Practice Makes Perfect

Jon Tenuta has a reputation for being one of the top defensive minds in college football but he is also known for his ability to develop players. He may have his biggest challenge yet with the Pack's inexperience at linebacker.

The headlines throughout the offseason have been about the individual accolades of cornerback David Amerson and quarterback Mike Glennon as well as the depth and experience of the offensive line and the secondary.

However, the group receiving the most scrutiny is the linebackers. While assistant coach Jon Tenuta is a seasoned defensive coach, this will be the first year in his time at NC State where he won't be starting a unit filled with sure-fire NFL talent. Though there may be some potential pros on the roster, it will be up to Tenuta to bring that out of a group that is short on experience but loaded with toughness and potential.

Following the bowl win, State fans and coaches alike had reason to be eager to watch the 2012 version of the Pack defense which had improved by leaps and bounds over the course of the prior two months. Forced into action early, a large majority of defensive linemen had proven their value and looked to hone their skills during the offseason.

Meanwhile, the secondary would be returning its entire starting four which would include All-American candidate David Amerson.

The linebackers would only need to fill the void left by the graduation of fifth year senior Audie Cole; but with an untimely injury sidelining Sterling Lucas for the season he became the obvious choice to help the Pack get right back on track.

However, as is the case in all of college sports, the linebacker situation would drastically change when redshirt junior Terrell Manning opted to leave early for the NFL draft and the use of a banned substance sidelined sophomore D.J. Green for the 2012 season.

Much in the mold of head coach Tom O'Brien, Tenuta doesn't waste time dwelling over things outside of his control.

"It's unfortunate what happened to D.J.," said Tenuta. "Terrell felt the NFL was the best opportunity for him. As a coach and also as a parent, that's what he wants to do, so you just support him the best way that you can.

"The D.J. thing, that's just hard, it's just a hard time. But you've got to go on, so you move on to spring ball and do the best you can with what you have."

Sterling Lucas

Going through spring practice Tenuta worked with seven linebackers as he looked to get a depth chart in place for the opener against Tennessee. While he praised the group as a whole, he was hesitant to point out the progress of a single player.

"I'm a guy that looks at everybody's strengths and weaknesses because I have to be the guy that develops their weaknesses into strengths," said Tenuta. "I'm very pleased with all seven of those guys in the sense of what they've gained both mentally and physically in the aspects of how to play blocks, how to play pass coverage, how to play man-technique and so on.

"So it's not just one guy, to me it's each guy and that's how I've always looked at guys. I don't care if you're a projected first round draft choice or whatever, I think every guy is his own person so I like to see how they develop individually and look for tremendous upside out of all them."

"There are seven guys that have been around here so I've got to give them a shot and see what they can do," Tenuta added. "We have Sterling Lucas who is a guy that's played, so he's been around, while the other guys have been backups and only three got the opportunity to play in some snaps last season. When you're not battle-tested you've got to do a lot more, not just in the meeting room but also on the practice field to get them acclimated to what's going to happen when the fast balls come."

State opened fall camp by releasing an updated depth chart that had Lucas listed as the starter at middle linebacker with Rodman Noel starting at strongside and Rickey Dowdy the lead man at weakside linebacker.

Rickey Dowdy

Being the only senior of the group, not to mention the only one with any significant playing experience, Sterling Lucas will be counted on to lead the group of youngsters on the field. Lucas, who was recently named team captain, prepared well for leadership role by spending most of last season in the coach's box alongside coach Tenuta.

While in the box during game day, Lucas was exposed to a perspective that most players never get the opportunity to have, a fact that coach Tenuta believes will show on the field.

"I think that he's a very smart football player, a great young man and he understands the game, but being in the box with me probably helped him gain some perspective on what's going on," said Tenuta. "I feel that now he's seen the different types of blocking schemes when they run the ball, or different type of pass protections or formation adjustments. He's seen the things that happen that we as coaches do and how we communicate that to him and now he's seen that side of it and I think that can help him out tremendously."

Perhaps the surprise of the depth chart was redshirt junior Rickey Dowdy slated to hold down the weakside linebacker position that Manning had vacated. Dowdy has spent his first three seasons shuffling between different positions but may have found a home at weakside.

Without giving too much praise, Tenuta did seem pleased with Dowdy's progress.

"I have 7 guys right now so I'm not going to mark one guy as 'the guy' but at the end of the spring, Ricky had graded out at the number one position," said Tenuta. "I see tremendous upside for him. I think he may have gotten off to a slow start here, he didn't play for me until my second spring here as a linebacker since he was working out at defensive end.

"But he has instincts, he has upside and he's come around to the point where he's doing things the way we want them done. If he keeps progressing I see a pretty good football player inside of him; we've just got to keep working with him."

Rodman Noel

The biggest unknown of the starters is Rodman Noel who has shifted from safety to strongside linebacker. Noel is an interesting case as he was recruited by NC State out of Milford Prep Academy in New York where he primarily played cornerback. When reviewing film, the Wolfpack staff no doubt saw a young man with tremendous size playing out of position as Noel came in and immediately moved to the safety position.

The staff probably expected Noel to eventually end up at linebacker once his body filled up, but the Green situation sped up that position change, and now Noel is starting as a true sophomore.

Rough around the edges, Tenuta can see the upside in having a fast and athletic linebacker at the strong side position.

"He's trying to learn," Tenuta said of Dowdy. "He's very knowledgeable about the game; he understands coverages, he see's now where he fits in the front. He's got athletic ability.

"Now he's still learning the progression aspect of the pressure, of how you blitz and the things you have to do when you play closer in to the box, which are the kind of things that come with repetition. Obviously we're going in to fall camp, and he's just got to keep moving forward in those aspects."

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