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Turner's Take: Minister of Defense

Turner's Take: Minister of Defense

By Turner Walston

If you’re covering Carolina football, Kareem Martin is a go-to guy. When players are made available to media, he’s nearly always requested. The Roanoke Rapids senior is patient, affable and willing to talk about almost anything. Ask him about Jeff Schoettmer, or Bryn Renner, Ethan Farmer or Allen Champagne, and he’ll have an eloquent response.

Kareem Martin is accustomed to answering questions. Over the course of this season, particularly the second-half surge, Martin has been making statements of his own.

Last week at Pitt, Martin had eight tackles, three and a half sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and two quarterback hurries. For his efforts, Martin was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week. He and Kendric Burney (2009) are the only Tar Heels to have been honored in the ten-year history of the award. But Martin’s impact on the Tar Heel defense and indeed the team as a whole goes beyond a single Saturday in Pittsburgh. His leadership on and off the field has been instrumental in Carolina’s four-game win streak.

Martin was second team All-ACC last season, so he began the 2013 campaign at a good place. But as this season has gone on, Martin has elevated his play to the point that, even if he isn’t involved in a stop, he’s demanding attention from an opponent’s offense and allowing his teammates to make plays.

“Kareem was phenomenal throughout the game getting pressure on the quarterback and taking care of his gap and squeezing, and all the things that he’s asked to do,” Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora said. “From the first snap, he played really well, and that created some opportunities for some other guys like Terry (Shankle).”

Indeed, Shankle had the finest game of his career on Saturday, with eight tackles of his own, including three for loss, two of those his first two career sacks. The Tar Heels had seven on the afternoon, the season-high and them most Carolina had recorded in an ACC game in 13 years. As Martin said after the game, “Everybody was able to eat today.”

But Kareem Martin hasn’t just posted stats and demanded the attention of blockers to propel his team back to .500 and a potential bowl appearance. His work ethic and attitude have earned the respect of his teammates. When the Tar Heels were in the middle of a 1-5 start, Martin called a players-only meeting and rallied the defense. They weren’t playing to their potential, and  Martin knew that things could be better. “That kind of turned our season around,” Schoettmer said. 

It wasn’t all talk and no action, either. Martin recognized that he had to set the example, to elevate his own play to inspire his teammates. “I was playing good, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be, or where everyone else expected it to be (early in the season),” he said. “I knew something had to change. I knew my level of the game had to step up for us to be successful and for me to be able to achieve the goals I wanted personally, so it’s just taking that extra inch like [Coach Fedora’s] been talking about the last few weeks and just studying the game and improving my game each week.”

Tar Heel offensive coordinator Blake Anderson recognizes what Martin is doing for his side of the ball. “Hey, the best offense is a great defense, and looking out there and thinking, ‘Well, they’re going to punt us inside the ten, and all of a sudden he makes a sack and where are we getting the ball? Outside the ten?’ Hey, I’m his biggest fan,” Anderson said.

On the eve of Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh, Carolina players dedicated Saturday’s game to someone in their lives. Martin chose to dedicate the game to his mother. He spoke to her after the game and said there were some tears - at least on her end. “To be able to have my best game be the game that I dedicate to my mother just means a lot,” he said.

Martin also said that playing at Heinz Field - home of the Pittsburgh Steelers - added a little something extra to the atmosphere of Saturday’s game. The final away game of his Tar Heel career came on an NFL field - somewhere he hopes to frequent. “To be able to play my last road game at such an historic stadium, it’s just a fun site. To think about the caliber of players who’ve played there and then to watch football [Sunday] and see they actually had a home game there, it was just something special.”

As he’s become the leader of the Tar Heel defense, Martin has both improved his own play and been quick to credit others - the coverage by the secondary that allowed him time to get to a quarterback, for example. But what perhaps speaks loudest are the voices of his teammates who are so proud to share the field with him. Success, they seem to say, couldn’t happen to a better guy. “It’s just been fun to see him over these last weeks really grow into a superstar, to be honest,” Schoettmer said. “We always knew he was a great player and an NFL prospect, but these last four or five weeks he’s just played at a different level and that kind of just shows the younger guys on the defense that they need to step up too, and he’s being a great leader for us.”

Schoettmer said Martin is invested in the future of the program, taking time to mentor younger players such as Nazir Jones, a redshirting freshman. “He’s not getting game experience,” Schoettmer said of Jones, “but Kareem’s doing everything he can to make this program better.”

The eight tackles, the sacks, the forced fumbles might not have mattered if Carolina had let the win against Pitt slip from their grasp. In the second half, the offense sputtered and turned the ball over, putting the Tar Heel defense in difficult field positions. After Ryan Switzer’s punt return gave the Tar Heels a 34-27 lead, the defense needed one more stop.

On 4th and 1 at the Tar Heel 26, the Panthers gave the ball to tailback James Conner, who’d rushed for 103 yards on the day. Before the snap, Tre Boston came up from the safety position and changed the call at the line. Norkeithus Otis made initial contact with Conner, who was carried down by a host of Tar Heels, including Martin. “You’ve just got to credit Tre and Otis for making those two decisions and everybody else just rallying around,” Martin said. “He’s a big back and we’d struggled to bring him down earlier and to be able to stop him on 4th and 1 it was a team effort.”

It was the kind of team effort befitting of its leader and helped secure the team’s fourth straight victory. Martin and his team are one win away from bowl eligibility, and you get the feeling that the players want that badly both for themselves and for seniors like Martin who have helped steer the program out of turbulent waters. 

“Kareem Martin is one of my favorite individuals I’ve ever met, in my life,” Allen Champagne said. “He’s a freak athlete, he’s a very intelligent individual, a really nice guy and he just does the right thing. He’s good on the field, he goes to class, he gets good grades, and I think he’s just a role model for a lot of guys on this team.”

And as the Tar Heels have followed Martin’s example, learning their assignments and trusting their teammates, they have enabled Martin himself to play with confidence and put up numbers like he did Saturday. He trusts them because they’ve followed the example he has set. He’s comfortable and confident on the field. “(I’m) not worrying about what’s going on around me,” he said. “(I’m) just playing as hard as I can and just realizing that things are going to fall into place for me. I’ve been doing extra film study, working hard at practice and it finally started to show on the field for me.”