Williams, who is projected by most mock drafts as a second-round pick, provided UNC’s lone consistent push upfront last fall. His graduation has left many wondering how the Tar Heels will cover the sizeable hole in the heart of their defense on 2013.
That sort of talk has served as offseason motivation for the returning members of UNC’s defensive line.
“You never want to hear that there’s a huge void or the D-line takes a major hit,” senior defensive tackle Tim Jackson said. “I hate hearing stuff like that. It’s always next man in – that’s our focus. That’s our motto, as far as the D-line goes. If I go down, somebody behind me will step up. That’s the nature of the business.”
Jackson (18 tkl, 4.0 TFL, sack in ‘12) has slid over to man Williams’ vacant 3-technique spot, while junior Shawn Underwood (19 tkl, 2.5 TFL) has moved to the first unit at nose tackle. Senior Kareem Martin (40 tkl, 15.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) will once again anchor the defensive end spot, while the Bandit position – now coached alongside the linebackers – is currently headed by sophomore Shakeel Rashad.
That level of talent in the first unit, along with improved depth backing it up, has the upperclassmen believing the line will overcome Sly’s departure.
“Sly was a big loss, but we’ve got a lot of young defensive talent,” Martin said. “I think it’s going to be important for a lot of those guys to step up and play good as a unit, because everybody offers something a little different. If we can all play together, it won’t be as hard to fill that void left by Sly.”
UNC head coach Larry Fedora told reporters last week that both Jackson and Martin are providing the level of leadership expects from his seniors.
“Probably Tim has stepped up more than Kareem at this point with his leadership and that’s what he’s got to do,” Fedora said.
Those seniors are approaching their leadership roles in different ways.
When asked what type of advice he is providing his younger teammates along the defensive line, Martin replied, “Just believe in yourself – that’s half the battle.”
“Learn your stuff,” he continued. “Know what the back is doing, so that you know what you can do in this defense. That’s part of it, knowing exactly where everybody is so that you can play to your full ability.”
For Jackson, it’s more about demanding excellence in the weight room and in workouts. During the offseason, he makes a point to call out players for extra work after practice sessions to push everyone just a little bit harder.
“The coaches are looking for me to step up leadership-wise,” Jackson said. “I’m a lot more vocal than I used to be. They know I set an example academically off the field, so they’re expecting me to carry that onto the field and step up and be a vocal leader.”
While Martin has been entrenched at end for his entire career at UNC, Jackson is playing his third position in four years. He enrolled as a 240-pound defensive end and moved to nose tackle last fall.
Jackson admitted early film on his transition was “rough.” He improved as the season progressed, however, until suffering a knee injury thanks to a cheap shot by a Duke player on Oct. 20.
The St. Petersburg, Fla. product didn’t return to full health until January and currently checks in at 285 pounds – five pounds south of where the coaching staff wants him to be for the season opener at South Carolina.
In addition to Jackson and Martin, Fedora has recently praised Underwood for his play this spring. Martin also highlighted the efforts of junior Devonte Brown and sophomore Justin Thomason at tackle, as well as backup end Jessie Rogers.
Martin indicated that while there have been a few tweaks to the defense as a whole, the emphasis this spring has been on perfecting the defense.
“There’s a lot less mistakes going on this spring and we’re more crisp on defense,” Martin said.
Arguably the most significant change upfront has been assistant coach Keith Gilmore’s arrival in taking over for the departed Deke Adams, who is now in the same position at South Carolina.
“Coach Gilmore is more of a laidback coach whereas Coach Adams was more vocal,” Martin said. “That affects guys in different ways, whether you like it or not, but Coach Gilmore definitely brings a different vibe on the defensive line.”
Jackson made it clear where he stands on the new hire.
“You can’t ask for a better D-line coach, honestly,” Jackson said. “The guys love him. He had an instant effect on us. He’s the kind of coach that you really want to play for. You want to play hard for the guy.”
Sly Williams may be playing professionally this fall, but his presence will still be felt around the Kenan Football Center, primarily in the form of motivation.