Spring Spotlight: Cornerbacks

NC State returns both starters at cornerback, but depth is a concern as the two reserves have yet to play a down at the position on the college level.


    #30 Jeremy Gray: 6'2 186 - Redshirt Senior
    #21 DeAndre Morgan: 5'10 166 - Redshirt Sophomore

    As with defensive end Willie Young and linebacker Nate Irving, cornerbacks Jeremy Gray and DeAndre Morgan made moves up the depth chart during the bye week before the East Carolina game, and the duo started the remaining six games for the Wolfpack.

    Gray had an underrated junior season. In 12 games, the redshirt senior totaled 62 tackles, fourth-most on the team, a tackle for a loss, four pass breakups, and tied DaJuan Morgan with a team-leading three interceptions.

    His impact was felt once he entered the starting lineup. A reserve for the first six games of the year, Gray had just 17 tackles. Over the final six, he tallied 45 tackles, including 25 in the back-to-back-to-back wins over East Carolina, Virginia, and Miami.

    "Jeremy is a guy that is playing in the boundary and he's got to run support like he's probably never done before," NC State head coach Tom O'Brien said of Gray before the Miami game. "He's done the best job of any corner we've had. He did a great job collisioning [against Virginia] in cover two... the best job we've had all year as a corner in taking receivers out of their routes."

    Helping Gray at the position is his size. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, he is one of the tallest cornerbacks in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and his size is a major advantage for NC State as teams across the league feature tall, physical wide receivers.

    DeAndre Morgan

    He will likely be joined in the starting lineup by redshirt sophomore DeAndre Morgan. Unlike Gray, Morgan lacks ideal size, as he checks in at just 5-foot-10 and 166 pounds, but he is arguably the fastest player on the team and is extremely tough and more physical than you would expect.

    A native of Riviera Beach, Florida, Morgan replaced senior Jimmie Sutton in the starting lineup and never looked back. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and a great deal of confidence, something you need as a cornerback in the ACC.

    Morgan tallied 31 tackles and finished second on the team with eight pass breakups. He is very good at breaking up plays in the air. He had two critical pass breakups late in the win over Miami, and because of his size he will be tested early and often by teams in 2008.

    #20 Dominique Ellis: 5'11 190 - Freshman
    #33 Koyal George:
    5'11 169 - Redshirt Junior

    This is where it gets tricky for the Wolfpack. Both backup cornerbacks have yet to take a snap, at cornerback, in a college football game and teams normally have to play three or four cornerbacks at a time, depending on the situation, so they will have to be ready in 2008.

    One of the players expected to contribute for the Wolfpack is true freshman Dominique Ellis. Originally a member of NC State's 2007 recruiting class, Ellis didn't qualify academically and his enrollment was delayed until January 2008.

    Ellis burst on the scene in 2006. He transferred to Wendell (NC) East Wake High School for his senior season after playing football in Atlanta, Georgia, and emerged as a recruit at the 2006 Durham Scout.com combine, where he routinely locked up wide receivers and impressed onlookers with his aggressive style. Scout.com's Doug Cox stated he was the top defensive back in attendance after working with him that day, an event that featured top cornerbacks such as South Carolina's Chris Culliver and Notre Dame's Gary Gray. Ellis followed up that performance by being named to the first-team All-Combine team at Scout.com's Atlanta combine.

    Because he didn't have much game film to go on due to his transfer, Ellis had to prove himself at various combines and camps and he did just that as he earned scholarship offers from NC State, South Carolina, North Carolina, and East Carolina based on his work in drills and head-to-head battles. Virginia Tech and Louisville also extended offers but Ellis committed over the summer to Chuck Amato and NC State.

    As a senior at East Wake, Ellis proved that his performances on the combine circuit was no fluke. He played wide receiver and cornerback, while returning punts and kicks. He ended his senior season with 72 tackles and six interceptions returning three for touchdowns. Offensively, Ellis caught 42 passes for 700 yards and ten touchdowns. He added five more touchdowns on kick and punt returns as he was named an all-state selection and picked to play in the 2006 Shrine Bowl where he was named defensive MVP.

    Dominique Ellis

    During that time, Tom O'Brien took over as head coach at NC State, and teams like Florida State and North Carolina came calling Ellis. He briefly considered official visits to both schools before cementing his verbal commitment.

