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 linebacker.
Tier 1: Lawrence Taylor
Linebacker is the first position group where we find a first tier that contains just one member. Lawrence Taylor is widely considered one of the greatest football players to ever step on the gridiron. While his Tar Heel football career might not be as storied as his New York Giant career was, but he put together a legendary career in Chapel Hill. Defensive stats were not fully kept until 1979, so it’s tough to say exactly where LT stacks up in some of the all-time defensive statistics. However, Taylor’s final two seasons show just how rare of a player he was. In 1979, he nearly reached the 100 total tackle mark falling just five short, while also racking up 11.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks. Prior to the 1980 season, though, head coach Dick Crum asked for more consistency from Taylor and boy did he get it. As part of the Heels stingy 1980 defense that helped lead the Tar Heels to an 11-1 record, he would rack up 69 total tackles, 22.0 tackles for loss and 16.0 sacks, the latter of which still stands as a record for sacks in a season. Taylor would be named a unanimous first-team All-American and the ACC Player of the Year in 1980 before going on to have one of the greatest pass rushing careers in NFL history.
Tier 2: Brian Simmons, Tommy Thigpen, Dwight Hollier, Kivuusama Mays
The second tier of this list begins with a linebacker that many feel comes the closest to LT. A three-year starter at Carolina, Simmons finished his career with 100+ tackles in two of his three seasons on campus and finished his career with 319 total tackles and 36.0 tackles for loss, both of which are still near the top of the list in program history. Simmons finished with at 9.0 tackles for loss in all three of his seasons as a starter, including 13.0 as a senior. Simmons earned first-team All-ACC and second-team All-America honors as a junior in 1996 and second-team All-ACC and first-team All-America honors in 1997.
Tommy Thigpen, the Tar Heels current co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, returned to Chapel Hill prior to last season following a great playing career for Carolina. Thigpen finished his Tar Heel career with 409 total tackles, 32.0 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks, but the stats really don’t explain just how dominant he was in his college career. Thigpen was somehow never named to an All-American team, but he was a three-time All-ACC member from 1990-92. As a sophomore and senior, Thigpen earned second-team honors, while his 1991 junior land him first-team honors.
Dwight Hollier might currently be a member of the football offices, but he is remembered for much more than just that. Hollier is one of the all-time leaders in total tackles in program history and holds two of the top marks for tackles in a season by a Tar Heel with his 159 in 1989 and his 155 in 1990 and his 314 total tackles in that two-year span only ranks behind Buddy Curry for the most in a two-year span. Hollier never earned All-American honors, but closed his career with second-team All-ACC honors in 1989 and first-team honors in 1990.
Kivuusama Mays was the toughest linebacker to place on this list, but there was just too much there to not place him in the second tier. Like Thigpen, Mays was a three-time All-ACC selection, but landed himself on the first-team twice (1995, 1997) and even earn a spot on the third-team Associated Press All-America team in 1997. Mays teamed with Simmons and a name we’ll find later on down in this list, Sedrick Hodge to form arguably the best linebacking corps in program history.
Tier 3: Buddy Curry, Irv Holdash, Brandon Spoon, Darrell Nicholson
Kicking off the third tier is one of the Tar Heels best volume tacklers in Tar Heel history. Buddy Curry shared the field with Lawrence Taylor and helped combine with him to make one of the greatest tackling duos in the country. Curry holds the record for the most tackle in both a season (171 in 1979) and a two-year span (326 in 1978-79). Curry would be voted a first-team All-ACC in both 1977 and 1979, but would never land on an All-America team.
Irv Holdash was a first-team All-American back in 1950, but with the lack of stats and the fact that he was a player that played both sides of the ball, we decided to place him in Tier 3. Holdash was a two-time first-team All-Southern Conference member and was also a key member of the 1949 defense that helped the Tar Heels on the way to a Cotton Bowl appearance.
