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Wednesday, August 6, 2014
North Carolina tops best defensive seasons

By Andrea Adelson

Offensive players generally get all the love -- and #TheSeason proves exactly that point.

One incredible quarterback performance follows another incredible running back performance up and down the list. But among the ACC standouts, defensive players get more than their share of the spotlight.

Three ACC schools featured a defender as the choice for best single-season performance on ESPN.com's #TheSeason project: Elvis Dumervil at Louisville, Ed Reed at Miami and Lawrence Taylor at North Carolina. That does not include Pitt defensive end Hugh Green or Virginia Tech defensive end Bruce Smith or or Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly or Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders, all impressive in their own right.

Among the best seasons we selected, North Carolina presented one of the most unique scenarios -- choosing between two dominant defensive players: Taylor and defensive end Julius Peppers. Taylor was unblockable in 1980, with 16 sacks, 22 tackles for loss and 16 sacks.

But Peppers was special, too, excelling at both football and basketball. He dominated in 2001, becoming the first North Carolina player to win national football awards (Lombardi and Bednarik) while finishing 10th in Heisman voting. He did not have as many sacks as LT (9.5) but he did have three interceptions as a defensive lineman, proof that his athleticism helped him in ways that allowed him to become a force off the edge of the line. Taylor? Well, he had one career interception.

We can take the North Carolina debate one step further and also include cornerback Dre' Bly. In 1996, he became the first freshman defensive player in college football history to earn consensus All-America honors. He led the nation with 11 interceptions that year (Bly added two more in the bowl game but postseason stats did not count at the time). Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice deserves recognition for being a "triple-threat" to run, pass and punt in the late 1940s, but there is no denying some of the top single-season performances at North Carolina belong to defensive players.

See, plenty of love to go around.