    After failing to qualify, Ellis spent last fall at home where he worked with a personal trainer while he continued to take the SAT. He received the scores he needed, enrolled in January, and was instantly thrown into the mix at cornerback. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder hasn't disappointed. He is very physical for a cornerback and isn't afraid to mix it up with receivers. He recorded an interception in the first scrimmage and is backing up Gray at boundary corner.

    The other reserve cornerback on the organizational chart is redshirt junior Koyal George. A two-time All-Big East Conference selection out of Havelock (NC) High School, George was a speedy, deep-threat receiver for the Rams. As a senior, he tallied 17 catches for 409 yards and six touchdowns, averaging over 24 yards a catch, and he also totaled four interceptions as a cornerback.

    However, colleges never came calling and he enrolled at NC State looking to major in computer science and walk on to the football team.

    Last spring, George was a walk on receiver who had a 75-yard reception in the Red/White Game, but few fans probably took notice. However, he continued to work hard and despite a roster full of scholarship wide receivers, George impressed the coaches and entered the rotation in 2007.

    He played in just seven games and for 45 snaps offensively for the Wolfpack, but caught three passes for 54 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown in the win over Virginia.

    For his efforts, George was awarded a scholarship by head coach Tom O'Brien, but due to the depth at wide receiver, and lack of it at cornerback, he was moved to field corner prior to spring practice.

    The 5-foot-11, 169-pounder is battling with DeAndre Morgan for the starting job at field corner, and thus far he appears to be making an impression.

    "He's doing a great job for us," coach O'Brien stated at Monday's press conference.

    Gray is a seasoned veteran and should have the boundary corner position locked up, and the battle appears to be at field corner where Morgan and George are going at it.

    Koyal George

    George lacks the experience of Morgan, but all indications are he likes to mix it up and athletically he can get the job done. Morgan has been beaten deep some in games and has had a couple of blown assignments, and mistakes that result in big plays will get you pulled by NC State's staff. Last year they would replace corners in between plays if they made mistakes, and look for those type of substitutions to continue.

    Competition is good, so if George is really pushing Morgan, that must mean he's adapting very well at the position.

    Ideally, all four cornerbacks will remain healthy and continue improving. The Pack will enroll two true freshmen in Miami (FL) Dr. Krop standout Gary Grant and Lincolnton (NC) two-way talent C.J. Wilson, and one of those two might be needed to contribute next season.

    On film, Grant displays a very good backpedal and ability to turn his hips and stay locked on the receiver. He shows good lateral quickness and closing speed as well. Grant is a player that opposing teams simply didn't test very often because of his ability to take away the other team's top receiving threat.

    In hindsight, NC State was smart in jumping on Grant early and never letting up. When UNC and Miami came calling later on in the recruiting year, Grant rewarded the Pack's loyalty by making a commitment to State early last December and then sticking with them throughout the rest of the recruiting year.

    Although a redshirt year would probably be a best-case scenario, the Pack's lack of ideal depth might prevent that. Depending on how he adjusts this fall, Grant could be a player that challenges for some playing time before the season is over.

    Wilson caught the eye of the Wolfpack coaches during the state playoffs and Shrine Bowl. Accepting of the fact that he would likely play his college football at a smaller school, Wilson was thrilled when his mother informed him that NC State was offering a scholarship. Within a week of earning the Wolfpack offer, he had made an official visit to State and given a commitment to run with the Pack.

    On the high school level, Wilson was known as one of North Carolina's top tailbacks, leading his team to a state championship and earning MVP honors along the way. However, Wilson did get some time at cornerback during the season and made the most of his snaps when on defense, finishing up with an impressive four interceptions and seven pass breakups in limited duty.

    C.J. Wilson

    Although somewhat raw as a corner, Wilson was able to excel on the high school level because his speed, quickness, and athleticism were almost always better than the competition he faced.

    In college, the talent level will be much better and Wilson will obviously have to rely more on technique and fundamentals along with his natural talent in order to be successful. This means he will likely need some time in defensive back's coach Mike Reed's system to hone his skills before hitting the field for the Wolfpack.

    Ideally, one of the two true freshmen will be able to contribute in 2008 for the Wolfpack.

    The Pack has a solid two-deep at cornerback. Ellis is a saavy defensive back capable of contributing, and Morgan and Gray are experienced starters. The wildcard is George. Assuming he can make the transition successfully, all four have what it takes athletically to succeed at the position.

    Look for Morgan and Gray to start in 2008 with Ellis and George as the reserves, and both true freshmen could be in the mix.

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