"We really don't have a rover anymore," Diaz told Pack Pride. "We are more balanced now with our safeties than we used to be. It used to be more defined who it would be at rover, but now either player has the ability to play both spots."
"It's actually the best thing we've ever done," he added. "In the spring we just played right and left safety, and it didn't matter who was on the strongside of the formation or the other side. What that did was help them learn both positions.
"The advantage in that comes in like with us right now. If we have three safeties that are ahead of the curve, I can roll the three of them in there at both spots. It's not like I'd have one rover and two free safeties that are ready. I'd have three safeties that can play whatever position I need them to play.
"Basically both safeties will be equally capable of being the eighth man in the box."
With this change in philosophy you would expect the Wolfpack coaching staff to re-evaluate the type of safeties that they recruit. However, Diaz believes they will continue to recruit top-notch athletes who have the ability to play cornerback or safety on the collegiate level.
"Obviously, a player has to be able to run," Diaz said. "Simply, I want to see them run, I want to see them have ball skills, and I want to make sure they will hit and tackle.
"We ask our safeties to cover wide parts of the field and you need athleticism for that. We ask them to play man coverage, so you have to be able to do that. Ideally, when you talk about recruiting defensive backs, there shouldn't be much difference in recruiting a safety or cornerback. Maybe the bigger ones will play safety... those that can tackle a little better.
"The guys we have now are the prototypes that we are looking for at the position... those same type of athletes. We are very excited about them, and I feel those are the type we need at the position to have success."
NC State returns three safeties with playing experience in J.J. Jones, Garland Heath, and Miguel Scott. Redshirt freshman DaJuan Morgan moved to the position in the spring after playing wide receiver in 2004 and super true freshman J.C. Neal will also be in the mix for playing time.
Jones, a redshirt senior, has been a special teams standout for the Wolfpack while playing a limited role in the secondary for much of his career. He has the most experience of the returning safeties, and Diaz considers that to be one of his best attributes.
"The first thing J.J. provides is great effort," said Diaz. "He's a 100-mile-per-hour guy when he's on the field and that helps.
"He's been in a lot of battles, so he has poise and there is not a lot that he hasn't seen before. His experience is what we like about him, and he also has some versatility. He can come down and play man coverage and play in different places in our dime package. Those would be some of his best attributes."
Junior Garland Heath is perhaps the biggest safety in the ACC, standing 6-foot-2 and 225-pounds. The Belle Glade, Florida native burst on the scene as a freshman, registering 36 tackles, one sack, and two fumble recoveries. Last year he was the top reserve at rover and Diaz expects Heath to play a prominent role in 2005.
|Garland has very good vision and outstanding instincts.'|
Garland Heath is obviously our biggest safety, and he can really hit," Diaz said. "He's learning to play up to his size... to play like a big safety.
"Garland has very good vision and outstanding instincts. Those are the things that have always come easiest to him, just seeing and diagnosing plays in a hurry. When he's out there, he's a guy that hopefully we can count on being in the right spot based on what his keys are because he's one guy that we can count on reading the right things."
The safety with the most upside might be redshirt freshman DaJuan Morgan. Morgan, who played free safety and quarterback for Riviera Beach (FL) Suncoast during his prep career, is making the transition to safety after redshirting at wide receiver in 2004.
"DaJuan just needs reps at the position," Diaz said. "He just needs to see more and more and more. At the college level, things are happening at such a different speed, and he just needs more reps.
"DaJuan is so athletic, and he's very fast. I was curious to see in the spring if he would hit, and I now know he will hit anybody. He had some big hits in the spring game. He's a guy that has the versatility to play all four defensive back positions."
Another safety that is similiar to Morgan is sophomore Miguel Scott. Scott, who hails from Miami (FL) Killian High School, also was a standout safety during his prep career.
"Miguel is a lot like DaJuan," Diaz said. "Miguel is very athletic, and he has that attitude that you need to play back there. He really enjoys the game, and I think the growth he has made in the past year has really helped him to where he's now seeing the big picture.
"The first thing you are trying to do is learn your job, and not until then can you see beyond that. I refer to it with my guys like how it worked in 'The Matrix.' In the movie, when Keanu Reeves finally gets it, he can see everything. It's kind of like that.
"Last year in the Florida State game, Andre Maddox was in ;The Matrix.' When it was a running play, he was two yards in the backfield before the running back got the ball. When it was a pass, he was already twenty yards deep. He was just so locked in. I tell our guys you can't do that until you are 100% comfortable with your own job, and Scott is getting to that point."
The final player expecting to contribute at the safety position is true freshman J.C. Neal. Neal, NC State's best recruit out of South Carolina since Ray Robinson, came to Raleigh as a two-way player but asked to play safety as a freshman. He has already impressed his position coach with his natural ability.
"J.C.'s another guy that fits the mold," Diaz said. "He's super fast and very athletic. He is everything you would want when recruiting a safety, and we're so happy with him. That dates back to the way he performed last year in the Shrine Bowl and the practices down there.
"The question you always have with defensive backs and guys like J.C. that played both ways in high school is if they will hit. You never know sometimes with defensive backs... if a tailback breaks loose, will they stick them? That's one thing that J.C. hasn't had a problem with. He will get bigger and stronger, but J.C. will put his nose into anybody.
"If they run fast and they will put their nose into somebody, then they can learn the rest."
Despite Neal's immense physical talents, Diaz admits that it will be tough for any true freshman to play a major role at safety in NC State's scheme because of the responsibility placed on the position.
"Honestly, it's difficult to play a lot early as a freshman in our scheme because there is so much responsibility," he said. "It can be done, but that position is a matter of trust in our scheme. We have to trust guys before we can put them out there at that position... just to make sure they can do their job first.
"That's the thing with our position. We have the least margin for error of anyone on the defensive side of the ball. Whoever we have out there has to be above all things trustworthy."
|'He's not far behind the other guys and gaining on them quickly.'|
One advantage all five of these players have is they each played safety while in high school. A lot of times teams will recruit prep wide receivers, running backs, and even quarterbacks and try to develop them into safeties or cornerbacks, but that's not the case this year at NC State.
"It's not a necessity [to play safety in high school], but I do like that about our guys," Diaz said. "It adds something to it. It's such an instinctive position.
"It's a lot like linebacker. That million-dollar decision of whether to go for the ball or to secure the tackle... I like guys that have been back there, have felt that and seen that before. Then again, you can turn all kinds of people into safeties, but that helps a little bit."
Because the rotation is not yet defined, Diaz isn't ready to name starters and likely won't do so until just before the opener against Virginia Tech. However, he did admit that three players appear to be a little bit ahead of the curve.
"I don't think there is any question that Scott, Heath, and Jones are ahead of the others just because they have been playing longer," said Diaz. "DaJuan is obviously next, and he's missed some time with an injury, but he'll be back anyday now. He's jogging around and he'll be back anyday, and he's not far behind the other guys and gaining on them quickly."
What happens if no one emerges as clear-cut starters?
"If nobody seperates themselves then we will have a rotation, which is necessary in our defense anyways," Diaz said. "That's the big thing with our defense. Last year we had good starters, but our backups could really play too. The first game of the year, we were bringing guys like A.J. Davis and Troy Graham or Marcus Hudson off the bench. That's big.
"Now, in some parts of our defense we're not 100% sure how our starters are going to react on gameday, much less our backups. But, there's no reason to suspect that our guys can't get the job done just because of inexperience.
"Think back to , when we started four sophomores in the secondary and a couple of sophomore linebackers. That worked out fine for us. We have versatility, we have depth, yet we've lost a lot of our experienced depth. That's the biggest difference. Can our guys do it? Yes, I think they can."