The rotund coach with the intense eyes and the bushy gray
mustache would not be denied. Munching on an apple and stopping
every last member of his video staff while ambling through the
Kenan Football Center, North Carolina coach John Bunting was
looking for tape of his star defensive lineman. In particular
Bunting wanted film from the Tar Heels' game last Sept. 8 against
Texas. But it wasn't Julius Peppers, Carolina's All-America
defensive end, whom Bunting was looking to show off. Rather, it
was tackle Ryan Sims. "That [Texas game] was the day when the
light really clicked on for Ryan, when he played more physical
than ever," recalls defensive-tackles coach Rod Broadway.
It also will be remembered as the day that Sims began to emerge
from Peppers's shadow. Now Sims is climbing to the upper reaches
of draft boards. Considered a middle-round selection before last
season, he is likely to be a Top 10 pick in this weekend's
draft. Coaches, front-office executives and scouts marvel at his
quickness, intelligence and passion for the game. Peppers, a
pass-rushing specialist, could go as high as second, but
Bunting, who spent 19 years in the NFL as a player or coach,
says, "People ask me all the time who I would draft if I could
pick between Julius and Ryan. I tell them that plays leading to
negative yardage are big, and a pass rusher like Julius can
create a lot of them. But at this moment, there's no question
that Ryan is a more complete player than Julius."
Sims, who has been living and training in Atlanta since leaving
school in January, is not at all surprised by his meteoric rise
to prominence. "I don't think people realized what I could do,"
he says. "I heard before my senior year that I would be a third-
or fourth-round pick. I figured, that's fine, Julius will draw
the scouts, and sooner or later they'll see me, too."
Sims is hard to miss, and that's not just because he goes 6'4"
and 313 pounds. There aren't too many fundamentally sound,
blue-collar defensive tackles like him: a durable wide-body who
can excel in any defensive scheme, collapse the pocket, control
the gaps and exploit one-on-one blocking. His charisma and
character make him even more attractive to teams looking for
fan-friendly, solid citizens. The nine teams that asked Sims to
visit during an 11-day tour earlier this month--Arizona, Buffalo,
Carolina, Dallas, the New York Jets, Jacksonville, Kansas City,
Tennessee and Atlanta--had to like what they saw in his skills and
vibrant personality. "Sims has great measurables for the
position," says Dallas Cowboys director of scouting Larry
Lacewell. "He's a good person, he plays hard, and you can plug
him in right away and win."
Sims helped himself most in January at the Senior Bowl, which
he'd considered skipping. He thought he'd already proved himself:
An All-ACC senior campaign was followed by Defensive MVP honors
in the Tar Heels' 16-10 Peach Bowl win over Auburn. Common sense,
however, told him he needed to see how he stacked up against the
top prospects. Smart move. According to scouts, only Fresno State
quarterback David Carr, whom the expansion Houston Texans have
said they will select with the first pick in the draft, was as
impressive as Sims. After watching him use an assortment of power
and speed rushes during a drill one day, Seattle Seahawks
defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell, a member of the North
coaching staff, told Sims to fake inside, then club and rip, a
move Sims had never attempted but was able to execute
successfully. "The NFL is about performance," Sims says, "and if
a guy is paying you $10 million to fake inside, club and rip, you
do it. It's all about learning on the fly."
"He was very animated in the first one-on-one drill I saw, and I
think he really wanted to prove something to himself," says
Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson. "He didn't back away
from any offensive linemen, and there were good ones. He was
relentless from the first drill to the last."
Sims can thank his parents, Ronnie and Sarah, for instilling in
him the drive to excel. They raised him to dream big and gave him
the space to grow. Ryan's candor? It came out of a weekly
exercise in which Ronnie and Sarah sat with Ryan and his sister,
Jessica, now 17, in the living room of the family's Spartanburg,
S.C., home and encouraged the children to air their gripes for
one uncensored hour. Ryan's good manners? Ronnie wanted his son
to be a gentleman, so he made him open doors for Jessica whenever
the family went out. Ryan's leadership skills? When Ronnie
coached Ryan's youth-league football teams, he repeatedly told
his son to give 110% because the other kids were watching him.
