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October 28, 2013
Although he's only been on the UNC campus for a little over three years, Kareem Martin has seen a little bit of everything in his short time at the college level.
And ironically, he's only a few games from watching it all come to an end.
Such is the life of a college football player, and that brief window of time to shine.
Thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman during UNC's tumultuous 2010 season, Martin has seen the highs that came with winning a bowl game that year, the lows of losing a head coach and falling under NCAA sanctions, and now the lows of a rough first half to his senior season in Chapel Hill.
But through it all the Roanoke Rapids (N.C.) defensive end has remained stoic, patient, and most of all, determined to keep playing and doing whatever he can in his remaining time at UNC to help the Tar Heels pick up wins.
"It was definitely frustrating (the start of the season), but I couldn't let my team see me being frustrated, because if they see one of their defensive leaders down and out, they could pack it in because they could say to themselves, 'I have a couple more years.'" said Martin in an interview Monday with Tar Heel Illustrated.
"This is my last (season), but I didn't want to lose the team. Because I know everything that they see from my is magnified. So I knew that I had to keep my spirits up in order to keep them involved with this season even though they have a couple more seasons left in their career. They can easily pack it in and just get ready for next year. I didn't want my (final) year to go out like that, so I've stayed positive and talked to the guys."
Martin has been playing very well this fall for the Tar Heels, as he currently stands second on the UNC roster with 47 combined tackles (26 solo, 21 assisted), which is tied for 25th in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
He leads the Tar Heels with 4.5 sacks, which is tied for tenth in the ACC, and he also leads UNC with 9.5 tackles for loss, which is good for seventh in the league.
Martin has gotten at least five tackles each time out this fall, and among his better performances include his 10 tackles against Georgia Tech, eight tackles, a sack and two quarterback hurries against Miami, eight tackles and a half-sack at Virginia Tech, and six tackles and a sack against East Carolina.
But fhe fact that UNC lost all four of those games didn't allow Martin to feel good about himself after all those solid performances.
"We look back on the first half, we still had opportunities to win," Martin said. "It was just our mistakes that led us to ultimately lose them. It's something that we look back on and think, 'We should have won those even though it was a front-loaded schedule,' but it is what it is."
This past week Martin was finally able to celebrate a great individual performance, as he recorded two sacks and five total tackles against Boston College to earn ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for his play in the 34-10 UNC triumph.
"I felt like the last three or four weeks, once we really got into ACC play, I've definitely stepped my game up. I saw I was playing well, but I knew I needed to do more for this team to be successful," Martin said about his solid recent play.
"The coaches have been talking about it for the last two weeks, just take the extra inch. I was just doing more film study, working harder in practice, doing a little bit more just so I can have that edge on Saturday, and it's definitely been proving itself the last three or four weeks."
"I will tell you this. I think the thing that you see with Kareem is that he can see that light at the end of the tunnel. And he is trying to make the most of every play that he has the last two weeks," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora of Martin.
"Don't get me wrong---he was still very solid for us in all the other games, but in the last two he's just making play after play, playing extremely hard, doing a good job of leading. I think part of that is that senior understanding it's coming to an end. It's coming quick."
Fedora made a point to let Martin and some of the other seniors in the UNC lineup know just how quickly their time to make an impact at Carolina and do something to help turn around the football program's fortunes is running out.
"The other day before practice, Coach Fedora came up to me and told me I only had about 15 practices left in my regular season college career," Martin said. "When you put it down into numbers like that, you know, this thing has really flown by."
"When you can actually count it down, an actual countdown it just makes every day that more important. I have to cherish every opportunity I have to practice, and every Saturday, because my time up here is coming to an end."
"We're down to about 15 to 18 practices left in the regular season. It's not much," added Fedora. "This season is going to be over. I hope there's a sense of urgency in each and every one, but you have seen Kareem make more and more plays the last couple of weeks."
For Martin, knowing that his UNC career is about to end is one thing as it relates to motivation, but something just as motivating to Martin is the fact that he wants to leave the program with something to hang its hat on for the 2013 season.
It started with the win over Boston College, snapping a four-game losing streak, and now the momentum heads over to Raleigh for Saturday's game against N.C. State.
"Just talking with the other seniors, our time is winding down here. My time is here is coming to an end, and I knew I didn't want my senior year to be remembered as the team that only won one game. So I definitely had to step my play up, and guys have been able to feed off me on the defensive side to change things," Martin said.
"We know our season can take one of two turns, and we want to make the best turn. It feels great (to finally get a win again). We always knew we had a good defense. In every game we gave up big plays. We only allowed them (Boston College) to one for a touchdown, and we're just proud of the way we played (against the Eagles)."
Martin's solid play, as well as his attitude and work ethic, have rubbed off on other members of the UNC defense. It showed this past week against BC, as the Tar Heels swarmed, gang tackled, and pressured Eagles quarterback Chase Rettig all day.
"He's been playing great for us all year. He's a great part of our D-line, and the leader of our defense really," said sophomore linebacker Jeff Schoettmer of Martin.
"These last two weeks, he's really turned it on. I don't know what's gotten into him, but he's doing really well. He's had three sacks the last two games."
Schoettmer indicated that Martin led a talk with the UNC players during Friday's walk-through before the Boston College game, expressing his thoughts on the situation and how the Tar Heels can't afford to let any more opportunities slip out of their grasp.
"You all (the media) don't really notice, he's been a great vocal leader for us off the field," said Schoettmer of Martin. "He kind of had a little talk to us after a walk-through on Friday, saying, 'This is it, this is our last time to turn the season around really, so we need to play hard and get a big win,' and I think that kind of rallied the defense and got them excited for Saturday."
Martin's solid play was a catalyst in UNC's victory over Boston College and he's one of the few bright spots of North Carolina's overall defensive effort through the first half of the season, but it has also caught the eye of NFL scouts, who by and large should have been impressed with the way the senior defensive end has carried himself on the field.
By playing through the adversity and going out and competing each week with consistency and effectiveness, Martin has almost certainly improved his NFL Draft stock over the past few weeks, and has a chance to improve it even more in the coming weeks as he looks to help UNC continue finding the win column.
"I think Kareem is going to play obviously at the next level if it all works out for him and he stays healthy and all those things. First of all, he's got the body. He can run. He's got all the measurables," said Fedora.
"He's a very intelligent player. He's not going to embarrass anybody. He's going to be where he's supposed to be. He's going to take care of his business. And he can play the game. He can rush the passer. And he's good against the run. So I think he has all the tools."
While the NFL has long been a goal of Martin's, right this moment he has one supreme goal---finding a way to beat N.C. State for the second straight season, and to end UNC's three-game losing streak in Carter-Finley Stadium.
"We've got a rivalry game (this week)," Martin said. "I don't think it's going to be hard for guys to find energy to play N.C. State. This is the flagship rivalry of the state as far as football goes. North Carolina and State, most people in the state are either UNC football fans or N.C. State fans. Every time this game comes around, it seems like everybody gets excited. It's a great atmosphere everywhere in the state."
"It was real big to end the losing streak against them (last year), especially the way we did it. It felt great. It was like a weight was lifted off our shoulders last year, and this year we're going to try to extend the streak."
"It's not hard to get guys up for this one. Everybody is going to be up for this game."