It is a unit that has options but little experience. In fact, only senior middle linebacker Sterling Lucas has any starting experience, as he made two starts in 2009 during his sophomore season.
He has played in 36 games and totaled 86 tackles for his career, and Lucas, who missed all of 2011 with a knee injury, will be counted on to lead the others into action.
"Sterling is going to be a leader," said defensive coordinator Mike Archer. "He has to be... he already is a leader on our football team and he knows what to expect.
"He didn't play at all last year, but it was a valuable year for him because he was able to watch and learn from the sidelines during practice and he watched and observed from the pressbox during games. He knows what we expect. That is another plus because with him in the middle of our defense it is like having another coach."
Competing with Lucas for playing time at middle linebacker will be redshirt junior Ryan Cheek. A special teams contributor for much of his career, the 6-foot-1, 231-pounder made strides in the spring. In fact, Archer said Cheek impressed him as much as any linebacker on the roster during the workouts.
"The guy who did everything we asked him to do was Ryan Cheek," said Archer. "He hasn't played a lot, but he stepped up and took advantage of his opportunity.
"Playing middle linebacker is a challenging position in our defense, but he stepped right in and got us lined up and in our packages. He made the right calls, went through all our checks. That was good to see because he hadn't played much. Now he has to make the most of it during the fall."
At the outside linebacker positions there is certainly competition. One player who caught the eye of the staff in the spring was sophomore Rodman Noel. A special teams contributor in 2011, Noel spent the season at safety before being moved to strongside linebacker after the year was over.
A tall, rangy defender who has shown a willingness to hit, Noel started at strongside linebacker with the rest of the starters in the spring game and could be called on to replace D.J. Green at the position.
"He has a lot of the same skill sets of guys that we've had there through the years," Tom O'Brien said of Noel. "He's tall. He's got length to him. He can run. He's smart."
"He's kind of followed in the path of D.J. Green," said Archer. "He was a safety here like D.J., and he played some and on special teams. Last spring we moved D.J. to the 'SAM' because the SAM and field safety travel together. The calls, they are similar so Rodman should know them. That is his transition and Rodman has made progress.
"He's tall and lean right now, but he is going to grow. We're going to throw him in the fire and see what he can do. When you have a guy that big with that athletic ability you just have to keep coaching him and he will get better."
If there has been a surprise at linebacker it could be the emergence of redshirt junior Rickey Dowdy. The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder played in just one game (2010) during his previous three years on campus but has emerged as a potential starter for the Wolfpack after finally settling in at the position.
"Rickey has had his ups-and-downs since he's been here," said Archer. "He has moved back and forth between linebacker and defensive end, but the main thing is Rickey has really matured both on the field and off it. He has grown up mentally and I think it is amazing how much better a player you can be when you do things right off the field as well.
"That is where he has improved the most because to be honest with you two years ago I didn't know if Rickey would still be here... didn't know if he would make it. He is light years ahead of where he was, and his confidence is at an all-time high. He hung in there, didn't pout, and took advantage of his opportunity and now he is a guy that is going to play. The spring was important for him, and I'm very pleased with the progress he has made."
Still, Archer knows that there is work to be done. The group isn't experienced but has some options when you look at the competition between Lucas and Cheek in the middle and Noel, Dowdy, and sophomores Brandon Pittman and Michael Peek outside. Factor in summer enrollees M.J. Salahuddin, Drew Davis, and Robert Caldwell, and the staff has depth to work with.
"We just need to keep working with them and be patient," said Archer. "They are going to make mistakes, but we just have to coach them up and let them develop because I do think they made major strides in the spring.
"Like I said before, if you watched them prior to the first scrimmage and after the spring game, the difference was night and day."