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August 20, 2011

Unfinished Business

Chapel Hill, N.C. - Something remains to be done at the top of UNC senior strong safety Matt Merletti's checklist of things to do while in college. No it is not beat rival N.C. State although that must be on it somewhere. So what is it?

Win a national championship. Merletti is not kidding around.

"We came in, and one of the recruiting pitches that got us all to come to Carolina is that there has never been a national championship won here," Merletti said. "We never forgot about that."

The Cleveland, Ohio native may have never forgotten that, but his greatest opportunity to achieve that goal may have been last season, which obviously was a long-shot due to the number of suspensions handed down from the NCAA.

The purpose of this article is not to put down the dreams and aspirations of Matt Merletti, but to show how he keeps pressing on regardless of how great the odds and obstacles are.

As a freshman, Merletti endured a losing season (4-8) and little playing time. His sophomore year was an improvement, as North Carolina finished 8-5, making the school's first bowl appearance since 2004.

Merletti also made a name for himself on special teams, recording 11 tackles and recovering two fumbles, including one for a touchdown in a win over UConn.

Things went south in the preseason of his junior year when he tore his ACL, forcing him to take a medical redshirt.

After offseason ACL surgery and rehab, Merletti entered 2010 ready to contribute. It appeared his best chance to help the team was back at his normal spot on special teams.

That quickly changed when UNC announced that 14 players would be held out of its season opener against LSU. Merletti finally had his shot.

In his first collegiate start against the Tigers, Merletti recorded five tackles. He started four more times last season, finishing with 37 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions, helping lead the Tar Heels to a 30-27 double-overtime victory over Tennessee to put an exclamation point on the end of what had largely been a tumultuous year for Carolina Football.

Merletti had barely any time to breathe between the sudden fire of Butch Davis, and making the transition to Everett Withers as interim head coach going into training camp, but the senior did not blink.

"I think that got back to normal within the first couple of days," Merletti said. "Honestly I haven't even been thinking about that. We don't even think about the whole coaching situation anymore."

Merletti has his jaw set, and is looking ahead to a new season, but many question marks have arisen in Carolina's youthful secondary.

He is trying to figure out what his role will be in 2011, as defensive backs Kendric Burney, Da'Norris Searcy and Deunta Williams graduated, Withers trying to inject some young blood into the secondary, players changing positions and Tuesday starting cornerback Jabari Price suffered a tendon injury in his left hand.

Talk about a whirlwind.

"It kind of shakes up the defense obviously," Merletti said. "We're going to roll with the punches. Obviously we're going to have Charles [Brown] out for the first game, and probably Jabari. That's what I'm hearing. We might have to move some people around. I don't know what that's going to be yet for sure, but that's going to be up to the coaches. We haven't done anything about it yet."

The 5-foot-11 and 205-pound senior knows he will stay at strong safety, but is not sure how it will all shake out with who starts and who plays where, so he is just trying to provide stability and leadership to the secondary. Merletti said that is just how things are, and that they had a good taste of it the previous season.

"We're definitely more prepared," Merletti said. "Last year only helped us. It's tough going through adversity like that, but you become better for it."

As Sept. 3 draws closer Merletti realizes his time in Chapel Hill is quickly coming to an end, and he wants to make the most of every moment.

My dad always tells me, he's been telling me since sophomore year, 'You're almost done. You're almost done with college,' just joking around," Merletti said. "Now it is finally approaching."

Merletti wants it to end with Carolina blue confetti flying everywhere in New Orleans Jan. 9, 2012.

"We want to do something special," Merletti said. "We definitely want to go out with a bang."








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