Safety Josh Jones
Ranked the No. 29 safety nationally and the No. 15 recruit out of the state of Michigan, Josh Jones got a look early on at outside linebacker before settling in at safety. He probably has the best opportunity on this list to impact, as he exited spring practice listed as the starter at strong safety alongside junior Hakim Jones.
"We provide range," Jones stated back in the spring. "We're two aggressive safeties, with him and me. We can both cover well. We both know the defense really well. We both communicate really well. I mean, with both of us being 6'2", it's pretty good back there have long safeties.
"We're young in the secondary. We've got a couple freshmen coming in, and his [Hakim Jones] leadership is real big. When I first came in last year, he taught me a few things and took me under his wing. With him coming back, that's big for leadership to have a veteran back there."
Blessed with terrific size, strength, and athleticism, Jones just needs experience. He should get plenty of that this season.
He had four tackles and a pass breakup lining up with the starters in the Kay Yow Spring Game.
"Josh Jones came out of spring as our number one with Byrd hurt," said Doeren. "When Byrd goes he can help us, we're just being careful with him. We have the ability to play either one of those guys right now but Josh is the starter."
Linebacker Jerod Fernandez
NC State needs more playmakers and leaders, and Jerod Fernandez has a chance to provide both. He could start to do so this season for the Wolfpack... in fact, he likely will have to.
Fernandez made huge strides in the spring where he worked inside at linebacker. He continued to progress during camp and it led to a terrific outing in the Kay Yow Spring Game.
Playing with the second-team, Fernandez was all over the place, totaling game-high 11 tackles and a sack. He also had nine solo hits on the day. Fernandez showed good range and the ability to shed blocks. He displayed very good quickness inside the box and was a sure tackler at the point of attack.
"We need Jerod," NC State head coach Dave Doeren said of Fernandez after the game. "We recruited him to play. He hasn't really produced yet. He made some big hits and he's a contact player. He played fast today. He knew where he was going."
He was expected to compete with M.J. Salahuddin for the starting job in fall camp, but now Salahuddin is out for an indefinite period of time with a knee injury.
"It is important to be a starter but I will just play my role," said Fernandez. "If somebody goes down, then I will have to step up and play football. I am on special teams so I will touch the field."
"Jerod is a tough sucker," said defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable. "He's a contact player who loves to play the game. He's just a redshirt freshman, but his football IQ is so good for young kid. He works at he game. The future is bright for Jerod."
Defensive Tackle Kenton Gibbs
Kenton Gibbs turned heads immediately last fall.
"On the defensive line, Kenton Gibbs has played really well at camp so far," said Doeren following the first fall practice in pads.
It didn't last, as Gibbs went down during camp with an Achilles injury that forced him to redshirt and miss the entire season.
"He was going to play," said Doeren. "He had a really good camp."
Gibbs is now back and appears to be 100%. With the Wolfpack looking to replace three defensive tackles from last year's team, Gibbs should crack the rotation and provide much-needed depth at the position.
Cornerback Malcolm Means
NC State has had a reputation recently for big cornerbacks, most notably former All-American David Amerson and Dontae Johnson. In fact, the Wolfpack's current starting corners, Juston Burris and Jack Tocho, are both 6-foot-1 and roughly 200 pounds.
Malcolm Means could be the next big, physical cornerback to come through the pipeline.
Means, who was recruited initially to play safety, moved to cornerback in the spring and impressed. Checking in at 6-foot-2 and 197 pounds with long arms and good speed, he has a chance to crack the rotation this fall.
However, Means will need to hold off stiff competition from Niles Clark, a trio of true freshmen (Troy Vincent Jr., Elliott Davis, and Mike Stevens), and walk-on Charlie Twitty.
Means totaled six tackles and a pass breakup in the Kay Yow Spring Game.
"He can definitely be in the same mold eventually as Jack or Justin just because of his size and athletic ability," cornerbacks coach George Barlow said of Means. "He just needs to continue to learn the positions because he was a skilled, offensive guy in high school and played more safety last year. He's still learning the position."
Tailback Dakwa Nichols
NC State's coaching staff has talked about adding "juice" to the offense and Dakwa Nichols has the ability to do just that.
One of the top athletes on the team, Nichols flashed his physical tools at the recent Lift For Life event where he had the team's top vertical jump (40+ inches) and has been timed as low as 4.40 in the 40-yard dash.
The Wolfpack returns three tailbacks from last year's squad, but Tony Creecy, Shadrach Thornton, and Matt Dayes aren't regarded as explosive, speedy runners. Nichols could add that in the backfield.
"Dakwa is very explosive," said Creecy. "We just need him to bring that to the football field."
"I'll tell you, Dakwa is a different kid, even from the spring," added running backs coach Des Kitchings. "Obviously he's confident... he's out here competing. It's good to see."
It's going to come down to an opportunity for Nichols, and he might not get that this year with the trio ahead of him, but he could be an option in the return game.
Time will tell.