News & Observer sports columnist Caulton Tudor looks at the top all-time ACC football players by position. Today, the linebackers.
There was a time when North Carolina was referred to as "Tailback U" by some rival ACC football coaches.
While there was a lot of validity to that nickname, the Tar Heels always have had a richer tradition at linebacker.
In order to appreciate it completely, you have to look at the UNC players omitted from my all-time top 25 ACC linebackers today.
Missing from the 25 list are Shelton Robinson (10 seasons as an NFL regular), one-time walk-on David Thornton, Dwight Hollier, Darrell Nicholson, Keith Newman and David Simmons. And those are just a few.
Dating back to No. 22 Bill Koman and Rip Hawkins of the 1950s and continuing unabated through a parade of eight head coaches, Tar Heel linebacking has been an ACC automatic.
"If you're going to be a linebacker here, you know you're going to be looking at a high level of expectations," John Bunting (No. 17 on the list) said before his first season as coach in 2001.
Bunting and his staff then quickly developed Thornton into an all-star candidate and eventual pro star at Indianapolis and Tennessee.
The list of 25 has to start with Lawrence Julius Taylor, the best defensive player in the ACC during the final 15 or so games of his college career and probably the best pro linebacker ever.
In the most technical sense, Taylor was more of a natural athlete than natural linebacker. He was recruited in the mid 1970s by Bill Dooley to be an end. Early on, the staff thought Taylor might even be an offensive player - a guy with the quickness to develop into an I-formation fullback, tight end or maybe running back.
But midway through the '79 season as outside linebacker (then often categorized as a defensive end), Taylor began to terrorize the conference.
In his final season, 1980, Taylor became the second full-time defender to win the ACC player of the year vote. Duke's Ernie Jackson, a defensive back, won the award in 1971.
Early in the '80 season, Taylor was getting a lot of attention in the Heisman Trophy speculation on a team that would finish 11-1.
But a trip to Oklahoma in midseason ended in a 41-7 loss that found the Heels ill-equipped to deal with the Sooners' wishbone offense.
In shellshock after the game, Taylor said, "I've never seen that much quickness. Nobody has."
South Carolina running back George Rogers won the Heisman and Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green finished second.
A Tar Heel player hasn't won the top ACC award since.
Long before Taylor, UNC's Chris Hanburger was a linebacker and center in the days of one-platoon competition.
Although he excelled in both positions, the NFL scouts were not impressed. It wasn't until the 18th round that the Washington Redskins finally called his name - long after the team used its first pick on a tackle from Tulsa named Bob Breitenstein.
Thirteen seasons, six all-Pro elections and 19 interceptions later, Hanburger was ending a Hall of Fame career just as Taylor was beginning to emerge at UNC.
Transition to coaching
On today's list, Hanburger is at No. 4 - behind Taylor, Florida State's Derrick Brooks and Maryland's Shawne Merriman and two slots ahead of his contemporary, Bob Matheson of Duke.
A Boone native who died in 1994, Matheson's jersey No. 53 with the Miami Dolphins doubled as the 5-3 defense in which he starred and played on an undefeated team in 1972.
After his pro career, Matheson returned to Duke to work as an assistant coach.
Coaching talent has been a common theme in ACC linebacker. In addition to Bunting and Matheson, there's former N.C. State Bill Cowher at No. 24. Another Wolfpack great, Chuck Amato, just as easily could have been included. He was a defensive leader on an N.C. State team that was ranked No. 3 nationally entering the final two games of the season.
Later as coaches, Amato (N.C. State) and Bunting (UNC) created one of the most lively rivalries in league history.
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