Pack Pride's James Henderson, Steve Williams, Rob McLamb, and Bryant Carson answer several critical questions facing NC State's defense heading into the 2016 season.
1. What do you feel was the biggest problem for NC State last season?
James Henderson: Big SCORING plays. Teams are going to give up big plays, it's college football and offenses are too good to shut them down completely, but State gave up way too many big plays that went for touchdowns.
Steve Williams: Giving up the big play was the Pack’s achilles heel defensively in 2015. State would play great defense for 65 plays and then give up five head scratching plays due to missed assignments, blown coverage or bad pursuit angles.The Pack has to eliminate those mistakes (mostly mental) in 2016.
Rob McLamb: Youth in the defense meant missed assignments that led to big plays, which impacted the Wolfpack in critical games that could have meant growth for the program -- such as Louisville, at Virginia Tech, North Carolina and versus Mississippi State in the Belk Bowl.
Bryant Carson: I think the easiest answer here is discipline. NC State down-by-down had a very good defense in 2015 but giving up the big play was a consistent problem that in all likelihood cost them a game or two. Discipline or rather a lack thereof was probably indicative of the youth across the collective unit last season. You had freshman and sophomores making mistakes resulting in big plays.
To me that’s just part of growing up and the hope, if you’re a State fan is that those guys are now sophomores and juniors who have greater experience and understanding of how and why those mistakes were made and that they won’t be repeated.
2. What do you expect to be the biggest strength for NC State this season?
James Henderson: The Wolfpack should really be able to get after the quarterback this year. They must replace Mike Rose, but Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill, Darian Roseboro, and Kentavius Street are all capable pass rushers and guys like James Smith-Williams could be factors as well.
Given the talent up front, State should be able to rush the passer in 2016.
Steve Williams: It seems like we’ve been saying this every year for the last 15 years but the defensive line. The Pack is stacked with talent, depth and experience. Bradley Chubb, BJ Hill, Kentavius Street, Darian Roseboro, Monty Nelson, Justin Jones, Eurndraus Bryant and others give State one of the best defensive line rotations in the ACC.
Rob McLamb: The defensive line will be NC State's biggest strength this season and for several seasons to come. It is a position group that can hold its own with most other schools in the nation.
Bryant Carson: Stopping the run. The combination of size, strength, experience and depth along the defensive line is a great step one in shutting down your opponent’s run game. Behind them is Airius Moore who lead the team in tackles in 2015, a re-shaped Jerod Fernandez who has taken plenty of snaps going into year three and a promising second year player in Riley Nicholson.
Dravious Wright is a punishing nickel that is adept at stopping the run. If you get past those guys you’ll have a chance but a secondary consisting of three juniors and one senior should prove to be formidable.
3. What do you expect to be the biggest weakness for NC State this season?
Steve Williams: The biggest weakness/question mark is depth in the secondary. The Pack is okay with their starters but with Sean Paul, Jarius Morehead, Dexter Wright, Nick McCloud and Freddie Phillips listed as the backups that’s a lot of youth and inexperience on the back side of the defense.
Rob McLamb: The defensive secondary will have something to prove after losing two senior starters. The opposition will test them early to see what they are made of.
Bryant Carson: In general it’s defending the pass. I know that’s generic but I believe State will be good—in fact very good—at stopping the run thereby forcing teams to throw the ball to get around the DL. In the era of wide-open spread offenses where quick and high-percentage passes are prevalent it’s probably more important to get the WR to the ground after the catch than attempting to prevent the catch at all.
However, shots are going to be taken down the field and I think, in the past two seasons State has struggled in coverage down field. In some cases there has been blown coverages resulting in big/easy plays/touchdowns and in other cases the coverage was there, in fact terrific but just wasn’t enough to stop the WR from coming down with the completion. If the DL and LB groups can apply consistent pressure on the opposing QBs then this veteran group in the secondary could potentially turn this weakness into a strength.
4. Give me one player you expect to emerge this year for the Wolfpack, and why?
James Henderson: I believe Shawn Boone is in line to become a household name after winning the starting job at strong safety. He's one of the best tacklers on the team and having a guy with his ability as the last line of defense can potentially limit a lot of those big scoring plays that NC State yielded in 2015.
Steve Williams: I am so excited to Eurndraus Bryant this season after having a year to go through strength and conditioning, He showed flashes last year but that was typically shortlived due to conditioning issues. He’s a guy that could take a major step forward this season.
Rob McLamb: Kentavius Street. Everything about him reflects a player with the potential to play on Sundays. He is a beast and, frankly, has freakish ability and skills. His move to defensive end means he will have the potential to use those talents to terrorize both quarterbacks and rushers.
Bryant Carson: I considered Street, Eurndraus Bryant and Shawn Boone among others but ultimately I’ve decided to go with Darian Roseboro. My rationale here is that I believe Roseboro has always had great physical tools but coming out of high school he really lacked discipline and technique. Despite that rawness Roseboro found a way to make plays during flashes last season coming up with 4 sacks, 3 broken up passes, 18 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and 1 pick-6.
Combining his natural ability with technique and experience could create big-time problems for opposing offensive linemen in 2016.
