CHAPEL HILL — 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: Hell 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.
Ive been through it all, Martin said recently when he thought about what hed seen, and endured, since arriving in Chapel Hill in 2010. And then he said it again. Been through it all. The journey has been its been a tough one.
Martin figured he would redshirt his freshman season. He thought hed have the luxury of taking his time to adapt to college, and college football. He was wrong. Because of suspensions that depleted UNCs roster, Martin started his first college game, against Louisiana State at the Georgia Dome.
Things havent 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. Its 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, UNCs latest defensive line coach.
Recent times, though, have brought stability. For the first time, Martin wont 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. Martins position coach is new, yes, but hes 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, its 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 havent been much different than what he might go through in the pros, where its 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 its inevitable and uncomfortable, sure, but also something that can strengthen someone.
Its 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 Martins 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, UNCs 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 its 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 theyre looking at me to get a great pass rush and just be productive. Im 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
Itd be unfair to place the burden of an entire defense on one players shoulders, but Martin isnt reluctant to carry the load. He understands his role. He is one of four seniors on defense and each has experienced the programs depths. They want to be a part of a resurrection.
More than anything, thats what drives Martin and Tim Jackson, a senior defensive tackle. Theyre as close as any pair of teammates on the defense, and theyre 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. Its clear they wore on him. But some of it can be explained.
Everybodys 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 isnt an ingredient for success in any way, shape or form. We ran out of bodies.
Improvement has been a part of Koennings 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.
Its a complicated defense a defense that you have to be focused and alert, Gilmore said. We dont just line up and play vanilla. Were coming from all over the place. Were giving a lot of different looks and a lot of different coverages. And so its a complex defense in that respect. So the second year, guys have a better understanding.
Thats what Fedora, UNCs 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 werent 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 didnt have that last season.
To a man, watching them, they understand the scheme, he said. They understand whats going on, and theyre playing faster.
Restoring defensive pride
From the beginning, speed has been a part of Fedoras philosophy. Its one-third of his motto for his program smart, fast, physical and maybe its by design that fast is in the middle of the slogan.
In one season, the UNC offense grasped Fedoras 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. Theres 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 its offense, offense, offense. When you historically look at Carolina everybody always thinks defense. Thats always been like the big thing at Carolina they have great defenses.
Were just trying to get back to where people are talking about defense just as much as theyre talking about offense.
Its 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 thats how many sacks he left on the field, Martin said. And thats 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 UNCs 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 hes seeking double digits. Specific numbers-based goals have been a theme of UNCs 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 hasnt been the same kind of bravado only quiet confidence that UNC will be improved. Martin in some ways personifies that. Hes 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 hasnt at all been what he expected, but the destination is what he once envisioned: Hes now the face of UNCs defense, even if it is trying to build a new identity.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter