Spring Spotlight: Safeties

With DaJuan Morgan declaring for the NFL Draft and Javon Walker recovering from a knee injury, NC State lacks depth and experience at the safety position this spring.

  • SPRING SPOTLIGHT: QUARTERBACKS
  • SPRING SPOTLIGHT: TAILBACKS
  • SPRING SPOTLIGHT: TIGHT ENDS
  • SPRING SPOTLIGHT: WIDE RECEIVERS
  • SPRING SPOTLIGHT: OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
  • SPRING SPOTLIGHT: DEFENSIVE ENDS
  • SPRING SPOTLIGHT: DEFENSIVE TACKLES
  • SPRING SPOTLIGHT: LINEBACKERS

    RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS
    #14 J.C. Neal: 5'11 195 - Senior
    #4 Javon Walker: 6'0 188 - Redshirt Sophomore (Will Miss Spring Practice)
    #31 Bobby Floyd: 5'9 211 - Senior (Walk-on)

    NC State expected DaJuan Morgan to return for his senior season, but after hearing he could be drafted on the first day of the NFL Draft, Morgan declared early, leaving a gaping hole at safety.

    Morgan had a huge junior season for the Wolfpack. An All-ACC selection, he led the team in tackles (97) and tied for the lead in interceptions (3). He also totaled a team-high six pass breakups after splitting time at rover and free safety.

    After strong performances at the NFL Combine and NC State's Pro Day, some mock drafts have Morgan going as early as late in the first round, so it appears he made the right decision for himself.

    Javon Walker

    Although he won't be participating in spring practice, redshirt sophomore Javon Walker should be 100% by fall workouts after suffering a knee injury against Miami late in the 2007 season. Walker, a 6-foot, 188-pounder from Homestead, Florida, was having a stellar freshman year, totaling 46 tackles and two pass breakups in nine games, including four starts.

    Walker's play was influential in the Wolfpack's midseason turnaround. Following a loss at Florida State, he moved into the starting lineup during the bye week, and had a 12-tackle performance in the win over East Carolina. His ability to make plays near the line of scrimmage and in pass coverage allowed the Wolfpack coaches to move Morgan to free safety, and he flourished. Walker would start the next two games after East Carolina, before injuring his knee at Miami. He's not working out with the team right now, but is on pace to be 100% by fall practice and if he's fully healthy look for Walker to be the Pack's leader at safety.

    Joining Walker at safety could be senior J.C. Neal. Neal replaced moved from cornerback to safety after Walker was injured and started the final three games of the season at rover.

    Neal began his career at NC State as a safety, but when Tom O'Brien took over, the defensive coaching staff moved him permanently to cornerback, and he opened the season as the starter against Central Florida. He would go on to start both games against Wofford and Clemson, but saw his snaps dwindle with the emergence of DeAndre Morgan. Despite the "demotion," he remained focused and practiced hard everyday.

    "I just kept telling myself to not get upset over decisions you can't control," said Neal. "I just came out here and worked hard, and when I got my opportunity I made the best of it."

    When Walker went down, Neal was approached about moving back to safety. What did he think when first approached about the move?

    "I had no idea what was going to happen when [Javon] got hurt," he stated. "I really thought they would just be doing some rotation with the safeties and I would remain at corner. When I came in that week they said they'd like to see what I could do at safety.

    J.C. Neal

    "I came out that week and worked hard. I learned the plays, and I think the results showed on Saturday."

    Making his first start at strong safety, Neal stepped up with the best game of his career in the win against rival North Carolina. In 64 snaps, he totaled 11 tackles, including eight solo hits, while also playing 29 snaps on special teams.

    He finished the year with 35 tackles, three pass breakups, and a tackle for a loss, and this spring he is listed first-team at strong safety on NC State's organizational chart. Neal has all the tools to contribute at safety and this spring is pivotal for him as he enters his senior year. Because he has experience at cornerback, Neal is comfortable in pass coverage and should be versatile enough to play rover or free safety.

    The only other returning safety with playing experience at the position is walk on Bobby Floyd. In three games, the senior totaled four tackles.

    POTENTIAL IMPACT NEWCOMERS
    #32 Jimmaul Simmons: 6'2 190 - Redshirt Sophomore
    #45 John Ware:
    5'11 205 - Redshirt Sophomore
    #28 Justin Byers: 6'0 170 - Redshirt Freshman

    One of the reasons there is no experienced depth at safety is because the coaching staff moved Robbie Leonard to linebacker following the season. Leonard backed up both safety spots in 2007, playing in five games as a junior at safety, recording 20 tackles and a tackle for a loss. He is instinctive, make plays, and will likely be a situational-down linebacker for the Wolfpack.

    Leonard's move enabled John Ware to slide from outside linebacker to strong safety, a switch that should allow Ware to see more playing time.

    At 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Ware is likely better suited to play safety. The redshirt sophomore has a nose for the football and should excel in the Wolfpack's scheme that allows the rover to make plays near the line of scrimmage. Very instinctive and athletic, he tallied 20 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, and a forced fumble during his freshman campaign, but those numbers will improve if he's able to make a smooth transition to safety.

    Joining Ware, Walker, Neal, and Floyd at safety will be a pair of redshirt freshmen: Jimmaul Simmons and Justin Byers. Simmons enrolled last January after a prep season at Hargrave Military Academy. The 6-2, 190-pound defender with 4.51-second speed in the 40-yard dash played high school ball at Wilmington (NC) New Hanover before prepping at Hargrave where he impressed head coach Robert Prunty.

    Jimmaul Simmons

    "He started for us at safety, and he's going to be a great one," Prunty stated when Simmons verbaled to the Wolfpack. "Trust me. Before he ends up I think he'll be a great outside linebacker down at State. He won't be any different than some of the others we've been fortunate enough to have play in Raleigh.

    "Jimmaul comes from great pedigree too. His uncle is Clyde Simmons, who played linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, and his dad played at Wake Forest. So he has that toughness in him. I'm telling you, he's a player."

    An explosive athlete, Simmons has plenty of physical tools. During last year's Red/White Game, he flashed that explosiveness when he picked off a Harrison Beck pass in the endzone and returned the interception 100 yards for a touchdown.

    He redshirted last year and is currently second-string at free safety behind fellow redshirt freshman Justin Byers.

    Byers turned heads last fall with his play and the coaching staff hinted in preseason that he might see the field but instead he ended up redshirting.

    "He was a guy that was slated to come in and play safety, he has grasped the defense and now is playing at safety and corner," Reed said of Byers during fall practice. "It's a testament to his learning ability that he has learned what he's supposed to do. He needs to detail his work a little but for the most part he is playing very good football."

    A versatile defensive back out of Charlotte (NC) Vance High School, Byers enrolled capable of playing cornerback or safety before settling at free safety. He is one of the fastest players on the team and he could be the guy who comes out of nowhere to impact as a freshman, just like Javon Walker did last year.

    With Ware, Simmons, and Byers, NC State has three young players who haven't seen any game action at safety but appear to have the tools needed to play the position. This spring they are working on the fundamentals and gaining experience which will be vital if the Wolfpack is going to succeed defensively.

    Also, NC State adds junior college transfer Clem Johnson this summer, and all indications are Johnson expects to come in and compete for playing time at safety. He played mainly quarterback and cornerback for Valley Forge, but athletically he is off-the-charts and could push for playing time as well.

    KEY BATTLE
    With Walker out of action this spring, there are good battles going on at both rover and free safety.

    Justin Byers

    Senior J.C. Neal and sophomore John Ware are battling at rover, and Walker will be in the mix in the fall unless he is asked to slide over to free safety.

    This position could be a situational deal, and that might be the best scenario. Because of his experience at cornerback, Neal is better in pass coverage than run support, and because of his experience at linebacker, Ware is likely better in run support than pass coverage. The Wolfpack coaching staff could use Neal on obvious passing downs and Ware on obvious running downs and go from there at rover.

    Redshirt freshmen Byers and Simmons are in a dogfight at free safety. Barring a position change or Johnson coming in and making an impact, a redshirt freshman will start at the position for the Wolfpack... the question is will it be Byers or Simmons? Simmons is bigger, but Byers is faster and might be the more naturally instinctive player. Both youngsters have huge upsides and assuming they can progress this could eventually be a strong position for NC State.

    IDEAL SITUATION
    The key in the spring is always to remain healthy, but I think the Pack would like to see Ware make a smooth transition and for Neal to be a senior leader. Assuming he settles in at safety, he will be looking to have a big year in 2008.

    Ideally, one of the freshmen at free safety will emerge as a clearcut starter, whether it is Byers or Simmons. If one of them is able to create some distance between the other, that would be ideal come fall practice as that player can receive the necessary reps with the first unit.

    The wildcards are Walker and Johnson. Will Walker be back at 100% and performing the way he did prior to his injury? Can Johnson come in and contribute at safety?

    POST-SPRING PREDICTIONS
    This will be an inexperienced position for the Wolfpack, but it could eventually be a strength. The talent appears to be there, but the experience is not.

    Look for Walker, Neal, and Ware to all impact at rover and Byers to remain the starter at free safety. If he or Simmons struggle, the Pack could slide over Walker or Neal, but Ware appears best suited for rover.

    Clem Johnson will probably play minimal reps early, but as he gains experience he could be a guy that emerges during the year, like Walker and cornerback DeAndre Morgan did last season.

    Between those six, the Pack should be okay depth-wise at safety. Now they will need these kids to continue improving and make a lot of plays.


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