In 2005 NC State had the best defensive line unit in the country, as it included three 2006 first-round picks (Mario Williams, Manny Lawson, John McCargo) and a 2007 third-round selection in defensive tackle Tank Tyler. Current Wolfpack Director of Strength & Conditioning Dantonio Burnette was on staff at the time, and he remembers that group fondly.
"When we had Mario, Manny, Tank, McCargo... that was the best defensive line I've seen come through here," said Burnette. "That group... you had three first-round picks and a third-rounder, and they were all productive. They were all great athletes."
This year's line returns three starters up front in Bradley Chubb, Kentavius Street, and B.J. Hill, and Monty Nelson and Justin Jones have received plenty of snaps as well. Chubb is back after a strong sophomore campaign where he led all ACC defensive linemen in tackles (69). Chubb, who was playing his first year at the position after working at linebacker as a true freshman, was given the No. 9 jersey in the spring, a number previously worn by Mario Williams. He also tallied 11 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks in 2015.
"He's going to be a stud this year," Dave Doeren recently said of Chubb.
'When he came in, he was a 247-pound linebacker," added Burnette. "Then within one year Chubb is 265 pounds, so we knew he was going to keep growing and that we would need to move him to defensive end.
"It's one of the best decisions that we've made. Now he went from 265 to 280. He's much faster... he recently was laser-timed at 4.68 in the 40. His vertical went up, broad jump went up. Now he's in the position where we want him to be."
Flanking Chubb at defensive end is projected to be junior Kentavius Street, pound-for-pound the Wolfpack's best athlete. He played defensive tackle in 2015 at nearly 290 pounds and totaled 31 tackles, three tackles for a loss, and half a sack while occupying double teams. He's shed weight to get down to 277 pounds for his move to end where he's expected to not only get after the passer but also be a major factor against the run game.
"Kentavius Street is the biggest freak on our team, by far," said Burnette. "We've trimmed him down to 277 pounds because we've kicked him back outside, and he ran a laser-timed 4.64, if I'm not mistaken. He has a 39-inch vertical. He squatted 635 pounds with a 385-pound power clean.
"Like I said, he's a freak. On our board in the weight room he's pretty much at the top in every category. Even his 10-yard split is like 1.49 which is right along with our defensive backs. He's so strong. He's powerful, very flexible, and he bends really well."
What Burnette really likes about Street is his work ethic.
"Street came in put together and that speaks to how hard he'll work in the weight room," he stated. "He's one of those guys that make strength coaches look good because they come in pretty developed. But, we have to give them the right tools and making sure we're bringing them along the right way also. He sets an example in the weight room. Street could have [cleaned] 400 pounds, but I was like, 'Dude, you still have another year.' Once you're done, I've seen enough.
"Now for him, it's about it translating over. Street has always had some pretty good numbers in the weight room, but it had yet to translate over to the field, consistently. I think you see that this year."
"Darian is a talented young man," said Doeren. "He's worked really hard in the weight room, and it's just about maturing for him. I think a lot of the small town guys, their learning curve's harder maybe than the big city guys because the competition level is that much different for them. Darian's got the ability to be a really good player."
One of Burnette's biggest projects has been building the body of redshirt freshman defensive end James Smith-Williams. "JSW" enrolled at NC State in the spring of 2015 at just 198 pounds. Eighteen months later he is already over 240 pounds with room to continue growing. Look for Smith-Williams to be a weapon for State in obvious passing situations in 2016.
"James Smith-Williams remind me of Manny Lawson," said Burnette. "James was 197 pounds when he got here last year. Now he is 243 or 245 [pounds]... his body has changed a lot. He squats over 500 pounds... he's squatting 535. I think he's benching 380 or 385 pounds already. His numbers have gone up... through the roof. He's put a lot of time in. He's one of those guys that we're always on top of... making sure he's not missing meals, making sure he's eating the right stuff. We know that he can contribute to our team.
"This past offseason James ran a 4.5... I think it was a 4.54 laser-time. He's a freak. He can jump out of the gym, 38, 39-inch vertical. He's an impressive kid who is just scratching the surface."
The focus of the defensive tackle group has been to get their bodies in the best playing weight possible, and it continues to be a work-in-progress.
"B.J. Hill is 315 pounds," said Burnette. "Justin Jones is 315. Monty Nelson is 315. All of our defensive tackles are 315 except for Quentez Johnson. He was around 350 pounds when he got here, and we melted him down to 290 and now he's up to 305. We're getting him moving in the right direction, but he was way too heavy.
"Then you have Big E, Eurndraus Bryant... he was nearly 360 pounds, and now he's 328. He squats over 600 pounds... he bench 405 pounds, and he's been here just a year. He's a very strong guy who is very agile and athletic."
One of the Wolfpack's most productive defensive players has been Hill, who totaled 50 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore to earn first-team All-ACC honors from Pro Football Focus.
Hill enrolled at NC State as an unheralded recruit after playing multiple positions in high school. According to Burnette, he is one of the Wolfpack's most relentless workers in the weight room.
"When B.J. got here I believe he was 264 pounds. By the summer he was around 296 pounds, but he was just big. He was bigger and stronger, but we needed to continue to work on his ability to bend and move and play in space. He comes in everyday for extra work. He works so hard on his flexibility, mobility, and strength. It's amazing to see. He's increased all his numbers across the board.
"The guys used to joke on him because whenever he would squat his knees would start to get sore so he would squat on a box. We would have a box that he would have to squat down to. He doesn't use a box anymore, and he's squatting over 500 pounds. I know he's very excited about this year. It's amazing just being around B.J. and seeing where he is at."
Jones and Nelson will certainly play a lot with Hill at tackle, and both are hard workers in the weight room as well. Nelson, the lone scholarship senior on the defensive line, has the team's highest bench press, 460 pounds. Jones is among the leaders in several categories, ranking No. 3 on the team in clean (352 pounds), No. 3 in squat (600 pounds), and tied for second on the bench (455 pounds).
"They can have big years," Burnette said of Jones and Nelson.
Burnette can't help but think of the 2005 defensive line when he sees this group, a unit that he feels has the chance to be special.
"The other day, they had to do the video shoot and I saw Chubb with the No. 9 on and I [lit up]. I cannot wait for this season to see those guys go out there and perform because once again not only have they developed on the football field but mentally their mindset. They feel like they can do anything which is a great thing. I'm real excited about it.
"I try not to talk about the guys from the past too much because these guys here have to write their own story, but I think that this defensive line can be special. I'm not going to say that they could be better than that group, but I think they can be special."