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Published: August 28, 2018

The Best Defensive End in College Basketball

Julius Peppers enters his 17th NFL season next week. Before he became a NFL superstar, Peppers was a Tasamanian Devil of a two-sport athlete.

In the August 2001 issue of Sports Illustrated, Tim Crothers detailed the story of Peppers in a way only Crothers could do.

Peppers, a native of Bailey, N.C., was heavily recruited out of Southern Nash high school for both basketball and football.

How heavily recruited?

Crothers shares Peppers received so many recruiting letters that he was given his own mail slot in the school office.

His own mail slot.

Peppers rushed for 3,501 yards and 46 touchdowns at Southern Nash. Yes, he was a tailback and a defensive lineman.

He scored more than 1,600 points and pulled down over 800 rebounds on the basketball court. These numbers brought recruiting attention from a ton of schools, including Duke.

Amongst all the eye-opening statistics, maybe the most impressive tidbit Crothers shares in the article is this Bo Jackson level athletic ability:

The coach still shakes his head in disbelief as he recalls a three-hour football practice on a scorching summer day before Peppers’s junior season, after which all the other Firebirds lay sprawled on the grass or huddled around the water spigot.

Peppers strolled over to one end zone and began doing backflips the length of the field.

No hands. For 100 yards. In full pads and helmet.

Peppers accepted a football scholarship to North Carolina and he arrived on campus in the fall of 1998.

Peppers redshirted as a freshman, and his first action for the Tar Heels came in the fall of 1999. He started all 11 games for Carolina on the gridiron and earned Freshman All-America honors from the Sporting News.

Peppers led the team in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (6). He intercepted a pass, forced and recovered a fumble, and blocked a kick too.

Here’s Peppers tripping up Florida State’s Chris Weinke as a redshirt freshman:

In the clip above, commentators Brad Nessler and Bob Griese mention Peppers has his eyes on playing basketball too. Nessler mentions how Peppers told him head coach Bill Guthridge said he can play with the basketball team.

And he was right.

Carolina finished the 1999 football season with a 3-9 record. Peppers joined the basketball team as a walk-on after their trip to the Maui Invitational.

In his first couple games, Peppers played walk-on minutes. A grand total of two minutes against College of Charleston and UNLV.

In his third career contest, he earned five minutes against Buffalo, scoring 6 points and snagging a pair of rebounds. Pedestrian numbers, but something else happened in that Buffalo game.

No video evidence, but the media guide described it as a spectacular dunk that was featured on ESPN. You can imagine.

Kris Lang was hampered by injuries, Brian Bersticker broke his foot, and that gave Peppers an opportunity. He played his way into basketball shape and began to earn more minutes on the floor. Once January hit, the defensive end was becoming a major piece off a shallow bench.

Peppers battled ACC players like Georgia Tech’s Jason Collier, Maryland’s Terence Morris, Wake Forest’s Darius Songaila, and Duke’s Shane Battier. He wasn’t just holding his own, he was becoming a big-time player.

Watch this spin move and hook shot he puts on Battier:

Carolina finished the regular season 18-13 overall and 9-7 in the ACC earning an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

In the first round, the Tar Heels took care of a Quin Snyder coached Missouri team winning by 14 points. Brendan Haywood had 28 and 15, and Ed Cota had 10 assists to reach over 1,000 for his career. Peppers poured in 9 points and 4 rebounds in 14 minutes.

The win meant Carolina would meet Stanford, the 1-seed in the South Region.

Peppers had 6 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals to help Carolina beat Stanford 60-53. Stanford attempted 38 percent of their shots from behind the 3-point line, and made just 27 percent of those shots.

He had a huge and-1 at the end of the first half, and he was a force against Cardinal big-men Mark Madsen, Ryan Mendez, and Jason and Jarrod Collins.

After upsetting Stanford, Carolina matched up with Tennessee in the Sweet 16. The Vols were leading almost the entire game, but Tennessee went from the 7:15 mark in the second half to 13.6 seconds left in the game without a single made field goal.

The Tar Heels erased a 4-point deficit in the final 4 minutes to advance to the Elite 8 with a 74-69 win. Peppers was absolutely everywhere in this game.

6 points, 6 boards, a couple blocks, and a pair of clutch free throws down the stretch. He had an incredible bucket waved off due to a shot clock violation too.

The numbers don’t do it justice, look how he played:

Only Tulsa was in the way from Carolina making it to the Final Four. After Kris Lang turned his ankle within the first couple minutes of the game, there was an opportunity for Peppers to play early and often.

He caught an alley-oop from Cota, found Cota on a backdoor layup, changed a shot in the post, and then finished an acrobatic layup on the other end.

The way Peppers snatched rebounds out of the air was impressive. Think about that. Rebounds were impressive. James Worthy, Tar Heel great and color commentator, said he had pogo sticks in his legs. He was massive down the stretch.

Carolina beat Tulsa 59-55 to earn their 15th trip to the Final Four, and third in the last four years at that time. It was unexpected.


Because the Tar Heels owned a 7-8 record since January, and were unranked for the first time in a decade. Carolina avoided their first five-game losing streak since 1952 by beating Maryland 75-63 at home in late January (the snow game).

So what changed?

Julius has been a godsend for us. When basketball season is over, we’re going to loan him to the football team.

That’s what head coach Bill Guthridge said about Peppers.