A crowd favorite in his time in Chapel Hill, Brandon Spoon was only a two-year starter at Carolina, but his upward trajectory began as a sophomore. Amongst a packed linebacking corps, Spoon carved out a nice role as a rotational option at linebacker. Spoon would be named to the second-team All-ACC in 1998 following a phenomenal junior season where he recorded 138 total tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks. After a torn bicep cost him his 1999 season, he would return for a redshirt senior season where he would finish with 131 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack and land back on the second-team All-ACC.
Darrell Nicholson was the third member of a dominant linebacking for the Tar Heels in that 1980 season, but he pieced together a strong career in his time on Carolina‘s campus. Nicholson began his career by being named the ACC Freshman of Year in 1978 after racking up 127 total tackles and 6.0 total tackles. In his first three seasons on campus, Nicholson would finish with over 115 total tackles, including a career high 147 in 1979, as season that he received no recognition for by the writers. In 1980, Nicholson‘s number would regress as he finished with 117 total tackles and 3.0 tackles for loss, but they were enough to earn him first-team All-ACC honors. His senior season was derailed by an injury or he may have been able to climb into the second tier.
Tier 4: Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter, Mike Wilcher, Cole Holcomb
The first member of the Butch Davis-era linebacking corps gets us started here in the fourth tier. Quan Sturdivant was a three-year starter for the Tar Heels in his four years on campus. Unlike many others on this list, Sturdivant’s best year on campus came as a sophomore, where, despite not even named as an All-ACC honorable mention, he finished with 122 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks. The next season, though, as a junior he would be named to the All-ACC first while racking up 79 total tackles and 12.0 tackles for loss. An injury would derail a promising start to Sturdivant’s senior season, preventing him from being named at least an honorable mention once again. One can only wonder if he would have snuck into Tier 3 had he stayed healthy.
His teammate, Bruce Carter, is another solid Tier 4 member. While his number may not have been those of Sturdivant’s, but he was still a productive three-year starter at linebacker. Carter finished with at least 50 tackles in each of his final three seasons on campus, but made a sizable impact on special teams that helped to boost his career. As a senior, Carter was finally able to earn All-ACC honors, landing on the second-team in 2010.
For the third member of our fourth tier, we go back to the early 1980s to one of the linebackers who helped replace that historically great corps of the late 70s, Mike Wilcher. The two-year starter landed on the first-team All-ACC in 1982, propelling to become a second round selection in the 1983 NFL Draft.
For the final member of the fourth tier, we find a Tar Heel who’s career concluded this past season. Although Cole Holcomb played during a difficult time defensively for the Tar Heels, his climb from a walk-on to the leader of Tar Heel defense was a phenomenal one. Holcomb finished with at least 90 tackles in each of his final three seasons, leading the team in tackles as a sophomore and senior. Holcomb was named a second-team All-ACC member as a senior and deservedly so after being spurned the prior two years.
Tier 5: Eric Gash, Durrell Mapp, Sedrick Hodge, Bernardo Harris
The final group begins with Dwight Hollier and Tommy Thigpen’s running mate, Eric Gash. Gash was a three-year starter at Carolina and closed his career with two straight appearances on the second-team All-ACC in 1990 and 1991. It was hard to stand out amongst that loaded duo at linebacker, but Gash did enough to land on this list.
Durrell Mapp is the second walk-on to make an appearance on this list. Mapp started 27 games in his time at Carolina and led the team in tackles as a junior and senior. As a senior, Mapp finished with 132 total tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks, landing him with 2007 second-team All-ACC honors.
Sedrick Hodge is another name that was stashed behind stars in his time in Chapel Hill. In his time on campus, Hodge racked up 275 total tackles and 10.5 sacks. The bulk of his production will came in his final two seasons, headlined by a phenomenal senior season where he finished with 82 total tackles and 7.0 sacks. That senior season landed him an All-ACC honorable mention.
Bernardo Harris is the final member of this prestigious list of linebackers. Harris was another member of those early 1990s teams that thrived late in his career. In his final two seasons, Harris racked 175 total tacklesc leading the team in tackles both season. As a senior, his services would earn him second-team All-ACC honors.