Checking in with UNC DE Kareem Martin

North Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin returns as one of the leaders of the Tar Heels' defense for 2013. Martin had an outstanding spring game, with four sacks and six tackles for loss, and is also getting some pub as one of the top defensive end prospectsInsider in the country.

I had a chance to catch up with him recently. Here is a little of what he had to say.

What do you feel you worked on this spring to improve your game?

KM: Just tried to work on different aspects that I felt were my weaknesses during the year, pass rush, ball get off, all the things a defensive lineman needs. Going into spring, I felt like if I was going to be an effective, great player I would need to work on those things. I feel like I accomplished those goals. I was able to have a good spring game and I felt like it was an overall successful spring for me.

How did you go about working on those different things?

KM: Just taking it one day at a time. In the spring time, you have a lot more individual periods, so I took those a lot more seriously than maybe I have in the past, making sure every move that I do I’m doing it with a purpose as opposed to going through the motions. When you treat a practice like a game, that’s when you make a lot of strides. I think it really helped me out.

So did you have a different mind-set than the way you treated practices in the past?

KM: I’ve always treated practice seriously, but this year I feel like it’s my year to step up for this defensive line. A lot is expected of me so I’m focused a little bit more. I treat every rep like it’s my last and give it my all because I know the team is going to be looking for me to be a leader on this defense. To do that, I have to show it in practice so I can perform in games.

That also sets an example for your teammates since everybody is looking at you, too.

KM: Yeah you know I think the defensive line as a whole, I think we made a lot of strides this offseason. We have a lot of young guys who played a little bit last year who got a lot of reps this springs, guys like Justin Thomason, Jessie Rogers, both those guys played a little bit last year but this spring really helped them out, allowed them to get a lot more live reps. That’s what helped us out.

You guys obviously started playing a new scheme last year. How was playing defensive end different?

KM: With the scheme, there was a lot more movement than your average 4-3. There was a lot more slanting and stunts and everything because they were sending guys all the time. It was played a lot differently than what I had played in the past.

How long did it take to make that transition?

KM: The hardest part was learning the playbook. We weren’t familiar with the staff at the time so there were communication errors in the beginning. Going into fall camp as the transition was over, then I was used to doing all the movements and knew what to expect.

You went from seven tackles for loss in 2011 to 15.5 in 2012. How do you feel about your productivity?

KM: You’re able to pin your ears back with this defense. We do a lot of movements, and it keeps the offensive linemen on edge. They never know what you’re going to do, so that plays to our advantage. We’ve got guys coming through the gaps and they don’t know who to block. Also me getting bigger, faster and stronger allowed me to do a lot of things for this defense last year.

With Sylvester Williams gone, who’s been filling in that role and who do you expect step up there?

KM: Right now, we have me, Tim Jackson and Shawn Underwood. Both of those guys do great playing the nose and the tackle. It’s hard to fill the void Sly left. He’s a first-rounder. It’s hard to replace that production he had, but with those two guys and with our quality backups, we will have to play more as a unit as opposed to depending on that one person. I think if we can all buy in as a unit we should be able to fill that void that he left.

How much better can the defense be in Year 2?

KM: The defense will be a lot better. Year 1 we were just adjusting. The playbook was very limited, we still had guys trying to learn the playbook and that hurt us early on. The Wake Forest and Louisville games had a lot of missed assignments. But Year 2, everybody has a grasp of the offense, we’ve been working at it all offseason, getting the younger guys involved. As a defense this spring, we really stepped and were able to fly around a lot more.