Ronnie, who spent three years pitching at the Class A level in
the Boston Red Sox organization, blew out his right arm in 1975,
so he often reminded Ryan that dreams can die quickly but that
education never stops opening doors. "I never had a father figure
when I played, so I learned through trial and error," says
Ronnie, a distribution service technician for Duke Power. "I
always told Ryan to use the game and never let it use him."
It helped that Ryan was bright. His habit of finishing schoolwork
early helped land him in a gifted program in the third grade,
where he excelled in problem-solving games and relished field
trips to museums. That active mind--he loves the strategic aspect
of football--and his ambition, more than anything, have shaped his
There also is no question that Ryan is his own man. As a
ninth-grader at Dorman High, Ryan told Ronnie he was giving up
baseball so he could concentrate on football. Ronnie swallowed
hard, hid his disappointment and supported his son's decision.
When Ryan grew from 5'7" to 6'4" between his sophomore and junior
seasons, he switched from quarterback to defense, because his
coach said the move would increase the number of scholarships
he'd be offered.
Sims committed early to North Carolina, and as a freshman at
preseason camp answered senior linebacker Keith Newman's
challenge to any freshman to prove his manhood by wrestling him
in the locker room. Newman and Sims tangled for about four
minutes before being separated. "I wasn't afraid," Sims says. "My
attitude is this: Who cares if you're going to get embarrassed?
Are you going to stand in the back of the line and hope nobody
calls on you? I'm going to fight until I win."
Sims lettered as a freshman and started the next two years, but
he didn't emerge as a dominant player until last season with the
arrival of Bunting, who told Sims that if he bought into his
system and became a leader, the money would follow. It wasn't
easy. "Most guys go into their senior year thinking they're going
to be the Man," Sims says. "All I heard was that I was doing
Broadway rode Sims about his stance and his burst at the snap.
"Ryan was used to the pace they'd had here before," Broadway
says. "We really made him get after it."
Sims thrived in Bunting's aggressive defense, which demanded that
linemen push upfield instead of reading and reacting to blocks,
as the previous scheme had called for. For a player with Sims's
leverage, agility and explosiveness, the change was a godsend.
Splitting time between the two tackle spots, he finished the
season with 51 tackles and five sacks. (Peppers had 63 tackles
and 9 1/2 sacks.)
"You always heard about Peppers because he was at a position
where he had a better chance to make big plays," says Florida
State coach Bobby Bowden. "But Sims was just as dominating. Our
coaches pegged him as a guy you'd better have a plan for."
Millions of dollars may be on the horizon, but Sims isn't
thinking only about his pro career. A communications major who is
a semester short of a degree, he talks about opening pizzerias
across the South, purchasing 20 to 30 acres near the North
Carolina campus with the expectation that the university will be
expanded, and renting out his parents' house after he buys them a
new one. His company will be called Big Tyme, the nickname that
Ronnie gave him in junior high.
"People think making $20 million or $30 million is big time,"
Sims says. "Big time to me is Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates.
Hopefully, I'll start with about $15 million and turn that into
$150 million. I'm not just living for me anymore. I'm living for
my kids and my kids' kids." Sims pauses, flashes a smile and
gives a wink. "But I'm also 21. I'm going to have some fun with
Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims are expected to become the eighth
pair of college defensive linemates since 1993 to be selected in
the first round of the same draft. In some cases the
less-heralded player has proved to be as good as or better than
the higher pick. Here are three examples. --David Sabino
Year Players (Pick, Team) College
1995 DE Kevin Carter (No. 6, Rams) Florida
DT Ellis Johnson (15, Colts)
Carter, the '99 sack champion, was traded to the Titans last
season and had only two sacks; Johnson remains the mainstay of
the Indianapolis line.
1997 DE Kenard Lang (17, Redskins) Miami
DE Kenny Holmes (18, Titans)
Both have moved on in free agency--Lang to the Browns last
month; Holmes to the Giants in 2001--and Holmes has a 25-21 1/2
edge in career sacks.
1998 DE Greg Ellis (8, Cowboys) North Carolina
DE-DT Vonnie Holliday (19, Packers)
Despite appearing in five fewer games as a pro, the versatile
Holliday has piled up 26 career sacks to Ellis's 19 1/2.