Standout defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy will be sidelined at least six weeks after having foot surgery over the weekend, and now Slay has a chance to step up and show what he can do. Senior Markus Kuhn, who has had a great camp according to defensive line coach Keith Willis, is expected to start alongside Slay, giving State an experienced duo despite the loss of Sweezy.
Sweezy was NC State's top returning defensive linemen, so it will be hard to replace him, but Slay has the talent to pickup the slack. An instinctive player with good quickness and a high-motor, he occupies blockers but can also apply pressure up the middle.
He has the chance to impact as much as any guy on this list, and we won't be shocked when he does.
Three seniors with some experience return in T.J. Graham, Jay Smith, and Steven Howard, and they will likely start the year at the top of the organizational chart, but newcomers such as Quintin Payton, Tobais Palmer, and Bryan Underwood are also expected to contribute.
Keep an eye out for Payton as he has generated some buzz during fall camp. Listed at 6-foot-4, Payton is one of just two scholarship receivers (true freshman Hakeem Flowers is listed at 6-foot-3) who is taller than 6-foot-2. For the past three years the Wolfpack quarterbacks have thrown bombs to tall targets like Owen Spencer (6'3), Jarvis Williams (6'4), and Darrell Davis (6'4). Payton has the potential to be a vertical threat for Mike Glennon in 2011, much like that trio was for Russell Wilson over the previous three seasons.
Payton caught just four passes as a reserve last fall, but he could be the playmaker NC State is looking for to emerge at wideout.
"I call him the quiet assassin," defensive line coach Keith Willis said of Norman. "Art runs and runs. He has a great motor. In fact, he has a tendency to tire himself out after just a few plays because of his motor running so high.
"There are two things he is great at for a young player... rushing the passer and dropping [into coverage]. The kid knows how to read routes, and he takes coaching. He understands how to play and is smart. That is a good thing."
"He's a small guy, but he is faster than any defensive lineman I've seen in my life," star linebacker Terrell Manning said of Norman. "He has a great first step... he causes problems. He's physical, and he gives those guys problems with that first step. Being an offensive lineman it has to be hard to block him because he covers a lot of ground in a hurry."
That is high praise for a freshman who has yet to play a down of college football, but that is the impact Norman, an unknown, two-star prospect out of high school, has made on those at practice.
If he can translate it over to games that will be huge for NC State's defense. J.R. Sweezy is the Wolfpack's top returning pass rusher, and we've already mentioned that he is out with an injury. Sweezy totaled 5.5 sacks in 2010. The rest of the returning defensive line tallied just two. State has to find a guy who can consistently pressure the quarterback up front.
It sounds like Norman will get a chance to do that this fall.
Niklas Sade, who was a heavily-recruited kicker out of Raleigh (NC) Wakefield High School, signed with NC State after previously committing to Nebraska, and he is arguably the Pack's most important signee in the 2011 class. Sade has to be ready to impact, and early indications suggest he has what it takes.
In three scrimmages, Sade has been impressive, even drilling a 53-yarder in a simulated end-of-game situation. The biggest question is, when the stadium is rocking and Sade lines up for a game-winning kick, can he get the job done?
Again, it's not a position many people are talking about right now but imagine how important Sade will be as the Pack works through the 2011 schedule.
Mario Carter has all of three catches during his career at NC State, and is playing behind arguably the top tight end in the ACC. However, he could have a huge year for the Wolfpack.
Let's flashback to 2008. NC State had a first-year starting quarterback named Russell Wilson. The Pack entered the season without its top three receivers from the previous year (Donald Bowens (injured), Darrell Blackman (graduation), and John Dunlap (graduation)). Extremely thin at wideout, the Pack returned just three players who had a combined 25 catches in their careers.
What did the offensive coordinator Dana Bible do? He utilized a lot of two tight end sets that took advantage of the skillset provided by senior Anthony Hill and freshman George Bryan. The duo combined to catch 37 passes for 435 yards and eight touchdowns. That year, the leading receiver on the team, Owen Spencer, caught 31 passes.
Don't be surprised if you see much of the same in 2011... just look at the similarities. NC State has a first-year starting quarterback named Mike Glennon. The Pack enters the season without its top three receivers from last year (Owen Spencer, Jarvis Williams, and Darrell Davis). Thin at wideout, the Pack returned just three players who have extensive experience, with the trio grabbing 47 passes in 2010.
The staff has always been high on Carter's receiving ability, and he is fully healthy after blowing out his knee as a high school senior and again in 2009. Their belief in Carter has allowed them to choose to redshirt Asa Watson, a highly-regarded pass-catching tight end.
When asked at the ACC Kickoff to name an offensive player who deserves more attention from the media, O'Brien mentioned Carter.
"If you go offensively, I think a guy like Mario Carter that's been through two significant knee surgeries," said O'Brien. "To come back and finally be healthy – we made the decision to red-shirt Asa Watson – he's a guy that maybe will do some things this year."
NC State followers and most ACC fans know about George Bryan. They will know Carter's name at the conclusion of the 2011 season.