Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State each won a memorable football game last season with a dramatic scoring play in the final minute.
Duke beat UNC 33-30 with Jamison Crowder’s 5-yard touchdown catch with 13 seconds left.
UNC beat N.C. State 43-35 with Gio Bernard’s 74-yard punt return for a touchdown with 13 seconds left.
The Wolfpack beat Florida State 17-16 with Bryan Underwood’s 2-yard touchdown catch with 16 seconds left.
North Carolina finished the season with eight wins, N.C. State with seven and Duke with six. How many more games would the trio have won with one defensive stop in the fourth quarter?
UNC lost to both Duke and Wake Forest because it couldn’t come up with a late stop. Duke’s Belk Bowl fortunes turned when its defense gave up an 83-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left. N.C. State gave up a 62-yard touchdown pass to Miami with 19 seconds left in their 44-37 loss.
If the Wolfpack, Tar Heels and Blue Devils are going to improve on their relative success from the 2012 season, it has to come from the defensive side of the football.
UNC’s rushing defense, 40th in the NCAA, was the only defensive category (out of rushing, passing, total and scoring) to rank in the top 50 nationally.
Compare that to other side of the ball. UNC ranked in the top 35 in total, scoring, rushing and passing; N.C. State ranked 18th in passing and Duke ranked 31st in passing.
In order for the defenses to step up and make the stops when necessary, these three players will be key:
Kareem Martin, DE, UNC
Plenty of questions surround the UNC defense: How does it replace its two best players from last season – defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick? Will the secondary, which returns nearly intact, improve on its at-times miserable pass defense? There is no questioning which defensive player UNC is relying on the most, though.
Senior defensive end Kareem Martin appears to be next in a successful line of UNC defensive linemen. But things are different for Martin, expectations are perhaps higher, the pressure greater. It wasn’t that long ago that the Tar Heels’ defense had talent to spare. That is no longer a luxury.
UNC’s defense struggled at times last season, especially toward the end of the season. The Tar Heels surrendered more than 500 yards in three consecutive games at one point.
Martin enters his final season with 23.5 career tackles for loss, and eight career sacks. After a strong start to last season, Martin considered entering the NFL draft.
“But towards the second half of the year, I was battling a lot of injuries,” he said. “I had two ankle injuries that I tried to play with. But that kind of was one of those things … I figured I might as well come back so I could play a full healthy season.”
So here he is, back for his senior season, with uncertainty all around him. His most productive teammates from last season are gone. Injuries have befallen several other defensive players in the preseason. As Martin goes, though, so might the UNC defense. He believes he’s strong enough to carry it, and Tar Heels just might need him to.
Dontae Johnson, CB, N.C. State
Senior cornerback Dontae Johnson has been in the middle of N.C. State’s two biggest wins the past two seasons.
Johnson had six tackles and a sack in last year’s 17-16 win over No. 3 Florida State. In 2011, he made his first career start in N.C. State’s 37-13 upset of No. 7 Clemson.
N.C. State’s defense will change with a new coordinator and new parts to its secondary but Johnson’s role and importance won’t. His versatility to move inside and play the nickel back – with the ability to rush the passer or cover inside routes – will be key to the Wolfpack’s early success.
“Wherever I’m needed, that’s what I’ll do,” Johnson said.
N.C. State opens with Louisiana Tech and Clemson in the first three weeks of the season, a pair of up-tempo, spread teams who both finished the 2012 season finished in the top 10 in total offense.
Johnson, who finished the 2012 season with 80 tackles and a sack, is looking forward to the challenge of facing the spread teams.
“You get more opportunities to make plays,” Johnson said.
With safety Earl Wolff, who led last year’s team in tackles, and cornerback David Amerson, who led the ACC in interceptions, off to the NFL, Johnson has embraced his role as a leader on the defense.
But don’t expect Johnson to get up in anyone’s face and start screaming, said coach Dave Doeren.
“He’s a guy that shows up and does his job and does it really well,” Doeren said. “Everything you want a player to be like, is what he does.”
Johnson and defensive end Daryl Cato-Bishop are the only two players back on N.C. State’s defense who started all 13 games last season. The Pack struggled to defend against the pass, even with an abundance of experience in the secondary.
The Wolfpack ranked 83rd in the NCAA last season against the pass and was gutted for big yards and touchdowns in losses to Tennessee, Miami and Clemson.
Doeren is counting on Johnson to lead the Wolfpack’s improvement, despite the personnel turnover in the secondary.
Justin Foxx, DE, Duke
If Duke is going to return to a bowl game this year, the defensive line will have to carry the defense.
The Blue Devils have four returning starters up front, a unit led by fifth-year senior Justin Foxx at defensive end. Foxx has been the group’s most consistent linemen throughout his career, and the Blue Devils will need him to anchor the line again.
In 31 career games, 16 of them starts, Foxx has recorded 98 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
Foxx has been limited in camp thus far as he continues to work back from January knee surgery. He sat out Duke’s scrimmage Friday but said he would be ready to go for the opening game against N.C. Central on Aug. 31.
“I’m feeling really good,” Foxx said. “Everyone knows Duke has one of the greatest medical teams in the country. They’ve been taking care of me, making sure that I’m alright, but I’ve been at every practice doing something at every practice.”
In nine games last year, Foxx ran up 46 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss and sacks apiece. He missed four games while recovering from surgery to repair a ruptured ligament in his right ring finger and came into form at the end of the season, averaging eight tackles per game in the final three contests. A sound technical player, Foxx recorded a career-high 11 tackles against Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense on Nov. 17.
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles tweaked his 4-2-5 scheme in the attempt to put more responsibility on the veteran line this season. The four up front will be counted on to hold blocks more often, containing opponents before they reach the young, inexperienced secondary.
“We’re playing I’d say more of a traditional 4-3 style in that we’re not as much filling gaps as we used to,” linebacker Kelby Brown said. “This defense, it used to be based on trying to spill the ball out to our safeties. Now I think it’s more designed for linebackers to be able to make tackles as well.”