UNC rising senior defensive end Kareem Martin heads into his final season as a three-year veteran who is now serving as a mentor to his younger teammates.
He came to North Carolina in the summer of 2010 amidst a wealth of talent at his position, including Robert Quinn, Quinton Coples, Michael McAdoo, and Donte Paige-Moss, that had been acquired under the infamous regime of John Blake.
Most all of us know the rest of the story.
Quinn and McAdoo never played again for the Tar Heels, Coples was forced to move to defensive tackle to compensate for the loss of Marvin Austin, and Paige-Moss never lived up to his five-star potential out of high school.
Which meant that Martin, fresh out of Roanoke Rapids (N.C.) High School, was a starter right out of the gate at Carolina. He played heavily in that thrilling season opener in the Georgia Dome against LSU that fall and hasn't really left the starting lineup since.
Fast-forward three years and he's the anchor of what appears to be a Tar Heel defensive line that, as a whole, may be the closest thing UNC has had talent and depth-wise to that 2010 defensive line that nobody ever saw play together.
Martin has spoken a couple of times with Tar Heel Illustrated this spring as he works to help the defensive line compensate for the loss of Sylvester Williams and the defense as a whole get much better.
"The last few weeks we've been playing pretty well," he said.
"We've got a lot of young guys, and they're competing really hard. I think the fact that there's so many young guys and that they're competing, it's making them grow up a lot faster. They're becoming better players each day. You can see in every practice they're growing up, and I think it's really going to help our defense by the end of spring."
As might be expected Martin has been a stalwart throughout spring for Carolina, not missing a beat through 13 practices and recording sacks in each of the team's open scrimmages in Charlotte and Kenan Stadium the past two weeks.
"I feel like my pass rushing has gotten a lot better. I've been focusing this winter on my get-off. That's the key to a lot of great defensive linemen is the get-off, and I've been trying to focus on getting off the ball, and just being quick with my hands and adjusting to what the offensive linemen gives me," he said.
Through our series of interviews with Martin, the UNC veteran gave us a comprehensive breakdown of Carolina's depth chart across the front seven.
At his position Martin is clearly holding down the first team role, but there's a couple guys behind him looking to ready themselves not only for heavy backup reps in 2013, but a chance to replace Martin as the full-time starter at defensive end in 2014.
"Right now we're four-deep at defensive end. Myself, Jessie Rogers, Phillip Williamson, and Tyler Alberts," Martin said. "All of them are young."
A season ago Martin recorded 40 total tackles (19 solo), and over a third of those, 15.5 of them to be exact, were tackles for losses. He added four sacks (one each against Louisville, N.C. State, and Virginia, and half-sacks against Wake Forest and East Carolina).
By comparison, Rogers had nine total tackles (three solo), and an assisted tackle for loss in the Wake Forest game.
Not huge numbers, but as a true freshman Rogers saw the field and got a taste of the speed of the college game, the intensity and pace he'll have to play at, as well as scheme and what his teammates around him are doing.
"Jessie played, got a lot of snaps last year. This will be his sophomore year but the other two guys haven't played as much. We're just trying to get those guys developed for the season," Martin said.
Williamson was recruited to UNC as a linebacker, but after redshirting last season he's now making the transition to the front line.
He's got the potential to be an explosive player and in the high school level showed solid tackling skills and the ability to play downhill. Now he's got to get more familiar with the specifics of playing defensive end in order to be an immediate contributor this coming season.
"Phil, he's still raw at the defensive end position, coming from linebacker. He's a good pass rusher, but he's still trying to learn the run game, playing with his hand in the dirt. That's going to be his biggest challenge," Martin said.
Surrounding Martin along the defensive front is a slew of players who aren't quite as experienced, but more than capable of getting the job done.
At the two defensive tackle positions is a quintet of five veterans who are looking to overcome Williams' departure and get substantially more pressure on the quarterback this fall.
"We've got a lot of guys on the defensive line. Shawn Underwood, Devonte Brown, Ethan Farmer, Justin Thomason," Martin said. "Tim Jackson is trying to fill that tackle slot. He helped us out real well at the three-technique, and he's trying to fill that void (with Williams gone)."
Martin then spoke briefly about the 'Bandit' and 'Ram' positions, which are crucial components of successfully running the 4-2-5 scheme.
"Shaq (Rashad), he's come a long ways. He played pretty well last year, but this year he's really stepping up. He understands the defense. He's making a lot more plays. He's a great pass rusher and he's getting better on the run," he said.
"The 'Ram,' it was a position we had a hard time filling last year, because we didn't really have the guys to fill the position. But now with next year, we're able to mold guys into what we want at the 'Ram.'"
"We're seeing a lot more production out of the 'Ram,' and hopefully it will continue to build from there. They're learning the position," Martin continued.
It's been even more important this spring for Martin to step up as a leader with the departure of middle linebacker Kevin Reddick, a four-year starter for the Tar Heels.
"Losing Kevin was a big part of our defense. He was our leader and a great player for four years," Martin said. "As far as linebackers, we have a young linebacking corps, but I have a lot of faith in those guys. They're playing really well this spring, and I think they can fill the void of Kevin. He's been our defensive leader for the last four years."
"They're trying to pick that up, and they got to learn under them. So I can see a lot of things he did (in them)."
The thing that perhaps has excited Martin the most this spring out of his defensive teammates is how hard they've worked.
He's seen a group of guys determined to find their niche and settle into a key role for the 2013 Tar Heel defense.
"As a defense, guys are competing hard. It's also helping us with the schemes, because you have to know what you're doing. So there's not as many mistakes knowing a guy may take your position, so I think that's helped us a lot this spring."