The Carolina defensive front that takes the field in September will look a lot different from the one that helped secure the Belk Bowl championship last December. To compete against a difficult schedule in 2014, the Tar Heels will have to replace the leadership and playmaking capabilities of Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson.
Tar Heel associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said it was only when Martin allowed himself to be coached that he met his potential. Martin’s 21.5 tackles for loss were third-best in the ACC and helped him to a first-team all-conference selection. “I’ve seen Coach (Keith) Gilmore do that with a bunch of guys,” Koenning said of the Tar Heel defensive line mentor. “Kareem let go of the reins and started doing what Coach was telling him to do, and ‘Oh, this works!’ That was some of it.”
A leader in the defensive huddle, Martin inspired teammates to follow his path. The result was a defense that surrendered 98 fewer yards per game in the season’s final seven contests than they had in the first six. “Kareem starts doing what we’re trying to get him to do, he starts having success, so [other players are thinking] ‘Maybe I should do that,’ and I think a lot of guys that happened for,” Koenning said. “Nobody improved more on our defense than Ethan Farmer did. Nobody.”
Indeed, Farmer, who Koenning said can be a “war daddy” (“It’s a daddy who wins a war. I don’t know. It’s a figure of speech.”) had his best game in the regular season finale against Duke. The Tabor City native recorded eight tackles including one for loss against Duke. Three weeks earlier, he’d earned defensive player of the game honors for his performance against Virginia. Farmer returns as a senior ready to fill the gaps and free up linebackers to make plays in addition to forcing a few stops of his own.
Redshirt sophomore Junior Gnonkonde and junior Jessie Rogers will battle to start at defensive end. They’ll be pushed by redshirt freshmen Dajuan Drennon and Greg Webb. At tackle, Shawn Underwood, Devonte Brown and Justin Thomason will be in the mix. Redshirt freshman Nazair Jones is a capable pass-rusher as well.
Norkeithus Otis is the returning starter at bandit. Otis had a tremendous junior season, but is banged up and may not be fully available for spring practice. Koenning said Otis’ size (6’1, 240 pounds) and speed make the Tar Heel defense look more like a 3-4 front (three down linemen, four linebackers) than the 4-2-5 that they’re often labeled. Behind Otis are rising senior Darius Lipford, sophomore Mikey Bart, who burst onto the scene last fall, and junior Shakeel Rashad. Rashad injured his knee on the first day of fall practice and only returned to the Tar Heel lineup in November against Virginia.
Carolina would love to have Martin returning, but it will take the next man up to step forward and lead from the front of the Tar Heel defense. Koenning draws on his experiences at Clemson and Illinois to illustrate how that can happen. “I’d likedto have Demarcus Ware, Ricky Sapp, Gaines Adams, guys like that. But you know what? Whitney Mercilus wasn’t a starter (at Illinois). He played one year, and he played All-American ball, so you never know who’s going to [step up].” Mercilus led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in his junior season and was a first-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft.
“I’ve seen a guy come from being a backup to being the best in the country and I saw how he did it and I think we’ve got some guys that are capable, and we’ve got the same guys coaching them, so I’m hoping somebody jumps out and does that,” Koenning said. “I’m definitely not going to slow anybody down. We’ve got some guys now that we don’t have to say ‘Sic ‘em.’”
Carolina will have a defensive leader on the field in 2014, and that leader will be determined as much by the players as he will the coaches. Someone will command the defensive huddle in 2014, but even perhaps more important that finding a leader is finding players willing to be led. There can’t be 11 ‘coaches on the field.’ Koenning said the Tar Heels are getting closer to finding those players who fit the system both mentally and with their skills. “The culture is going to push some guys to the side,” he said. “We started practicing and preparing differently, so the guys that were back to what it used to be, those guys started sticking out like a sore thumb and then it was easy to identify them, and they lost all credence with [the rest of the team].”
This off-season, the Carolina coaches have sat down and formulated a plan for each individual to get better. There’s no blanket solution for team improvement; the individuals have their own areas that need work. That plan will be put into motion before and after spring practice, and Koenning expects a group of solid defensive players to return to campus in time for fall camp. “If you’re building a house and you put a board in there that’s got a crack or a knot in it, that’s exactly where you’re going to have issues,” he said. “So we’ve got to build every guy to be the best that that guy can do, and then collectively as a team we know we’ll be better.”