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All-time UNC Football Top 25 Countdown: No. 1 Lawrence Taylor

The unanimous All-American tops our list of the greatest Tar Heel football players.

Lawrence Taylor
Lawrence Taylor off the end
Photo courtesy UNC Athletic Communications

This summer, Tar Heel Blog will profile the top 25 players in the history of the North Carolina football program. The rankings were determined by votes from readers and staff.

During his sophomore season in 1978, Lawrence Taylor played at inside linebacker and nose guard. Nagging injuries and his play in these positions combined for a lackluster year for him. In his junior season, Taylor was moved to his natural position of outside linebacker and everything started to fall into place.

Prior to the 1980 season, this is what Coach Dick Crum had to say about Taylor:

When he has his mind on his business, he's as good as there is. I'm talking about everybody in the country now. He is that talented. But, he's got to be mentally ready every Saturday. As coaches, we can help him get there. But, in the end, he has to develop that intensity himself. If he does, he's going to be a great one.

Taylor certainly made 1980 a great one and set himself up for a Hall of Fame career. Taylor’s All-American season led a defense that finished eighth nationally in scoring defense and 11th in total defense. The 1980 team finished 11-1 overall, had a final AP ranking of 10th, and captured the last ACC Championship for the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Career at UNC

Lawrence Taylor Career Statistics

Year Total Tackles Fumbles Caused Fumbles Recovered Tackles for Loss Sacks Interceptions
Year Total Tackles Fumbles Caused Fumbles Recovered Tackles for Loss Sacks Interceptions
1978 28 0 0 0 0 0
1979 95 7 0 11-70 5-51 1
1980 69 3 3 22-149 16-127 0
Totals 192 10 3 33-219 21-178 1

*Complete individual defensive statistics were not kept prior to 1978.

Taylor holds the UNC program record for sacks in a season with 16. His 21 career sacks ranks fifth at Carolina. Additionally, he is tied for third in career tackles for loss with 33.

Honors and Awards

Taylor is one of only three Tar Heels to be named Unanimous All-Americans. Because of this honor in 1980, his #98 jersey is honored in Kenan Memorial Stadium.

Lawrence Taylor - New York Giants - File Photos Getty

He was selected as the ACC Player of the Year in 1980. Taylor was only the fourth defensive player since 1953 to win ACC Player of the Year honors, and just one of nine in history.

In 2002, Taylor was named one of the Top 50 ACC football players during the first 50 years of the league.

Top Games at UNC

In his return to his natural outside linebacker position in 1979, Taylor began to make his mark on the UNC defense, especially towards the end of the season. The Tar Heels finished the regular season 7-3-1 and were invited to the 1979 Gator Bowl against Michigan. After Matt Kupec tossed a 16-yard touchdown pass to Phil Farris to give UNC the 14-9 lead, the Carolina defense took control.

In the next five Michigan possessions, UNC forced four turnovers, including a fumble recovery by Taylor. He recorded a sack in that game as well, and received votes for the MVP of that 17-15 Carolina Gator Bowl victory.

After UNC

Taylor was selected with the second overall pick in 1981 NFL Draft by the New York Giants. He spent his entire professional career with the Giants.

In his first 10 seasons in the league, he was named to the Pro Bowl. In nine of those ten, he was named an All-Pro, including each year in the first six seasons.

He earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1981. Taylor won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award two more times in his career in 1982 and 1986.

That 1986 season was the best of Taylor’s career. He led the league with a record 20.5 sack to lead the league. It’s a mark that is the seventh best all-time in a single-season in the NFL. In a game against the Philadelphia Eagles on October 12, 1986, Taylor recorded four sacks in one game.

Taylor was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1986. He is the last, and one of just two defensive players to be named the league’s MVP.

He was a Super Bowl XXI and XXV champion with the Giants. Always a prime time performer, Taylor had multiple games with multiple sacks. His 6.5 career playoff sacks are tied with another Carolina great Julius Peppers.

Taylor ended his professional career with 132.5 sacks, second all-time when he retired and now good for 13th all-time in the NFL. He finished his career with over 1,000 tackles, 11 fumble recoveries, nine interceptions, and two touchdowns.

Lawrence Taylor waves Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

He was named to the NFL 1980s All-Decade Team, the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and in 1999 inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Despite his excellence on the field, Taylor’s personal life has been plagued by personal and legal problems since the early years in his professional career.