State's Biggest Concern... Linebacker?

NC State needs to find a solid rotation at linebacker because out of all the positions, this one will be the biggest question mark for the Wolfpack in 2012.

NC State needs to find a solid rotation at linebacker because out of all the positions, this one will be the biggest question mark for the Wolfpack in 2012.

State expected to have back starters Terrell Manning and D.J. Green following the bowl victory over Louisville, but shortly afterwards Manning declared for the NFL Draft and yesterday the NCAA suspended Green for the 2012 season for taking an illegal supplement. The Pack's other starting linebacker, Audie Cole, graduated, which puts linebackers coach Jon Tenuta in a position where he has to replace all three starters at the position.

When you factor in that top reserve Dwayne Maddox also graduated, there isn't much experience at the position and plenty of youth, but several of the players possess upside.

The key to State's linebacking corps has always been at middle linebacker. Tenuta moved star Nate Irving to the position in 2010 and Audie Cole there in 2011, as he generally prefers to have his top linebacker play inside.

Sterling Lucas
The Wolfpack is hoping that senior Sterling Lucas is fully recovered from a knee injury that forced him to miss the 2011 season. If Lucas is recovered, he projects to start at middle linebacker after being the top reserve at the spot for three seasons.

Lucas has started two games, against Maryland and Clemson in 2009, in his career, and he has played in 37 games so he is by far the Wolfpack's most-experienced returning linebacker. The 6-foot-2, 238-pounder had his best game in 2009 at Virginia Tech, where he totaled 14 tackles in the loss.

Entering spring practice Lucas will likely be competing for the starting job with redshirt junior Ryan Cheek. Cheek has mainly contributed on special teams his first two seasons in Raleigh, but the Lancaster, Ohio native will have a chance at a much larger role in 2012.

State's biggest question mark will likely be at weakside linebacker. Manning's departure leaves a huge hole as he played virtually every snap last season. When he was injured the Wolfpack inserted Maddox, who played both strongside and weakside during the course of the year.

Look for sophomore Brandon Pittman and redshirt junior Rickey Dowdy to enter spring practice competing for the starting job. Both contributed on special teams and while Dowdy has been in the program longer, Pittman, who checks in at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, has plenty of upside and could win the job.

Two of the Wolfpack's 2012 signees, Drew Davis and Robert Caldwell, will also factor in at weakside and middle linebacker. Both indicated during their recruitment that they were being recruited to play either position, so look for their specific spot to be determined once they enroll over the summer.

Robert Caldwell

Caldwell, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior college linebacker out of College of the Desert (CA), finished up with 61 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, one pass breakup, one forced fumble and one blocked kick in 2011, earning first-team all-conference honors. He is expected to start out at middle linebacker, but he could potentially project as a weakside linebacker if he is able to come in and pick up the scheme quickly and as there is a bigger need at that spot.

Davis, a local product out of Raleigh (NC) Broughton High School, has the physical stature needed to play as a true freshman (6'3/235), but will he be ready from a mental standpoint?

"If you look at the linebacker situation, [Drew Davis] has to think he's got a chance [to play]," Tom O'Brien stated on signing day. "We don't promise anybody they are going to play. We promise we're going to give them the opportunity to play.

"One of the advantages of being here in town is he can drive over to practice and become more accustomed to how we do things."

Davis averaged close to 15 tackles a game as as a senior, earning all-conference honors. Both Davis and Caldwell will be counted on to contribute at middle and weakside linebacker, that is for certain.

The greatest competition might be at strongside linebacker, where the Wolfpack will be replacing D.J. Green and Dwayne Maddox. Sophomore Michael Peek could have the upper hand, but he played mainly special teams last year. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder impressed coaches during fall camp and, along with Brandon Pittman, earned their way on to the football field as true freshmen.

Dontae Johnson

"Peek and Pittman, who played some this year, they got a lot more individual work [during bowl practices]," said O'Brien. "We're going to have to count on them more next year."

The x-factor at the position could be junior Dontae Johnson. A hybrid safety/linebacker, Johnson played mainly linebacker once Green went down with a foot injury last season. Because NC State's scheme needs the strongside linebacker to be terrific in space and cover a lot of ground, Johnson's size and athleticism enabled him to see the field in obvious passing, and blitzing situations. He finished the season with 27 tackles, four pass breakups, and three sacks, and in the last four games he totaled 13 tackles and all three sacks.

Others who could compete for playing time at the position are redshirt freshman Hakim Jones and true freshman M.J. Salahuddin. Jones impressed O'Brien last fall with his play on the scout team but could ultimately end up at safety.

"Hakim Jones, he's got a lot of range and ability," said O'Brien.

Today, the football program posted on Twitter that sophomore Rodman Noel and redshirt freshman Mike Rose would be shifting to linebacker this spring. Noel played safety last season, but O'Brien stated after the bowl game he could get a look at linebacker. Rose, who played linebacker and defensive end in high school, spent this fall working at defensive end for the Wolfpack.

Development at linebacker this spring will be pivotal for the Wolfpack. State returns plenty of experience along the defensive front and could have arguably the top returning secondary in the ACC, but their defense will be defined by the production they receive at linebacker.

Is it 2008 again in Raleigh? Flashback to Tom O'Brien's second season and the Wolfpack had exactly the same issue at linebacker. State was looking to replace all three starting linebackers after losing seniors LeRue Rumph, James Martin, and Ernest Jones from the 2007 squad.

That year State turned to redshirt junior Ray Michel at middle linebacker, a sophomore who had flashed potential, Nate Irving, at weakside linebacker, and walk-on Robbie Leonard won the strongside linebacker job. Overall, the defense finished ranked No. 65 in scoring defense and No. 83 in total defense, but progressed late in the season and improved play, plus Russell Wilson's emergence, led to a bowl bid for the Wolfpack.

However, the comparisons between 2008 and this year's returning defense starts and end at linebacker. That defense was not only replacing the linebackers but also had to overcome the losses of DeMario Pressley, DaJuan Morgan, Martrel Brown, and Javon Walker at safety. This year's group is experienced along the defensive front and brings back a secondary considered to be one of the best in the ACC, led by All-American cornerback David Amerson. With that being said, those two units have to perform at a high level for the Wolfpack's defense to maximize its potential.

Without question, the biggest concern for NC State has to be the linebackers. The negatives? State doesn't have a lot of experience and will be shifting around players this spring to try and find a group that will work. Player movement is rarely good because it prevents chemistry from developing.

The positives? 11 or 12 players will be competing for three starting positions and coach O'Brien always stresses the importance of competition. The Pack has numbers, now they need to find three solid starters from the group and there might not be a better coach in the country to turn to for that than linebackers coach Jon Tenuta. He is considered one of the best at his position and will certainly earn the massive raise he received when he spurned Illinois to remain in Raleigh.

It might take some time, but don't bet against Tenuta putting together a solid unit at linebacker for the Wolfpack in 2012.

Projected Linebacker Organizational Chart
Here is a look at the scholarship linebackers based on classes and positions.

Position Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
WLB   Rickey Dowdy Brandon Pittman  
WLB/MLB   Robert Caldwell   Drew Davis
MLB Sterling Lucas Ryan Cheek    
SLB   Dontae Johnson Michael Peek, Rodman Noel M.J. Salahuddin, Hakim Jones
WLB/MLB/SLB       Mike Rose

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