Kareem Martin hopes to be next in one line, the parade of North Carolina defensive linemen through the first round of the draft. No matter what happens in the draft, he’s the end of another line, the parade of NFL-caliber defensive linemen Butch Davis brought to the Tar Heels.
Along with fellow senior Tim Jackson, who was similarly ranked as a recruit but who at this point is projected as a late-round pick in the draft at defensive tackle, Martin represents Davis’ final gift to North Carolina, the last of the defensive linemen Davis took such pains to recruit during his tenure.
“I knew all of the guys who were drafted in the first round,” Martin said. “Just watching them work, I just tried to model my work ethic after them. When I was younger, I used to watch those guys and see what they did, and each year try to build on my skill set plus the things they did to make themselves successful. Hopefully it will all come to fruition.”
From the first day Davis was hired, the defensive line was a priority. He found guys who were NFL-caliber, signed them, built his defense around them and moved them along to the NFL draft. (The degree to which that was accomplished by “trusting,” disgraced defensive-line coach John Blake is a debate for another day. In Martin’s case, assistant coach Ken Browning, a former Northern Durham coach, primarily recruited in-state players anyway.)
Marvin Austin was the foundation recruit in his first class, the blue-chip prospect who set the tone for all of Davis’ recruiting to follow – and later would end up helping to tear down everything Davis built at North Carolina. Austin fell out of the first round, but the Tar Heels have placed a defensive lineman in the first round of the past three drafts: Robert Quinn (2011), Quinton Coples (2012) and Sylvester Williams (2013).
Martin signed in 2010, the last recruiting class before the NCAA stepped in and Blake stepped out. He’s currently 23rd on Dane Brugler’s overall draft board at CBSSports.com and has a real chance to be the fourth first-rounder in four years, but there are no guarantees.
“It’s a little bit of pressure, but it doesn’t stress me out at all,” Martin said. “I know that if I go out here and play to my potential, I’ll be able to keep that legacy going. The last three years, we’ve had a first-rounder. I’ll try to be the fourth.”
Brugler said Martin has all the tools to be a first-round pick, with an athletic first step, long arms, active hands and toughness against the run. Consistency will be what determines his fate.
“Martin doesn’t always play with his hair on fire and needs to show more urgency and more of a plan to win the edge and get to the backfield,” Brugler said.
There’s another tradition that Martin would like to extend, and that’s big-time defensive linemen from the eastern part of the state, a group that includes first-rounders like Julius Peppers, Greg Ellis and Kentwan Balmer, all Tar Heels, as well as N.C. State’s Mario Williams and Clemson’s Chester McGlockton.
Chapel Hill may have the next link in that chain as well. On the North Carolina roster is freshman Nazair Jones, who like Martin is from Roanoke Rapids. Jones, a four-star recruit rated the No. 38 defensive end nationally by ESPN, stands 6-foot-5, 250 pounds.
He’s actually more highly regarded as a freshman than Martin was four years ago, raising hopes the first-round pipeline may yet pump out another prime prospect. For now, Martin stands as the last link in both chains.