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Peppers Leaps Atop UNC Record Book

DURHAM - Julius Peppers might be North Carolina's best defensive player, but the sophomore end is still learning from his teammates.

Take Saturday's 59-21 win against Duke for example.

Peppers sacked Blue Devil quarterback D. Bryant on the last play of the first quarter, jarring the ball loose. UNC's Joey Evans scooped it up on the 26-yard line and took off for the end zone.

Evans shook one tackle but was finally brought down on the 1.

"I was just trying to score," Evans said. "I should have dove. I thought I was going to get it, but I didn't see the quarterback come from behind."

Peppers took heed.

Then, midway through the second quarter, Peppers put his new piece of knowledge to work. On third down from the UNC 36-yard line, Peppers realized Duke was setting up a screen pass.

"Originally on the play I was supposed to go inside and rush, but I saw everybody releasing, and I just went with them," he said. "I was there when the ball came."

Peppers intercepted the pass on the 27 and made his own jaunt for the end zone. Then, remembering Evans' fumble recovery, Peppers leaped over the goal line for his second score of the season.

"I saw Joey get tackled at the 1, so I was just making sure I got in," said Peppers, who also returned a fumble for a touchdown against Wake Forest.

But scoring touchdowns wasn't the only thing on Peppers' mind Saturday. He entered the game three sacks shy of tying Lawrence Taylor's UNC record of 16 in a season.

Peppers got one on the play when Evans almost scored. He picked up his second early in the second quarter, before his touchdown.

After that sack, Peppers held up two fingers. He was just one sack away from matching the record from 1980, and more than eight minutes remained in the second quarter.

But Peppers never got to Duke's quarterback again, not even when the less-mobile Spencer Romine replaced Bryant, who left with an injured hand.

"It was in the back of my mind," Peppers said. "It wasn't something that I had to have."

So Peppers finished the year with 15 sacks but still set a UNC record for tackles for a loss. His second sack marked his 24th such stop of the season, one more than Ebenezer Ekuban's 1998 total.

"Same old Pep," UNC linebacker Brandon Spoon said. "It's getting kind of mundane for me to watch him. He's been here all year long. It's just now that all the attention is on him because of the sack record. He's a phenomenal athlete. The things he can do are just unbelievable."

Spoon compared Peppers to two of his former teammates, Ekuban and Greg Ellis, who registered 12.5 sacks in 1996 and used to rank second on the UNC list before Peppers supplanted him with three sacks against Pittsburgh.

Ekuban and Ellis play for the Dallas Cowboys now. In the NFL. A place Peppers might consider going soon.

"We've talked a little about that - he's not ready for that yet," then-UNC coach Carl Torbush said Saturday. "I feel like he'll be back. He's basically said he'll be back, but I'm not going to speak for him."

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A reporter told Peppers what Torbush said. His response?

"I'm not ready then."

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