Tar Heel defense looks to improve in 2nd Fedora campaign
While North Carolina’s offense was setting school records for points and yardage last season, UNC’s defense struggled to keep up.
The trend was especially apparent in ACC play, when the Tar Heels won games 45-35, 43-35 and 48-34 but also lost by scores of 33-30, 28-27 and, in the highest-scoring game in ACC history, 68-50 to Georgia Tech.
Speaking at the ACC Football Kickoff event Sunday at the Grandover Resort, UNC defensive end Kareem Martin said he thinks about the Yellow Jackets loss constantly.
“To give up that many points, it really made the defense look at ourselves in the mirror, like, what kind of defense are we going to be?” Martin said. “Are we going to be the school that puts up 55 points a game because they have to, or are we going to be the team that put up 55 and only allowed 14?”
The Tar Heels graduated their top two defensive players, linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, but Martin thinks that the unit will still be improved this fall in its second year under coach Larry Fedora.
“What it really boiled down to, when we had bad games on the defense, was just missed assignments,” Martin said. “As a defense we know the playbook a lot better and we’re going into training camp knowing what to expect. It will definitely elevate the defense.”
Martin will play a big role. The 6-6, 265-pound senior earned all-ACC second team honors last season, but battled through two ankle injuries and didn’t have the breakout year that many expected.
Now a healthier Martin is trying to give UNC four straight years with a defensive lineman drafted in the first round, following Robert Quinn in 2011, Quinton Coples in 2012 and Williams in 2013.
“I’ve seen their evolution when I was younger and the steps they took that were necessary to carry them to successful careers,” the Roanoke Rapids native said. “I’m just trying to replicate that.”
Martin will be surrounded by experience on the line, with senior Tim Jackson and junior Shawn Underwood the projected starters at defensive tackle. The entire secondary is also returning – senior Jabari Price and junior Tim Scott at cornerback, and senior Tre Boston and sophomore Sam Smiley at safety.
The newcomers will be in the middle of the defense. Junior Travis Hughes, who has made just four starts, should line up at linebacker next to one of two redshirt freshmen, Dan Mastromatteo or Nathan Staub.
The two hybrid spots are projected to go to junior Norkeithus Otis at bandit and junior Brandon Ellerbe at ram, two players who played primarily on special teams in their careers.
Third-year starting quarterback Bryn Renner, tight end Eric Ebron and wide receiver Quinshad Davis should help keep UNC’s offense rolling despite the loss of playmaker Giovani Bernard, the first running back taken in the recent NFL Draft. So the improvement on defense will go a long way toward keeping the Tar Heels atop the Coastal Division.
The team’s hurry-up pace makes it tough for the defense to put up good numbers. But Martin said last year’s results, in which the team gave up 32.9 points a game to ACC opponents, was unacceptable.
“The last few years we’ve always prided ourselves on being a defensive school, so last year was something that wasn’t characteristic of the defenses of the past,” Martin said. “We know we have to get back to where we were, being one of the top defenses.
“The increased possessions, that definitely makes it tougher but that can’t be an excuse. We can’t put the pressure on (the offense) to have to score 45 points every game.”