Peppers speaks for his play

North Carolina: Not only is Julius Peppers prepared to show you that he's one of the best defensive players in the college game, he's now prepared to tell you.

September 01, 2001|By James Giza | James Giza,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - The voice in Julius Peppers' head has been saying it for a long time. He just never let the world in on the inner workings of his mind.

Not that the voice's message would come as a surprise to anyone now.

The big secret? No one can block him.

"I've been saying it to myself for a long time, like three years now," said North Carolina's All-America defensive end. "I can say it out in the open; I can let other teams hear it now because it's the truth."

But the junior doesn't consider himself the best defensive player in the nation. Far from it.

He considers himself the best in the nation. Period.

"I don't think I played like it on Saturday, but I still do think I am," said Peppers, referring to his five tackles and interception return for a touchdown in the Tar Heels' season-opening loss at No. 3 Oklahoma last week. He gets another chance today in Maryland's season opener at Byrd Stadium.

One certainly could challenge Peppers' claims. But after a stellar sophomore campaign that most likely made him a top first-round NFL draft prospect, discounting him could prove hasty.

Last season, Peppers, who also was a valuable reserve on the Tar Heels' basketball team, led the nation with 15 total sacks and finished third with 24 tackles for loss.

His tackles for loss set a single-season school record. His sack total was one short of the school's single-season record held by Lawrence Taylor, the legendary linebacker Peppers could supplant this season as the best defensive player North Carolina has fielded.

But the openness Peppers has shown this year is new for him.

By all accounts a quiet guy who tends to keep to himself, Peppers said he was short on confidence when he came to UNC from the small town of Bailey, N.C., as a talented but awkward freshman three years ago.

"It's been building up since I got here," said Peppers, who needs 12 sacks to break Greg Ellis' school record of 32.5. "Now, I feel like I can do anything I want to. Because mainly I have.

"When I first got here, I wanted to play basketball. I worked at it, and that was one of the big things I accomplished here. Once you start accomplishing stuff, your confidence gets higher."

And more accomplishments - say, the Lombardi Award, given to the nation's best interior lineman, or the Outland Trophy, given to the nation's best defensive lineman - could be headed his way soon.

Now listed at 6 feet 6, 285 pounds, Peppers said he put on about 15 pounds of muscle over the summer.

He has an impressive physique, but it's his other physical statistics that provide a fuller account: a 425-pound bench press, a 600-pound squat, 4.5-second speed in the 40 meters and a vertical leap of 37 1/2 inches.

Peppers' size, speed, agility and strength have drawn comparisons to Tennessee Titans end Jevon Kearse.

But first-year Carolina coach John Bunting, a linebacker for North Carolina from 1969 to '71 who played 11 years in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, had a different comparison: former Kansas City All-Pro linebacker Derrick Thomas.

"Derrick Thomas had an amazing quick twitch to get off the ball and speed-rush the quarterback," said Bunting, who spent eight years as an assistant in the NFL before coming to North Carolina. "This guy is a more powerful Derrick Thomas."

That's a pretty high compliment for a guy who looked funny just getting into his stance as a freshman.

"Everybody knows he's big, fast and strong," said North Carolina defensive tackle Ryan Sims, a senior. "But his freshman year, he was kind of clumsy, kind of goofy.

"Every time we got in stance, his had to be the ugliest. I mean, it was so funny. But the coaches stayed on him because they knew he could be good, just because he had all the physical tools."

They are tools he will almost certainly carry into the NFL next year.

Peppers said he is "95 percent" committed to declaring for the draft at season's end.

He's also "95 percent" sure he won't play basketball this winter. Peppers averaged 7.1 points and four rebounds as backup power forward last season.

"It's not definitely out," Peppers said. "Who knows? I might surprise everybody and come back one game. I'm not sure yet." But if he does decide to return, he'll definitely let the world know.

Julius Peppers doesn't keep his secrets to himself anymore.

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