Kareem Martin traveled long road to become face of UNC's defense

acarter@newsobserver.comAugust 26, 2013 

— After arriving at North Carolina just in time to watch teammates disappear from the practice fields amid an NCAA investigation, after the constant coaching changes, after learning a new defensive scheme midway through his college career, Kareem Martin has found normalcy entering his senior season.

His reward: He’ll be counted upon, in some ways, to carry a Tar Heels defense that struggled through 2012 and lost its two most productive players. Those kinds of expectations for Martin, a defensive end, are new. The changing circumstances are not.

“I’ve been through it all,” Martin said recently when he thought about what he’d seen, and endured, since arriving in Chapel Hill in 2010. And then he said it again. “Been through it all. The journey has been – it’s been a tough one.”

Martin figured he would redshirt his freshman season. He thought he’d have the luxury of taking his time to adapt to college, and college football. He was wrong. Because of suspensions that depleted UNC’s roster, Martin started his first college game, against Louisiana State at the Georgia Dome.

Things haven’t been much easier since. Martin has experienced two head coaching transitions – from Butch Davis to Everett Withers, and from Withers to Larry Fedora. There was a drastic change in defensive strategy, from the traditional 4-3 system employed by Davis and Withers, to the somewhat unconventional 4-2-5 scheme Fedora and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning installed last season.

And then there have been all of the position coach changes. When Martin arrived at UNC, John Blake, who lost his job amid the NCAA investigation, coached the defensive linemen. It’s easy to lose count of how many position coaches Martin has had. Four? Five?

“This is number six – coach Gilmore,” Martin said, referring to Keith Gilmore, UNC’s latest defensive line coach.

Recent times, though, have brought stability. For the first time, Martin won’t be playing for a new head coach. For the second time, he will play in the same defensive system that he did the season before. Martin’s position coach is new, yes, but he’s used to that kind of thing by now.

“That was probably even more difficult to go through so many than the head coaches,” Martin said. “… Because as soon as you get close with a coach, it’s just like they were out of here.”

Martin likes to think the constant change has helped him – that he went through it for some kind of a greater purpose. He knows the NFL is a business, and he wonders if his college years haven’t been much different than what he might go through in the pros, where it’s common for position coaches to jump from one job to another.

If anything, Martin believes playing for six position coaches within less than four years taught him a thing or two about change. How it’s inevitable and uncomfortable, sure, but also something that can strengthen someone.

“It’s just matured me,” Martin said. “It showed me that change is going to happen. I just have to accept to change – not just in football, but in life.”

Given his history at UNC, it might be somewhat fitting that the greatest period of stability in Martin’s career also has brought the greatest internal change. Before this season, he played a supporting role with no shortage of talent at his position.

A UNC defensive lineman has been selected in the first round of the NFL draft during each of the past three seasons. Martin hopes to extend that streak. Before the NFL draft arrives in April, though, he is hoping – and expecting – to produce and lead like some who came before him.

Throughout the offseason, Martin has become well-acquainted with the questions. Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick, UNC’s best defensive players from last season, are gone. And because of that, and because of the Tar Heels’ defensive struggles last season, Martin and his teammates have grown used to the external doubts.

In some ways, then, he believes it’s his job to be the soul of the defense.

“As the D-line goes, the defense goes,” said Martin, a preseason All-ACC selection who finished last season with 4.5 sacks. “So I think that they’re looking at me to get a great pass rush and just be productive. I’m trying to raise what I did, my production from last year.

“Looking back on film, I had a lot of opportunities that I left on the field that I can easily get this year.”

Embracing the burden

It’d be unfair to place the burden of an entire defense on one player’s shoulders, but Martin isn’t reluctant to carry the load. He understands his role. He is one of four seniors on defense and each has experienced the program’s depths. They want to be a part of a resurrection.

More than anything, that’s what drives Martin and Tim Jackson, a senior defensive tackle. They’re as close as any pair of teammates on the defense, and they’re part of the reason Koenning, the defensive coordinator, is optimistic things can be different this season.

Koenning, previously a defensive coordinator at Clemson and Illinois, speaks in solemn tones about the Tar Heels’ breakdowns last season. It’s clear they wore on him. But some of it can be explained.

