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With the 29th pick, the San Francisco 49ers selected North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer in the 2008 NFL Draft which was conducted inside Radio City Music Hall in New York City. It was an unexpected selection heard throughout the nation and especially to the 49er faithful who have stared from the sidelines in regards to the playoffs since 2002.
It was a surprise pick to most, including myself, in anticipation of an offensive lineman and or a wide receiver as the area of most need. Eight offensive linemen were taken in round one with six coming off the board between picks 12 and 21. The San Francisco 49ers after all had lost two premier linemen in Kwame Harris and Justin Smiley. What else could they possibly want other then a quality replacement for one or both?
On top of all that Larry Allen was and is still expected to retire along with a fresh injury to David Baas and old ones that become new ones for veteran Jonas Jennings. One would conclude that a quality offensive lineman was in the works for the 49ers yet again. But as the quality linemen were being snapped away, the litigating fact became clearer that a hidden gem from North Carolina was becoming that more available by the minute.
As the 29th pick came about, my initial theory was that the 49ers would possibly trade the pick to accumulate more considering that they lost a valuable one in the fifth round due to tampering with Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs. However general manager Scot McCloughan and head coach Mike Nolan saw a golden opportunity to take someone that literally could challenge to be the next big 49er defensive menace to the rest of the NFL.
Please remember that despite the need on the offensive line we also must pay respects to a defensive line that spent the most playing time on the field last season in comparison to every single team in the NFL in the San Francisco 49ers. Our offensive malcontents came off the field as fast as they stepped out on to it in most every game they played last season for a variety of reasons that have been discussed more so then any national news story that is still ongoing.
Kentwan Balmer looks to his mother for inspiration and guidance with his life decisions. It was Christa Balmer that was there to make sure he got to basketball practice with the best shoes available as he was growing up in Weldon. Balmer had dreams of actually playing in the NBA at some point in his life as he spent almost every waking hour practicing until he started to get blurry vision as the ball was thrown and the hoop was transfixed to the back of his coronas in both eye sockets.
His life began to take a shift from basketball in high school at Weldon to football when he met up with coach Grady Williams who saw something in Balmer that was just waiting to be tapped. Balmer went on to earn All-Area and All-Conference honors as a junior and senior at Weldon High School which is located in northeastern North Carolina. His popularity soared as in 2003 he was named Area Defensive Player of the Year in assisting his team during three shutouts in their first six games of that season.
His statistics are staggering in posting 113 tackles, 12 sacks, eight passes defended along with six fumble recoveries. His high school career blossomed even more in becoming a member of the North Carolina Shrine Bowl Team. North Carolina Tar Heels assistant Kenny Browning came across Balmer during a recruiting trip through the Roanoke Rapids suburb that landed him in that schools training camp the following year.
So was the beginning of Kentwan Balmer's collegiate career in North Carolina starting in 2004 as the San Francisco 49ers were then under the direction and misguidance of Terry Donahue and Dennis Erickson. The 250-pound right defensive end saw his first baptism of fire during limited action during nine total games. As a sophomore, he went on to bulk-up by adding more then 30-pounds to his frame and appeared in 11 total games and recorded 17 tackles with eight being solo, one sack and had five stops for losses, some quarterback pressures and one deflected pass.
While in his 2006 season as a Tar Heel he experienced his first injury in a sprained right ankle that he played through in the second half against Wake Forest. He played in 10 total games and started in the final eight of those contests. He also made his first career start at defensive tackle from end against Miami and eventually was forced to sit because of the severity of his high ankle sprain.
In the spring of 2007 his career suddenly and dramatically took a turn for the best when the coaching staff at North Carolina received a major overhaul with former NFL coach Butch Davis arrived on campus to replace John Bunting. Both Davis and defensive line coach John Blake became awed by the potential NFL talent that Kentwan Balmer seemed to possess and even encouraged him that he could very well be a first round draft pick.
This was the eye opening moment Balmer knew that he had to make or never look back again. The motivation was set in place after discussions with Butch and John that started a fire inside Kentwan like never seen before. He immediately set out to improve upon his technique, such as use of his hands, when to drop his hips, when it was best to provide leverage in his size and how to utilize his speed. His defensive line coach harped upon him day after day to fine tune his abilities and to be masterful while out on the field.
