CHAPEL HILL – When it comes to turning prospects into NFL first-round picks, North Carolina has had more success with defensive linemen than any other position group.
Since 1996, 10 of UNC’s 13 first-round picks have been defensive linemen, a list that includes top 10 selections Greg Ellis, Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims.
The Tar Heels have had a first-round pick off the line in each of the last three years – Sylvester Williams (No. 28 in 2013), Quinton Coples (No. 16 in 2012) and Robert Quinn (No. 14 in 2011).
It remains to be seen if Kareem Martin can continue that streak. The senior started off slowly this season, with 3.5 tackles for loss in his first five games, but he has since exploded with nine tackles for loss in his last three games, including a 10-yard sack (and two quarterback hurries) in the nationally televised game against Miami that attracted 37 NFL scouts.
“First of all, he’s got the body,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “He can run. He has all the measurables. He’s an intelligent player who’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 a passer, he’s good against the run, and so I think he has all the tools.”
No matter what happens with Martin, Fedora hopes to continue the tradition of attracting top defensive lineman to Carolina. Last week, he described what he looks for in a recruit at that position.
“I think you find a lot of tall, lanky guys with a lot of length,” Fedora said. “When you look at them, you’re trying to look at their ankles and their wrists, look at their bone structure and see how big are they going to be. They might be 205 in high school and I don’t know what Kareem was in high school (he was 229), but they start out at 205 and they end up being 255 or 260 or even more. Then you get that guy who is 205 and he gets to 215.
“You don’t know, and so you’re doing the best job you can projecting, and that’s getting harder and harder because you’re looking at them younger and younger. But obviously, the more length, the better chances of growth.”
Fedora hopes one of UNC’s next great defensive line recruit may already be on the roster. Dajaun Drennon, Nazair Jones and Greg Webb were all in the Class of 2013, but while nine true freshmen have seen action so far this season for UNC, and bandit Mikey Bart and running back T.J. Logan even started a game apiece, those three linemen are planning on redshirting.
“You challenge those guys all the time to make sure they’re getting something out of their redshirt year and not just playing a role as a scout team player,” Fedora said. “Those three guys are out there every day pushing hard and trying to get better. It’s hard to do that. It just depends on what happens in the year and what kinds of injuries occur.
“The further you get along, you hate doing it, but sometimes it happens, and you just have to. You don’t have a choice. You have to do what’s best for the football team.”
Jones attended Roanoke Rapids (N.C.) High, just like Martin, and was ranked the No. 9 player in the state in his class by 247Sports.com. Other top D-line recruits from Eastern North Carolina who have used UNC as a springboard to the NFL include Quinton Coples (Kinston), Bruce Carter (Havelock) and Kentwan Balmer (Roanoke Rapids).
“I’ve seen their evolution when I was younger and the steps they took that was necessary to carry them to successful careers,” Martin said. “I’m just trying to replicate that.”
Certainly the fake punt by N.C. State and the double pass by North Carolina were memorable plays, but the lasting image of UNC’s 27-19 win in Raleigh would be what happened directly afterward, when members of the Tar Heel defense made a bee-line for the Wolfpack’s midfield logo.
Tre Boston, Tim Scott and Tim Jackson were among the Tar Heels who stomped or slapped on the logo before getting into a glorified staring match with some Wolfpack players who decided to stop them.
UNC then headed to the locker room chanting “Whose state? Our state!” Red posters with N.C. State’s “This is our state” slogan had been put in UNC’s locker room during the week.
Wolfpack players called the celebration classless, while coach Dave Doeren promised to remember it every day until next year’s meeting.
Scott expressed regret about the incident afterward.
“It wasn’t very acceptable. It’s not real classy at all,” Scott said. “We just celebrated not thinking about the middle of the field logo, ... but we can see how it went bad. We (were) just all jumping up and down, excited to win. But I guess they just took it the wrong way.”
But tight end Eric Ebron, who had tried some trash talk over Twitter before the coaches ordered him to stop, struck a more defiant tone.
“Let them know that this is our state,” Ebron said. “If we don’t have your respect already, we’re going to keep on taking it, until the point that you have no choice but to respect us. I mean, this is our state. Our win ratio to their losses (UNC is 65-32-6 in the series), I mean, we’re killing them. You just have to let them know whose state this really is. … If this really is your state, then come prove it.”
Fedora shrugged off the incident afterward, joking that he thought his players were running to midfield to shake hands.
Regardless of how appropriate UNC’s on-field celebration was, at least it should provide some more interest in next year’s game. With both teams struggling just to reach .500 this season, the UNC-N.C. State rivalry could be all those teams have to look forward to.