“Everybody’s game they all remember is the Georgia Tech game, when we played nine freshmen almost the whole second half,” Koenning said, referring to the 68-50 November loss. “We had four guys that were on the scout team most of the week that we had to finish the game with.

“That isn’t an ingredient for success in any way, shape or form. …We ran out of bodies.”

Improvement has been a part of Koenning’s coaching history. During his first year at Illinois, in 2010, the Illini ranked 38th nationally in total defense. The next season, they ranked seventh, and allowed about 65 fewer yards per game.

Koenning engineered a similar turnaround at Clemson. His first year there, in 2005, the Tigers allowed 316.6 yards per game. The next year, they gave up about 281 yards per game.

Gilmore, the defensive line coach, came to UNC from Illinois. He worked there with Koenning, and already was on staff when Koenning began installing the 4-2-5.

“It’s a complicated defense – a defense that you have to be focused and alert,” Gilmore said. “We don’t just line up and play vanilla. We’re coming from all over the place. We’re giving a lot of different looks and a lot of different coverages. And so it’s a complex defense in that respect. So the second year, guys have a better understanding.”

That’s what Fedora, UNC’s second-year coach, has said over and over this summer when asked what gives him hope for a defensive transformation. According to the numbers, the Tar Heels weren’t awful last season. They ranked 56th nationally in total defense and allowed 389.6 yards per game.

But what burns Fedora, still, are the fourth-quarter touchdown drives allowed to lose to Wake Forest and Duke. And the debacle against Georgia Tech. And that, during three consecutive games, the Tar Heels allowed more than 500 yards of offense.

Still, Fedora believes improvement comes with experience. UNC didn’t have that last season.

“To a man, watching them, they understand the scheme,” he said. “They understand what’s going on, and they’re playing faster.”

Restoring defensive pride

From the beginning, speed has been a part of Fedora’s philosophy. It’s one-third of his motto for his program – “smart, fast, physical” – and maybe it’s by design that “fast” is in the middle of the slogan.

In one season, the UNC offense grasped Fedora’s spread, and the Tar Heels set plenty of records. But Martin, for one, has grown tired of hearing about the offense. UNC, he said, planted its football roots with defense. Lawrence Taylor. Julius Peppers. There’s history, and a legacy.

“As great as our offense is – I love them, I want them to put up 100 points in every game if they could,” Martin said. “But it does get kind of tiring hearing it’s offense, offense, offense. When you historically look at Carolina everybody always thinks defense. That’s always been like the big thing at Carolina – they have great defenses.

“We’re just trying to get back to where people are talking about defense just as much as they’re talking about offense.”

It’s difficult to envision that happening without Martin having a memorable year. He embraces that pressure.

During his freshman season, he played alongside Robert Quinn, a defensive end who became a first-round draft pick. Martin remembers clearly how Quinn set a batty goal for himself before the 2010 season: 27 sacks.

“It sounded like a crazy number, but in his mind it was possible because he went back on film, he saw that’s how many sacks he left on the field,” Martin said. “And that’s one thing I kind of took away, was just being more of a student of the game and learning about yourself as a player.”

Martin has no goal of 27 sacks. Yet he knows he can have a lot more than 4.5. He knows for UNC’s defense to reach its potential, he needs to have a lot more.

“I told him, ‘Hey, we at least got to double that,’” Gilmore said.

Martin said he’s seeking double digits. Specific numbers-based goals have been a theme of UNC’s preseason. Fedora said he expects tight end Eric Ebron to catch at least 12 touchdown passes. Receiver Quinshad Davis has the potential to catch 100 passes, Fedora said.

Defensively, though, there hasn’t been the same kind of bravado – only quiet confidence that UNC will be improved. Martin in some ways personifies that. He’s quieter, though he said he has learned to become a more vocal leader.

The youngest of his two sisters and seven cousins, Martin said while growing up he always acted older than his age. He had to, to fit in among his family. The maturity served him well, going back to his premature first start against LSU, and through all the drama that has come with being a UNC football player during his time.

At last, he has encountered some stability. The journey hasn’t at all been what he expected, but the destination is what he once envisioned: He’s now the face of UNC’s defense, even if it is trying to build a new identity.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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