Will NC State go to a 3-4 defense?
James Henderson: This is a popular question from NC State fans, and no one will know until the season starts exactly what type of base scheme the Wolfpack will utilize. However, it sounds like the base will still be a 4-3, but coach O'Brien mentioned recently that there have been some changes from last year.
The personnel at linebacker doesn't appear to be there just yet for a change of that magnitude.
Steve Williams: Well, this has popped up several times, and is one of the most popular rumors on the Internet. I don't foresee it happening this year but the Wolfpack's recruiting seems to hint at times that we may be headed in that direction at some point in the future.
Austin Johnson: I don't think that's an option considering the personnel the Pack has on hand this season. I think it's something they'll look at down the road, but I doubt they've set any sort of timetable for the switch at this point.
Can the Wolfpack stop the run?
James: They are going to have to be able to because teams will certainly test them. In 2007, the Wolfpack ranked No. 91 in rushing defense, and teams often ran at will against them. However, I think what will benefit this year's team is the front four should be a lot better. Markus Kuhn, Antoine Holmes, Alan-Michael Cash, and Willie Young are projected to start, and all four gained plenty of experience last season.
Cash and Holmes should really do well inside at tackle, and I think Holmes could have a breakout season. He was explosive at times last year, but he needs to be more consistent. After rotating between tackle and end, he settled in at tackle full-time and should be a load for opposing guards and center.
At 280 pounds, Markus Kuhn has plenty of size to play defensive end, and he should be stout against the run given he played much of last year inside at tackle. Young has also added weight and when his snaps increased, his ability to stuff plays in the backfield shined through. He needs to continue working on shedding blocks, but he's improving against the run.
There is also depth up front. Keith Willis Jr. is experienced inside at tackle and junior college transfers LeRoy Burgess and Shea McKeen are expected to contribute. Young defensive end Audi Augustin, J.R. Sweezy, and Jeff Rieskamp will be factors as well.
The question will be at linebacker. The front four should be able to occupy blockers, and the linebackers need to make tackles. Should they be able to do so, I think NC State will have better success against the run.
Steve: This is the most important question facing the NC State defense in my opinion and the one I have the most concern about. While State has talent in their front seven, there's not a bonafide star in the bunch outside of Young. The Pack will need to use their entire rotation to attack the run which means players like Leroy Burgess, Alan-Michael Cash, Dwayne Maddox and others will have to step up.
The Pack gave up better than 186 yards per game on the ground last year and ranked No. 91in the nation. If they could improve that to roughly 150 yards per game then that would be a major accomplishment for this group.
At this point, I have questions as to whether that's attainable.
Austin: I think the front four for the Pack will get the job done this season when it comes to containing the run, but the next level of run support has to be there this year. All too often in the past a back would get through the front four and find plenty of running room ahead.
Keeping that from happening will be in the hands of Irving, Michel, Ware and even the defensive backs, who need to do a better job of preventing those long, game-breaking runs.
What is the Pack going to do at linebacker?
James: Play young and inexperience kids with talent. The good thing for NC State is Andy McCollum's a well-respected linebackers coach and he should be able to mold this group into shape.
Nate Irving showed plenty of flashes last year and he appears to be on the verge of busting out. He has the weakside linebacker spot locked down. In the middle will be Ray Michel and at strongside could be Robbie Leonard, a converted safety.
Thomas Barnes, John Ware, Audie Cole, Dwayne Maddox, Sterling Lucas, and William Beasley are also in the mix battling for playing time. NC State has nine linebackers competing for three spots. The numbers are there... the experience isn't.
What is NC State going to do? I think they are going to play a lot of guys and play them in certain situations. Nate Irving, barring injury, should be in there every down. He's versatile and makes plays. The Wolfpack used Thomas Barnes as a blitzer coming off the edge in 2007. John Ware was used on passing downs... I think he and Robbie Leonard will be used the same way in 2008. Situational substitutions will be key for NC State. Look for the staff to allow the players to play to their strengths and not ask them to do what they can't do. It will be interesting to watch.
Steve: Linebackers coach Andy McCollum will earn his salary in 2008, that's for sure. After losing James Martin, Lerue Rumph and Ernest Jones, the Pack is basically overhauling the position. That trio accounted for 195 tackles last year and will be tough to replace.
