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April 15, 2011North Carolina rising fifth-year senior defensive back Matt Merletti has seen a lot during his time in Chapel Hill.
A member of Butch Davis's first recruiting class at UNC, Merletti saw the field right away as a true freshman in 2007 and then played heavily again on special teams in 2008.
After missing the entire 2009 season following a knee injury suffered in training camp, Merletti came back last season and contributed 37 tackles, which tied for ninth on the UNC roster.
"It does (feel strange to be a senior). It seems like yesterday I just got here and was in Granville dorms," Merletti said. "It's definitely weird to be a senior."
"It feels good though. It's kind of nice to be one of the older guys on the team and be able to take guys under my wing and show them the right way to do things and be a leader in that sense," he added.
While Merletti had been a fixture on special teams through his first two seasons at Carolina, last year was his first chance to shine in the glowing spotlight of starting games and getting extensive action in the Tar Heel secondary.
He rose to the challenge and helped the UNC defense stay competitive in the midst of crisis, as Merletti contributed six pass breakups, four pass deflections, two interceptions and one tackle for loss to go along with his tackles.
"It absolutely helped getting that playing time last year. I mean, before that I didn't really have much time on defense," Merletti said. "I had one play against Notre Dame my sophomore year---so obviously not a whole lot of time there---but it definitely helped."
"I matured as a person and not just as a football player. And it really helps you. It forces you to put in the extra time because you want to do well," he added.
Merletti may not be asked to start in the North Carolina secondary this coming season with the return of players like Jonathan Smith and Brian Gupton and the emergence of youngsters like Tre Boston, among others.
But the veteran from Cleveland's St. Ignatius High School will see the field a lot in various defensive packages more than likely, including quite possibly the 'nickel back.'
With his presence on special teams and his ability to provide key backup reps at safety, there's no question that No. 25 will be on the field a whole lot in 2011 for the Tar Heels.
"You know that (the secondary) has been the most interesting group, I think, because I've only had one year of real experience. Jonathan Smith has had a little bit of experience here and there, and Brian Gupton has got a little bit of experience," Merletti said.
"So we have a handful of guys with experience, but nothing really significant. So we've all bonded together and we're doing the best we can. Our coaches are coaching the heck out of us."
"Who's grown the most? Probably Tre Boston. We moved him to safety and he took that like he's been playing safety all along," Merletti added. "He got a whole lot better, and he's going to be helping us in the secondary this year as well."
With a lot of capable bodies but having to replace two multi-year starters in Deunta Williams and Da'Norris Searcy, Merletti has been in position to help bring along this group of Tar Heel defensive backs over the past few months.
"Ultimately we're just trying to get the best we can," he said. "We had 15 practices that were given and we were trying to use each of those practices to get the best we can and prepare for next season. This is already preparation for the first game."
"To be honest with you, the question mark on our defense was our secondary, and we grew a lot as a secondary these last 15 practices," Merletti added. "That's been the biggest---I think the secondary has gotten the most improvement out of any position on defense and everything. I'm really excited about that."
Along with providing a necessary role in terms of production and leadership in the UNC secondary, 'Captain America,' as Merletti is known, will once again be the sparkplug of Carolina's special teams---playing on several teams and serving as what else?
In Merletti's well-trained eye, the key to UNC's special teams this spring was identifying and implementing quality depth at every position so certain players wouldn't have to be on the field quite so much.
"Just right now, being a leader in the special teams and everything, we're just trying to get the young guys to contribute, because that's only going to help us," he said.
"The more depth we have the better team we'll have, because we won't necessarily have to put a starter on special teams, starting on kickoff team or something like that. That will take a lot of energy out of us and stuff like that."
"We're just trying to get as much depth as we can and just teach these young guys how to do it."
Merletti is known as 'Captain America' for a few reasons.
For one, he's freakishly strong.
The 5-11, 185-pounder can bench press more than twice his own weight---making him pound-for-pound arguably the strongest player on the entire UNC roster.
Merletti is consistently among the top five to ten overall performers on the entire Tar Heel team in the bench press---pushing up well over 400 pounds---to put himself in company with some of Carolina's top offensive and defensive linemen even though they in some instances outweigh him by more than a hundred pounds.
Another reason for the 'Captain America' moniker is obviously the fact that Merletti is special teams captain.
It also probably has something to do with the fact that he often comes out of the tunnel before games flying the American flag---as he did for last year's season opener against LSU in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
The nickname also probably has something to do with the fact that Merletti's father was in charge of security for American presidents such as George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, and also the fact that his older brother is in the military and has served multiple engagements in Afghanistan.
Merletti works hard, makes good grades, stays out of trouble, pushes his body to its maximum capabilities, does everything the coaches ask him to do, and he's the ultimate overachiever---a young man who no major colleges recruited until Davis took a chance on him.
Yes, everything considered, 'Captain America' seems a more than fitting nickname for a young man who seems to be an excellent representative of the University of North Carolina and a solid example of many things that are good about college football.
For his part, Merletti is keeping his eye on the prize.
"We're working real hard, and we're not taking this lightly at all," he said.
"We're putting in extra work, extra time and everything. I think it's going to be exciting to see how it all looks on Saturdays."
"Hopefully we're going towards the ACC championship. That's our goal," he added.