NC State's primary defense is a 4-2-5 scheme with senior Dravious Wright lining up at the nickel position. Wright, one of the hardest hitters on the team, is also one of the strongest. He power cleans 341 pounds, has a 1.47 10-yard split (fourth-best), and his 540-pound squat is fifth-best among all Wolfpack players.
Director of Strength & Conditioning Dantonio Burnette believes Wright, who had 43 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, and two sacks in 2015, is poised to have a big year.
"Dravious has come a long way," said Burnette. "To see the strides that he has made, that gets me pumped up. Wright is one of our strongest guys on the team, and he's a nickelback. He's about 205 pounds, and he tests well in all the jumps, explosion measurements.
"One of his biggest improvements has been his leadership ability. Dravious is very positive with the guys, and in the past he wasn't like that. He would get mad if someone caused extra running or conditioning and be vocal about it, but now he's motivating others. I remember when we had our freshmen run this summer, and James Valdez ran with us. Dravious literally picked him up and and made him stand tall during drills because he wanted to lead. That's how we'll win a championship, with guys like that. He has so much positive energy, and the others can feed off of it."
NC State returns both starting linebackers, juniors Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore, and like Wright, they are leaders. Fernandez made a conscious effort to completely re-shape his body in the offseason, and that has Burnette excited.
"We had a long conversation this January when I was hired," Burnette said of Fernandez. "I told him one of the things he had to do was change his body. He had to make sure he was putting the right stuff into his body... he had to start eating healthier. He took it and ran with it. From the winter to now, his body change... it's crazy.
"He was at 230 pounds when he got here, but he was chubby. Now he's lean. [Laughing] He always has his shirt off and sleeves jacked up now. He's doing a lot of extra work because he's so excited about getting to camp. He told me this is the first time he's every been so excited about fall camp during college because he sees all the work he put in. Whenever we did our 110s, our conditioning day, he was running with defensive backs. He's in great shape, and I'm really excited to see what he's going to do this year."
Unlike Fernandez, Moore enrolled in great shape, and he is coming off a sophomore campaign where he led the Wolfpack in tackles (77). Although Moore was in shape, that doesn't mean he couldn't make major improvements physically.
"Physically, Airius was cut when he arrived here, but he has worked hard on his explosiveness," said Burnette. "That is one of the things he wanted to work on. Airius didn't have a lot of pop or explosiveness.
"His vertical has increased, and he's taken off. Not only does he look good but also the athletic development is there. He and Fernandez, they push each other every single day. They've started to run together and hang out with each other. Those two are definitely two of our biggest leaders."
Sophomore Riley Nicholson is projected to back up Moore and Fernandez at linebacker, and he's certainly one of the strongest players on the team. Nicholson worked his way into the rotation as a true freshman due to his strength at the point of attack, and in high school he did a lot of weightlifting, including participating in competitions.
"Riley is very coachable," said Burnette. "I remember when he came on his recruiting visit, he was asking about weight lifting and the cleans. He was saying how he worried about doing cleans because he had broken his collarbone in high school and every time he cleans it hurts. So I explained to him why we do what we do, how we do it.
"He ended up coming here, and he has one of our highest cleans on the team. I believe he is second behind Kentavius [Street]. Riley cleans 363 pounds, which is pretty impressive because he's just 230 pounds. He has very strong legs... squats over 500 pounds also."
"He's a joy to work with," Burnette added. "I can tell him something one time, and he picks it up. Now it's at the point where I tell Riley something and he's coaching other guys. He's coaching Jarius [Morehead] or I can step away from a platform to coach here, and I know that Riley is coaching them up. There's a lot of times when I'll ask Riley what he sees and he can tell me the right answer just like that. It lets me know we're moving in the right direction."
From talking to Burnette, you sense he values leadership. Why wouldn't he? All he did was serve as team captain for the Wolfpack during his senior season in 2002 when he was tabbed first-team All-ACC at linebacker. Perhaps the Pack's biggest leader is senior cornerback Jack Tocho.
"Jack is phenomenal," said Burnette. "He makes my job so much easier because there's a lot of things that I want to say and I don't even have to say it because of Jack Tocho. He'll say it before I even have to.
"When we bring it together he'll tell everyone to look straight ahead... look right at Coach Thunder. He knows that if they're looking down, it's a good possibility we may get back on the line. We're just trying to change their mentality and help them understand that they can do anything. If you conquer your mind you can do amazing things when I step on the field."
It helps that Tocho is also one of the Pack's best athletes. Checking in at 200 pounds, Tocho's name is on the Brick Squad board as much as anybody. He power cleans 341 pounds, and he has a 1.43 10-yard split. Tocho has the team's highest vertical jump (41.3 inches), a 4.04 shuttle, and he was laser-timed at 4.40 in the 40-yard dash.
He'll be flanked in the secondary by another freaky athlete, junior safety Josh Jones. According to Burnette, Jones, who measures 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, was recently laser-timed at 4.27 and 4.33 in the 40-yard dash. He has the team's best 10-yard split (1.40), a 39.8-inch vertical, and a 4.04 shuttle.
"I think he's going to take it to the next level," said Burnette. "Like with Street, it's about translating his athleticism and explosiveness over to the field, and I believe you're going to see that. This spring, Josh took a huge jump. He's playing with more confidence. With him, I think it all goes back to his confidence.
"Last year if Josh didn't do well on a play sometimes he would think about it. He's the type of kid that if he messes up, he feels like how can I tell someone else to do something if I'm messing up. I told him you're going to make mistakes in a game, no one is perfect, but the thing is make the mistake and keep moving forward. The great ones are able to do that. I saw him take a big step in doing that this spring and then this summer. He killed every run. He was often my demo guy on all the speed stuff and he's out here leading. That show his confidence has grown, and he is maturing.
"I really saw the joy in his face when he came in the weight room every day because we challenge the guys. We physically challenged them everyday."
NC State is hoping a lot of the guys on defense, like Jones, who received a bunch of snaps during their freshman and/or sophomore seasons can play even better this year with the weight room gains, experience, and additional confidence.
"Like I said, it's changing their mindset," Burnette stated. "I always tell the guys I want them to be a reflection of me. I feel like when I step in the room I'm still one of the toughest, baddest guys to walk around, but I was like that when I was a player also. I want them to have that mentality."