Kareem Martin could be the next in a great lineage of North Carolina defensive linemen. He has that build that has almost become synonymous with Tar Heel pass rushers and he was able to turn in a big senior year, helping to lead his team to a bowl victory over Cincinnati, despite starting the season 1-5.
Kareem discusses what it takes to be a defensive linemen at Carolina and why so many of them have been successful. He addresses the bowl ban and its effect on him as well as the program, going through so many coaching changes and why those have allowed him stand out from the rest and be a model Tar Heel player. While he is quick to point out that he is his own man, he has used the experiences of players around him and what has happened to the Carolina program to help make him a more prepared and smarter player going forward.
Peter Smith: When you’re 6’6” and you can hold weight, are you automatically enrolled at North Carolina or do you still get to choose?
Kareem Martin: You still get to choose but that was the best place for me.
PS: You seem to be about the 7th guy to fit that physical makeup in the last half dozen years. That just seems to be who they get now.
KM: Yea, we like to recruit the bigger guys, defensive ends. Guys like Quinton Coples, Robert Quinn, all of us are in the 6’4”-6’6” range. That’s what has worked for them in the past.
PS: You’re from North Carolina. Were you a Tar Heel fan growing up? They didn’t have a big football program when you were younger.
KM: Yea, growing up, you didn’t hear much about their football program. It was always basketball, of course. Football, I used to watch a lot of Miami. They were the team to watch, exciting back then. As I got older, when they got Butch Davis here, that’s when I started to pay attention to football here. That’s when the change began.
PS: At the time you went to UNC, it looked like it was about to take off as potentially a big time football program ready to compete on a national level. That had to at least play a part in why you went there.
KM: Yea, definitely. When I used to take my visits and I saw the caliber of players, no other school had the amount of NFL talent that UNC had at the time. I just remember coming in the summer before everything hit and all of the position rooms. You can go back to that team and every position room has a guy in the NFL almost. That year, we all believed we were going to win a national championship prior to the investigations. Of course, that suspended some players and crushed those hopes, but we felt like we had the best team in the country when we were full strength.
PS: Is there a lingering rift for you or some bitterness over the fact that some guys did choose to go down the wrong path, which hurt the program, hurt the rest of the team, and hurt you in effect?
KM: The mistakes they made ultimately hurt the university and hurt that team that year, it was a mistake. That’s something you just gotta move on from and you just can’t dwell on the past. You’ll never become a good program. North Carolina is trying to get back to where we were in that 2010 season. We’re just trying to put the investigation and everything that happened with those players, they were forgiven, and it’s time to put that in the past and move on from that.
PS: Have you gotten the benefit of the doubt from people, being treated as an individual, or do you get lumped into it a little bit?
KM: They have treated me more as an individual, because all of the things that went down had happened prior to me getting to the university. It just so happened that the investigation happened as soon as I got there. I wasn’t involved in any of that and no one has placed me into that category.
PS: Is North Carolina in a better place now than when you got there as a freshman?
KM: You know, I still feel the same way about Carolina. It’s definitely a different culture there now. Coach (Larry) Fedora, different players, it’s a different day at UNC. Everything’s cleaned up and I still feel there’s good football there. I think everything that was bad is now gone and we’re working to fix our reputation right now.
PS: The guys before you; they seem to be either superstars in the league or burn out quickly. Is that something that impacts you or are you your own man and it is not really a consideration?
KM: You know, I’m definitely my own man, but when I see those guys that came before me, I’ve seen three or four rounders play before me I played with and knowing the other guys that have been in the league the last few years, you give and take from each one of them and try to be the perfect pro. With my character, just seeing the way they carry themselves on the field, I can carry myself off the field just fine, but just seeing what makes them great players, I add that to my game, so I can be that superstar.
PS: But you just look at it; Julius Peppers, superstar. Ryan Sims, absolute bust. Robert Quinn is a superstar and there’s no telling how far he can go. Marvin Austin, I’m not sure if he’s even in the league anymore. Donte Paige-Moss is playing in the AFL. It’s just crazy how polarizing the results have been.
KM: It’s just how the game rolls, you know. It’s a tough game. It’s kind of like coming into college; you may have had the hype, but it’s just about performing on the field. Everything just doesn’t go everyone’s way and sometimes it may not even be on the field. It’s just trying to adjust to that NFL lifestyle. It’s tough in itself. Sometimes it can be a little too great for some guys.
PS: What’s it been like for you going through three different head coaches?
KM: It’s been kind of tough. I came in with Coach Davis and got to play under him for a full year and then with Coach (Everett) Withers. That was an easier transition because there wasn’t much change because it happened to close to the season. Coach Withers really didn’t change anything the way Coach Davis ran it, so other than a new head guy, it wasn’t much change in the program.
There was great change when that staff changed to Coach Fedora; just a whole different atmosphere and changing the defense and offense. It just changed the tide of Carolina football from what it used to be to just more of a fast pace program.
PS: Davis was a former defensive line coach, Withers was a defensive guy and then Fedora made his reputation on the offensive side of the ball. Did you feel that change in emphasis?
KM: You can definitely feel the change. When you change from a pro-style to spread, pro-style isn’t meant to be a high octane offense and score a lot of points, you rely a lot on defense, so you spend more time. And with Coach Fedora, we’re trying to put 100 on the board every game and we still had a great defensive staff with Coach Vic (Koening) and Coach (Dan) Disch (defensive coordinator). At times, we didn’t have our best games, but we still had a solid defense, I felt for the most part, the last two years.
PS: What is it about North Carolina that has allowed them to produce so many talented defensive linemen? Athletically, physically, you guys are head and shoulders above most programs in that respect.
KM: It’s just the fact that when you go into that defensive line room, you look around on the walls, you see numerous first rounders and probably around 20 or so guys that have played in the league. You see the greatness that’s been there and been through the program.
You want to be a part of that greatness and even while you’re in the room, current players, you look left, you look right, there’s NFL talent all around you. You want to be around the best, because that’s going to drive you to be the best. I think that’s the biggest reason why year after year, you’re seeing guys going to the NFL from the North Carolina defensive line. We’ve had six or seven go in the last six years, like you said, because everyone in that room feeds off of each other and is trying to be the best in that room. To be the best in that room means you’re one of the best in the country.
PS: What’s the atmosphere in that weight program?
KM: The weight room with Coach Lou (Hernandez), it’s crazy. It’s all about getting guys stronger. That summer grind, it’s tough, but when we go into fall camp, everyone is feeling great, in shape, in condition. He knows how to add muscle, add weight and also work on your speed and I think that’s been something that’s been real helpful the last couple years, especially with the defensive linemen. The amount of plays that we play with this offense and defense, with this new scheme that we have, I’m getting 80+ plays per game, you have to condition your body to do so and Coach Lieu does an outstanding job of getting us ready for the season.