s and 1980, but he still put together a very solid Tar Heel career. A three-year starter, Thompson earned first-team All-ACC honors as a senior in 1980, while also landing on the third-team All-America.
The final member of the list is the most recent defensive linemen in Carolina history. Malik Carney initially came to Carolina as an outside linebacker before putting his hand in the dirt as a sophomore. While he never even received an All-ACC honorable mention, Carney finished his career with 176 total tackles, 32.5 tackles for loss and 17.0 sacks. Carney’s best season came as a senior, where he racked up 60 total tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks in just eight games.