His performance exploded out on the field under his collegiate coach's direction and he finished his senior season with 59 tackles and posted 3.5 sacks, earning him second-team All-ACC honors. According to ESPN's Mel Kiper he was ranked seven on his Big Board of top NFL senior prospects. And as the 29th pick in the first round came about so did the excitement in the 49er war room escalate to a crescendo of epic proportions.
Kentwan Balmer and about 75 family members were gathered at North Carolina's football training complex when the call came from the San Francisco 49ers that he was being counted on to help the defensive line. His father, Charles, was and still is a devoted 49er fan dating all the way back to the glory days of the 1980's. On draft day and up until now he has a reason to wear the crimson red and gold once again and to hold his head up high when our team takes the field with his son.
Balmer fills an immediate need as the defensive line has undergone many changes with the departure of Marques Douglass who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the inevitable retirement of veteran Bryant Young after 14-straight seasons as the only player left that has seen a Super Bowl as a 49er. He knows what that tradition is and what it means to him today. He has a friend in linebacker Manny Lawson who attended his rival college at North Carolina State and hopes to someday meet the legendary Bryant Young even if he is retiring.
Anything is possible as right now Aubrayo Franklin is the starting nose tackle, and Isaac Sapoaga is registered as the starter in as Bryant Young's replacement at left defensive end and newly acquired mega-free agent Justin Smith on the right side. It will be up to Kentwan Balmer to provide speculation as to who should be the starter and who should be the top back-up. Some consider the cat-like athleticism of Kentwan Balmer to be a "poor-man's Bryant Young," when thought of as a comparison back in his younger days coming out of college.
But is taking a defensive tackle a real risk for the 49ers? All one has to look back to is the first round bust they made with the 24th overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft in acquiring Reggie McGrew and it will make you have flu-like symptoms immediately. Balmer becomes the first Tar Heel defensive lineman ever taken by San Francisco. No other Tar Heel has been taken this high in the draft since defensive end Julius Peppers was taken with the second overall pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2002.
Mike Nolan loves the fact that Kentwan Balmer has the real potential to wreck havoc on the opposition either as a tackle or an end and what is even more meaningful to Nolan is the fact that Balmer is "an every down type of player." To have that type of physical stamina to withstand and stay in on every snap is virtually unheard of within the NFL.
He also is intrigued by the mere fact that Balmer received precise and intelligent training from the likes of an experienced NFL coach in Butch Davis former head coach of the Cleveland Browns who made an immediate impact upon Balmer's collegiate career as a senior. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky is like a kid in a candy store having someone as versatile and unique as Kentwan Balmer to utilize in his defensive formations and planning.
He has gone on record as indicating the difficulty there is finding a hidden gem like Balmer that has size, speed and ability to play right away at the NFL level. Some say though that Balmer is at a disadvantage because he hadn't really discovered his true potential until coach Butch Davis had arrived on the scene. But tapping into that true potential was not that difficult because Davis has indicated that the talent was always there along with a dedicated effort to always push oneself to the ultimate limits.
Upon being drafted Kentwan Balmer missed his original flight to San Francisco. He admits it was a communication error on his part for missing it and once he finally landed one late Sunday night he received a whirlwind tour of team headquarters in Santa Clara. General Manager Scot McCloughan touted Balmer as the next great surprise on defense by the San Francisco 49ers in that he would command double-teams like Bryant Young did and it would pave the way for linebacker extraordinaire Patrick Willis to make the heat felt.
49er defensive line coach Jim Tomsula was still another coach singing the very praises of Blamer and his reputation for excellence that he plans on tapping into and manipulating to our advantage on any given Sunday. He also indicated that no decision has been made to play Blamer either at nose tackle or at left defensive end where he played the most as a Tar Heel over the course of his North Carolina career.
An interesting statistic is this one: In 55 plays against the run as a senior; he held the opposition to 93 yards (a 1.69 average). On top of that he exhibited versatility like none other as he started three times at right end, eight at tackle and 12 at right tackle. Still there is real criticism out there of him from Pro Football Weekly that calls him "Really only a one-year producer. Inconsistent effort and intensity. Is not explosive or overly athletic."
Despite the references both Scot McCloughan and Mike Nolan see something special in Kentwan Balmer the North Carolina Tar Heel that can bring it with a vengeance. We all know that we have experienced real loss on our defensive line especially after losing our legendary Bryant Young. He was and forever will be a very special player in my heart. I am hopeful and intrigued by the prospect of reliving Bryant Young's career through Kentwan Balmer's eyes. Our future success depends on it.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.