Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers teamed together for six years with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-07, crashing in toward quarterbacks from their defensive end positions. So Rucker – now a businessman who is also the Panthers’ longtime TV analyst in the preseason – is more well-versed on Peppers than almost anyone you would meet as the 37-year-old Peppers prepares for his return to the Panthers. In our recent interview, Rucker answered a series of questions about his former teammate.
Q. What were your first impressions of Peppers when he arrived at Carolina as the overall No. 2 pick in 2002?
A. We had just come off this 1-15 season. Obviously, when you have a season like that, you know there are going to be wholesale changes. There was all this talk about this guy who was an athlete from this state who played multiple sports and he was in our backyard.
I remember the first time meeting ‘Pep’ – you just don’t see guys like that athletically. A guy like him comes around once every 20-25 years, if that. It just doesn’t happen very often.
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Q. Is Peppers the best athlete Carolina ever employed – even better than guys like Cam Newton, Steve Smith or Michael Bates?
A. By far. It’s not close. I’m not taking anything away from those other guys. Cam has changed that quarterback position with his size, speed and arm strength. And Steve Smith played like he was 6-foot-6.
But Peppers, with that athletic ability at that size. You’re talking 6-6, almost 300 pounds and he ran about a 4.6 it seemed like. If he was 260, he would be just another guy. But he’s almost 300 pounds and he’s running like that. I mean in the whole history of the NFL, you’re going to have to put him up there near the top athletically.
Q. I get that. But given that athleticism, why did he never come close to breaking the NFL sack record of 22.5?
A. That I don’t know. I can’t tell you why. Now as a coach, I would love the consistency he has brought to whatever team he has been on. I will say that in the mid-2000s, there were a lot of mobile quarterbacks hanging around – the Michael Vicks of the world. Harder to sack.
Q. How would you describe Peppers’ personality?
A. As the No. 2 overall pick and from North Carolina, that screams: “Let me grab the cameras and the attention.” But he is totally the opposite of that. He’d rather operate in the shadows and let someone else have that. And I think that’s rare, especially in today’s world, when everybody wants to say, “Hey, look at me, look at what I’m doing.”
Q. How long did it take you until you knew him well?
A. Probably a couple of years. He liked to operate under his own umbrella. He guards himself. He’s not going to just let anybody inside his inner circle. But we lockered next to each other, so we would talk about everything under the sun.
Q. What is one thing people don’t know about Peppers?
A. Even though he’s quiet, he’s a reader. He’s educated on world views, Biblical views, across color lines – he has an open mind. We’ve had a lot of good conversations about life. He’s also funnier than you would expect. Tells a lot of jokes.
Q. What highlight play do you remember over any other for Peppers?
A. In one game, he was cut-blocked by a running back, and the running back got him pretty good. Pep flew up in the air. Then he did a somersault in the air, landed back on his feet and kept going forward.
I grew up with a cat – his name was Spider. He was a black cat. And I would always try to hold the cat in the palm of my hand and then make him land on his back, and he would always land on his feet. And that’s my vision of Pep. Obviously we are the Panthers, but he’s got the ability like that black cat to always land on his feet.
We rewound that play 50 million times in the film room. ... If it had been any of the rest of us trying to do that, we would have either pulled something or fallen completely apart.
Q. What’s the happiest and the saddest you ever saw him?
A. As far as happiest, I’d say our Super Bowl run in 2003. Almost all of us were experiencing that for the first time, and it was so special. As far as being down, I would think 2007. That was his lowest sack-total year (Peppers had 2.5 sacks, the only time in his entire career he has been under seven sacks for a season). He was a little nicked up that year.
Q. Your thoughts on Peppers leaving Charlotte but then coming back to the Panthers at the tail end of his career?
A. From a personal growth standpoint, I think he needed to leave. He went to Chicago and then to Green Bay and that kind of allowed him to see the world and mature. ... This is the perfect scenario for him to come back home and win a championship. It could be one of the coolest storybook endings you will ever see.
Q. What kind of role do you foresee Peppers having on this team?
A. A productive one. With Kony Ealy being traded, obviously there’s a spot. My first two years in the NFL, I had Kevin Greene for one year and Reggie White for another to learn from. In Pep, these guys will get to learn from a guy who has Kevin Greene skills in terms of leverage and Reggie White strength.
I think he will get some chances, too. Because of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and their ability to blitz up the middle, the defensive ends should get more shots at some one-on-ones on the edge. He’s not the biggest talent on the field any more, and that will help put him in some good situations.
Q. So how many sacks will Peppers have in 2017?
A. I think anywhere from the 7-10 range, easy. No less than seven, and probably closer to 10.