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August 13, 2012

Sammy: Martin next in line?

Their names and photos can be seen displayed throughout the Kenan Football Center.

Marcus Jones. Julius Peppers. Ryan Sims. Greg Ellis. Donnell Thompson. William Fuller. Dee Hardison. Kentwan Balmer. Robert Quinn. Quinton Coples.

The list of great of defensive linemen who have distinguished themselves as Tar Heels and graduated to the National Football League seems never ending.

Junior Kareem Martin is anxious to continue the lineage as he transitions from supporting role to star performer for North Carolina's defensive front in 2012.

"It would mean a lot to be discussed in the same sentence with those guys who have left and gone on to careers in the NFL,'' Martin said last week. "You look at our walls (in Kenan Football Center). There are defensive linemen from here going to the NFL almost every year. I think that was a big reason for me coming here, just to be able to learn and follow in their footsteps.''

Martin has been making strides toward joining that elite group since being prematurely forced into action as a true freshman in 2010.

A highly regarded recruit out of the same Roanoke Rapids area that produced Balmer and current UNC freshman offensive lineman J.J. Patterson, Martin expected to red shirt as a true freshman.

But it was as Martin was about to report for preseason camp that the NCAA investigation began. By the season opener against LSU in Atlanta, Martin was instead in the starting lineup because of the number of defensive linemen held out or suspended due to the NCAA probe.

"Knowing the depth we had that year, I was expecting to spend my time watching, learning and getting bigger,'' Martin said. "I probably wasn't really ready, but the situation forced the coaches to throw me into the fire. I think I handled it pretty well.''

Martin played in 11 games and made three starts that season. He finished with 16 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

The 6-foot-6, 260-pounder started every game in 2011 and significantly improved his statistics with 40 tackles, seven tackles for loss and four quarterback sacks playing opposite first-round NFL draft pick Coples at end.

Coples has now departed and the Tar Heels have transitioned to 4-2-5 defensive alignment under new head coach Larry Fedora.

Martin believes the new scheme will create even more opportunities for him to make big plays.

"The major change is there's a lot of movement,'' Martin said. "With our last defense, the focus was more up field. There were stunts and blitzes every now and then. But now every other play is a stunt, or me lining up in a different gap. I'm playing a little bit everywhere.

"It definitely opens things up for me because it keeps the offensive line guessing. It also gives me a lot more freedom because I'm moving around to different places.''

Fedora believes Martin has adapted well to the new alignment and is ready to enjoy a breakout season.

"I think in the spring he was just feeling his way along, kind of getting a feel for what it (4-2-5) was like,'' Fedora said. "Now, he's turning himself loose out there. The other day he's rushing around James Hurst and he beats James. I think James is a dang good offensive tackle.

"Kareem is really good with his hands. He's 260 pounds and he can move. I think he's got a chance to be really good for us.''

Martin has certainly been exposed to both good and great defensive linemen at UNC. Coples, Quinn and Marvin Austin were part of the program when Martin signed with the Tar Heels and all three are now in the NFL.

Coples was the 16th pick overall in the 2012 NFL draft and was reportedly impressive in his professional debut Friday in an exhibition game with the New York Jets.

Quinn was selected 14th overall in the 2011 draft by the Phoenix Cardinals and is expected to be be a starter this season.

Although he wound up never getting to play in a game with Austin or Quinn, Martin is a fan of both players,

He's also fond of Coples, who he was able to emulate and learn from over two seasons as a teammate.

"I played with Quinton the longest and he was a great role model for me,'' Martin said. "Just watching how he went about things on game day and how he mentally prepared, or watching his moves had a big influence on me.

"I think each of those guys (Coples and Quinn) had their own specific strengths. Rob was more of a speed guy. Quinton, he was more of a power guy. I think I'm more in the middle. I can speed rush, but I can also use my power. I'm more of a balanced player.''

Martin's production during his first two seasons has been comparable to Coples during the same stage of his career.

Coples had eight tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as a freshman in 2008, then improved to 22 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2009. He then had a breakout junior season in which he made 59 tackles and 10 sacks to earn first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors.

Expectations are high that Martin's career will follow a similar path, and that could mean his name gets mentioned with the other UNC defensive line greats by the end of the 2012 season.

"I expect a big year,'' Martin said. "We lost some really good players (on defense) who are now getting a chance to play at the next level. I'm one of the older guys now. I'll be looked upon by the younger guys to be the one making plays and doing the right things on the field.

"I'm ready for that position. I've been here. This is my third year and I've played a lot. I've got the experience and now it's time to put it all together and make a big season.''



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