Florida defeated Carolina 71-59 in the National Semifinal. Carolina was down 18-3 to start the game, and battled all the way back to gain a 50-46 lead. Cota picked up his 4th foul soon after that lead, and the Gators were just too much. Peppers played 17 minutes with a pair of rebounds and points.

The season was over.

Peppers played 34 percent of possible minutes in his first basketball season. He averaged 4.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.

If you extend his numbers to per 40 minutes, Peppers averaged 11.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per 40 minutes.

In his sophomore season with football, Peppers earned first-team All-ACC and first-team All-America honors.

Here are a few of Peppers accomplishments:

The 15 sacks were one shy of the school-record 16 held by Lawrence Taylor.

No video evidence found for that interception at Duke, however, look at his speed and athleticism deflecting this pass from Clemson’s Woody Dantzler:

Carolina finished 6-5 in Carl Torbush’s last season as head coach.

After football, it was time to for Peppers to play basketball joining first-year head coach Matt Doherty.

Peppers played in his first game that season at UCLA on December 23, 2000. Carolina won 80-70, and he added 6 points and 4 rebounds.

A couple weeks later, Carolina welcomed Wake Forest on January 6, 2001. The Demon Deacons were 12-0 and ranked 4th in the country.

Fellow two-sport star Ronald Curry was finally healthy, and taking over the reigns as the point guard. Curry and Peppers made their presence known against Wake Forest.

After Josh Howard made a free throw, the Demon Deacons were up 55-51 with about 9 minutes to go. And then the game shifted.

Peppers threw down a left-handed dunk plus the foul. He failed make the free throw, but you know what happened next.

Curry hit Peppers for an alley-oop, and Wake Forest head coach Dave Odom called a necessary timeout.

Consider Peppers was doing this on a basketball court just 49 days after recording two sacks and a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown at Duke.

Brendan Haywood somehow cleaned up a loose ball for a layup to help Carolina beat Wake Forest 70-69.

Peppers continued to show he could compete against anyone in college basketball. A week later, after he shared he wouldn’t enter the NFL draft that spring, Peppers had 13 and 9 in a 30-point win over Marquette.

Head coach Matt Doherty joked after the game about his performance.

He’s decided not to enter the NBA draft today - that’s the press release today. What a basketball player. He’s exceptional.

Peppers was once again an important piece off the bench, and he even found his way into the starting lineup.

Carolina won 18 games in a row that season, rose to the top-ranking in the country, and won a share of the ACC regular-season. The ranking faded, and Tar Heels were knocked out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Penn State.

In what would be his last collegiate game, Peppers scored 21 points and pulled down 12 rebounds.

Peppers numbers improved in his second season, he averaged 7.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. Keep in mind, he played in only 33 percent of possible minutes in his sophomore campaign.

If you calculate his numbers per 40 minutes, he averaged 16.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per 40 minutes that season.

And for his career, Peppers averaged 13.6 points, 9 rebounds, 0.9 blocks, 1.4 steals, and 1.1 assists per 40 minutes.

Advanced statistics are hard to track down from 18 years ago, but here is how is an incomplete advanced statline for Peppers career over his two seasons:

Player %Min eFG TS% OR% DR% Blk%
Julius Peppers 33.5 60.7 63.4 10.0 13.4 4.5

The stats won’t ever tell the whole story. Teammates and coaches will tell you he was one of the smartest players on the floor, and had a ton of ability.

For example, Maryland’s head coach Gary Williams said Peppers does things on the court you can’t teach.

Even Billy Packer said this about him:

Julius Peppers not only has great size and hands, but also the best basketball court sense of any player in the country.

Peppers started his final collegiate football season under another first-year head coach in John Bunting.

It included the following accolades:

Peppers finished his career with 30.5 sacks and 53 tackles for a loss, both ranking second all-time in school history. He put up those numbers in only three seasons, not four, like Greg Ellis (32.5 sacks) and William Fuller (57 tackles for loss).

He still holds the record for most sacks in a game with four against Virginia in 2000.

Again the numbers don’t do it justice. Peppers was double-teamed and triple-teamed the majority of his junior season.

This interception against Clemson is incredible. Peppers deflects the pass, falls to his knees, and lunges to catch the ball.

There was a good amount of Heisman Trophy talk around Clemson quarterback Woody Dantzler entering that game. Dantzler put up 935 total yards in the two games before playing Peppers and Carolina.

The Tar Heels dismantled Clemson 38-3 and held the Tigers to 209 yards on offense. After the game, media was mentioning Peppers as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Not Dantzler.

The Tar Heels beat Auburn 16-10 to win the Peach Bowl that season.

Peppers chose not to play basketball during the 2001-2002 season. And it’s hard to argue that decision.

Peppers was drafted second overall by the Carolina Panthers in the 2002 NFL Draft.

He’s now the only player in NFL history with at least 150 sacks and 10 or more interceptions.

A gold jacket awaits him.

The 2001-2002 basketball team finished with a 8-20 record without Peppers, and it makes you wonder if he would have made a difference.

Ask Mark Madsen of Stanford. Here’s what he recalled after playing against Peppers in the NCAA Tournament.

They throw Peppers in there, and he’s some football guy. Then you’ve got a handful.

You’ve got football lineman’s skills you’ve got to deal with, swim moves, leg strength. It’s hard.

Because Julius Peppers was the best defensive end in college basketball.