The only sure thing would appear to be Nate Irving. He was a pleasant surprise last season and showed the ability to make plays as he finished off the year with 42 tackles and a solid 7.5 tackles for loss.
Thomas Barnes is another player that has showed promise but needs to become more consistent. When he's on, Barnes can be a handful for opposing offenses.
Ray Michel is a player with experience who will need to take his play up a notch.
Robbie Leonard is a walk-on safety that has been converted to linebacker. John Ware was moved to safety and is now back at linebacker.
Behind those five it's almost a foregone conclusion that State will need one or more of it's young linebackers to step up. Dwayne Maddox got a jump on the other freshmen by enrolling in January, and he's a guy that will almost surely see time in 2008. I also expect Sterling Lucas and William Beasley to get a long look with Audie Cole figuring in to the mix as well.
There's likely to be a learning curve for this group in 2008, and you can almost count on the growing pains that go with rebuilding an entire position.
Austin: They quickly decided to end the ‘experiment,' as O'Brien called it, of moving John Ware to strong safety once fall practice got started. Ray Michel and Nate Irving are the only linebackers with significant game experience, so you need those two to really become leaders at that position. Beyond that it's a matter of hoping the kids can contribute right away.
It's safe to say that guys like Dwayne Maddox will get plenty of chances to prove themselves this fall.
Which newcomers will see serious action this season?
James: Obviously it starts with the junior college transfers. O'Brien stated Clem Johnson could have started at safety and now it looks like the Valley Forge product will be out for the year with a broken jaw. Two junior college defensive linemen, LeRoy Burgess and Shea McKeen, should certainly contribute provided they are in shape and progress in the system as expected.
Beyond those two, I think you're looking at a couple of linebackers in Dwayne Maddox and Sterling Lucas. Lucas is now in the mix at middle linebacker and whispers suggest he could play a lot as a true freshman. Another true freshman expected to make a contribution is cornerback Dominique Ellis. He's already on the two deep and should fit in well with coach Reed's system at defensive back.
Steve: I've already mentioned Maddox, Lucas, and Beasley. Two others that I think State needs production from who I expect to have substantial roles are DT Leroy Burgess, DE Shea McKeen. Safety Clem Johnson would have been in that group as well, but he is sidelined indefinitely with a broken jaw.
Obviously those three are a little older with more experience and each plays at a position where their contributions are needed. Burgess has the potential to be a big-time surprise at defensive tackle in my opinion. McKeen has been on a division one campus before and knows what will be expected. Johnson could have been the real sleeper of this group. I love his athleticism and felt he would figure prominently at safety before all is said and done. It looks like that may have to wait until 2009 when he should still have two years of eligibility.
Austin: This is really not my area of expertise, but as I stated above there definitely seems to be an opportunity for someone to step up at linebacker. What's more important for the Pack is that young players who saw action last year take the next step forward, guys like Javon Walker, Markus Khun, Nate Irving, and DeAndre Morgan all need to become consistent contributors if the Pack defense expects to improve in 2008. Also a few redshirt freshmen in Justin Byers and Jimmaul Simmons are expected to do the job at free safety... a vital position in NC State's scheme.
Who will be the leader of the defense in 2008?
James: That's a tough question because I think the defense is filled with young guys and I normally expect to see seniors take on the roles as leaders. One guy who may not be the most vocal, but could lead with his play is senior cornerback Jeremy Gray.
Gray has really come on late in his career at NC State and the 6'2, 190-pounder played a big role in last season's defensive turnaround. He attended the ACC Media Kickoff and represented the defense for NC State, and I think he will do the same this year.
As one of the few experienced seniors in NC State's starting lineup, look for Gray to lead the defense in 2008.
Steve: A guy that I'm expecting big things out of in 2007 is defensive end Willie Young. He is probably the most vocal player on the team and the only one receiving mention on a national level although he was left off the preseason all-acc team. Young is a player that has game-breaker potential who likes to urge on his defensive counterparts. He's a player that I think could emerge as the guy others look up to this season.
Austin: I'd look to Alan-Michael Cash. He's a consistent, lead-by-example type player that the rest of the defense would do well to try and emulate.