5. Who do you think MUST emerge this year for the Wolfpack and why?
James Henderson: Jack Tocho needs to put it all together during his senior season, much like Juston Burris did in 2015.
Physically, Tocho has everything you want in a cornerback. He's 6-foot with a 6-6 wingspan, 4.4 speed, and quick-twitch athleticism. He's often in position to make plays. Now he needs to make more plays.
If he can emerge into a lockdown corner NC State's defense will be that much stronger.
Steve Williams: It doesn’t matter who the guy is but the Pack must have a linebacker emerge this year whether it be Jerod Fernandez, Airius Moore or someone else. State hasn’t had a consistent playmaker at this post in years and in my opinion that’s been the missing piece of the defensive puzzle.
Rob McLamb: Josh Jones struggled last season and has been candid about it in interviews. He accepted blame before it was being dished out. Jones has come into this season after working out manically and everyone involved with the program is raving about his conditioning. With two of four starters from last season's defensive secondary lost to graduation, it is imperative for him continue to be accountable.
Bryant Carson: I think one of the biggest question marks this season will be in the secondary. There are a lot of guys that have played and even had their moments but who and where will you get consistency from? I think it would be huge for the Pack if Jack Tocho, like Juston Burris before him, steps up and has a great senior season.
Tocho absolutely has the physical tools but he has lacked in making plays on the ball. If he’s able to cause a few turnovers and really disrupt WRs it could go a long way in really solidifying this defense.
6. At the end of the season, _____ will be the team's Most Valuable Player on defense. Fill in the blank, and explain.
James Henderson: Easy, easy question... Bradley Chubb.
Chubb flashed often as a sophomore in 2015, and he led all ACC defensive linemen in tackles. However, he needs to turn a lot of those quarterback pressures into quarterback sacks.
It's critical too because with some of the quarterbacks on the schedule NC State will need a consistent pass rush from the front four so more defenders can be in coverage.
Doeren said it best during fall camp... the elite defenses have a guy on the defensive line that opposing teams have to scheme up in terms of blocking. If Chubb put that type of pressure on offenses it will certainly open up one-on-one opportunities for the other linemen. One-on-one matchups for B.J. Hill, Kentavius Street, Darian Roseboro, Justin Jones, Monty Nelson and Eurndraus Bryant is winning for NC State.
Back to Chubb, there is plenty of talk about him having a HUGE junior year.
Steve Williams: There’s a bunch of talent on that defensive line but I really feel like Bradley Chubb is poised to have a monster season. He had 69 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in 2015 and with so much talent around him I don’t think teams will be able to focus exclusively on him. That should give Chubb the opportunity to put up even bigger numbers this season.
Rob McLamb: At the end of the season, Bradley Chubb will be the team's Most Valuable Player. If Chubb fulfills the potential that led him to being handed the number nine jersey made famous by Mario Williams, this will likely be the last season he plays football at NC State as he will be ready for the NFL.
Bryant Carson: This is a tough, tough question and I could realistically see it going to any 1 of probably 10 guys but since I have to pick 1 I’ll go with Airius Moore. He was the team leader in tackles in 2015 as only a sophomore. During his freshman year, playing in a reserve role for part of the season, he showed pretty good promise as a pass rusher getting quickly into the backfield during blitzes.
I think with 2 years experience under his belt and now playing with a very experienced defensive line in front of him and an improved Jerod Fernandez and Riley Nicholson beside him, Moore can have a little more freedom to get into the backfield and be disruptive to accompany being a sure tackler off the line of scrimmage.
7. What are realistic expectations for the Wolfpack's defense in 2016?
James Henderson: I expect the defense to be the strength of the team.
I actually think NC State's defense will be better than last year's group, but because of the grueling schedule the stats may say otherwise. Clemson, Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, North Carolina, and Louisville are all projected to feature high-powered offenses. They are going to score points. It's too easy to play offense these days.
Regardless of how strong State will defensively, the Wolfpack will still need to score a lot of points because those offenses aren't going to be shut down.
The key will be two things for NC State: creating turnovers and limiting scoring plays. If State is better in those two areas this unit could be really, really good.
Steve Williams: I probably have bigger expectations defensively than offensively. There is no excuse at this point given the talent along State's defensive line that they shouldn't be able to control the point of attack against many of their 2016 opponents.
If they accomplish this, and I think they will, then that will only make the players behind them better. With Airius Moore and Jerod Fernandez now a year older, I expect the play from their position to improve this season.
Rob McLamb: The defensive line and linebacker groups are solid. The secondary is the key and will determine whether NC State is a good defensive team or an elite one.
An average-to-good performance from Jack Tocho and Mike Stevens, along with continued growth at the nickel from Dravious Wright and Niles Clark, would mean the Wolfpack will go bowling for a third straight season.
Bryant Carson: State is set to play several spread-based teams this season so they will give up points—everyone does. The days of winning 10-6 are pretty much over—given some exceptions.I honestly don’t know what a good average points per game given up would be with this particular schedule.
Realistically, given the schedule I think if you see the Pack finish in the top 40 in total team defense they’ve done pretty well.