In 2007, defensive coordinator Mike Archer and his assistants implemented a scheme different from the previous staff, and it took some time for the players to adjust. The Wolfpack struggled stopping the run, yielding 187 yards on the ground, ranking No. 91 nationally and last in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Improvement up front will not only yield better statistics but also more wins.
"The front guys are improving everyday," said Willis. "That's all I can ask them to do. One thing is with all of our older guys, they aren't making the same mistakes they made a year ago. When we first got here, we had some veteran guys making rookie mistakes... over and over again.
"You can't have that. Now they are doing it right. They are doing what they are asked to do, and it's translating over into the scrimmages."
Leading the way for NC State's front four is expected to be redshirt juniors Willie Young and Alan-Michael Cash. Young, a defensive end from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, earned his first start of the season at Florida State, and during the following bye week the staff moved him permanently to weakside defensive end... playing away from the tight end free with an offensive tackle. In previous games, the staff simply played the ends on sides of the field, and the decision to start Young while also keeping him at weakside paid huge dividends.
At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he proved equally effective as a pass rusher and did a great job of getting into the backfield and disrupting running plays. Over the final eight games of the season, all starts by Young, he totaled 31 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 13 tackles for a loss. Despite being extremely productive, he didn't even earn honorable mention all-conference honors.
The ACC recognized four defensive ends on the first and second all-conference teams: Virginia's Chris Long, Virginia Tech's Chris Ellis, North Carolina's Hilee Taylor, and Georgia Tech's Darrell Robertson. Over their final eight games, each posted numbers either right above or below Young. Long, the league's Player of the Year, tallied 47 tackles, eight sacks, and 12.5 tackles for a loss. Ellis, the other first-team member, recorded 29 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for a loss. Taylor totaled 31 tackles, six sacks, and 8.5 tackles for a loss, and Robertson finished the final eight games posting 18 tackles, three sacks, and 7.5 tackles for a loss. When you compare the five players over the eight-game stretch, Young finished first in tackles for a loss, tied for second in tackles, and third in sacks.
Sharing reps earlier in the season hindered his chances of garnering postseason accolades or posting even better numbers, but Young finished the year playing as well as any defensive end in the conference. He was named to several preseason watch lists and will be a target for opposing offensive coordinators.
"Willie is a leader in his own right," said Willis. "You want Willie to just play... not say too much because he has a tendency to say too much. I just want you to play and back it up."
Playing alongside Young will be Alan-Michael Cash. Like Young, Cash's standout sophomore season went unnoticed. In 11 games (he missed the Boston College game attending his father's funeral), the 6-foot-1, 286-pounder tallied 48 tackles (led NC State defensive linemen), eight tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception, and a pass breakup.
Strong and explosive, Cash is a disruptor in the interior, capable of applying pressure on quarterbacks and stuffing runs in the backfield. With four of the ACC's top five defensive tackles from 2007 graduating (first-team All-ACC selection GT's Vance Walker is a rising senior), Cash also could challenge for postseason honors.
"He's going to be one of those guys that is going to surprise a lot of people," Willis said. "If he stays healthy, you're gong to see some really significant play out of that kid."
A junior college All-American out of Lackawanna JC, Holmes rotated between defensive tackle and defensive end in 2007. He may have been, per snap, the Wolfpack's most productive defensive lineman last season. Holmes played in nine games, as he didn't play in the Virginia, Miami, and North Carolina games. In those nine contests, he played a total of 184 snaps. He tallied 20 tackles on the season, or one tackle every 9.2 snaps. Cash recorded a tackle every 11.7 snaps and Demario Pressley did so every 12.3 plays. Holmes added 5.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks, and a pass breakup, and with additional snaps in 2008 he should be even more productive.
"Holmes has improved a lot," said Willis. "He's trusting himself a lot more than he did last season when he first got here. That trust has really raised his confidence level."
Kuhn was one of the pleasant surprises on the Wolfpack's defense in 2007, as the youngster from Germany played meaningful snaps during his true freshman season.
In 10 games, Kuhn totaled 32 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, a sack, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He started the year working at defensive tackle but moved outside midseason where he mainly backed up senior Martrel Brown. At 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, Kuhn is extremely athletic for his size and possesses good strength. He gives the Pack a physical presence at end, particularly against run-oriented offenses, but because of his quickness he has flashed the ability to rush the passer.
Remember, Kuhn is still fairly new to the game of football, and he played linebacker prior to enrolling at NC State. The more experience he gains the better he will be. He has a big-time upside.
"He's doing well," Willis stated. "Markus is one of those guys that you've got to rep a lot. Through that repetition he's going to keep getting better. We threw him in the mix early last year so we've got to get him right."
"I just want to get all the plays in and execute what they teach me," said Kuhn. "I'm not a rookie anymore. People look at me different now. I have to be better and nastier. I want to be better and I'm working hard everyday so I can keep my starting position right now."
Coach Willis has also been pleased with the play of his son, defensive tackle Keith Willis Jr. A transfer from Boston College, Willis Jr. played in 22 games for the Eagles, starting two his redshirt sophomore season. During his career, he totaled 37 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, six pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Because he had already redshirted, 'Kiki' lost a year of eligibility while sitting out his transfer year, and he only has one year of eligibility remaining so he will be looking to make the most of it. At 6-foot-1 and 278 pounds, he'll bring valuable experience and toughness to a position that NC State remains inexperienced at.
"He's encouraged," coach Willis said of his son. "He's been healthy. This is the first year in his college career that he's stayed healthy through the spring. He's done well. I can't wait to see him play."
The defensive lineman who has probably created the most buzz is Jeff Rieskamp. Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, Rieskamp redshirted in 2007, and word is he gave the starting offensive line fits with his speed and strength off the edge. As a prepster at Elder High School, he tallied 56 tackles and nine sacks during his senior season, earning all-league, all-district, and all-state honors.
Rieskamp was one of the first players to commit to coach O'Brien at NC State, as he originally verballed to Boston College prior to O'Brien leaving BC. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder is a hard-nosed competitor who plays with a high motor. Coach Willis absolutely raves about the redshirt freshman.
"He's special," said Willis. "He really is. I'm saying this before he's played any college games, but if the way he practices and the success he's had in scrimmages are any indication of how he's going to play during the season... he'll have some big games. People will recognize how well he can play.
"He's a really cognitive player. That guy is... he is a small bullet but packs a lot of power."
Also looking to make an impact will be a pair of junior college transfers. Defensive tackle LeRoy Burgess and defensive end Shea McKeen were recruited to come in a play. With that being said, they will only play if they are ready... especially Burgess. He has three years to play two seasons, while McKeen only has two years of eligibility remaining so a redshirt appears unlikely for him.
"They are going to make an impact...they have to," said coach Willis. "They are junior college kids. They are going to come in here, work hard, and the expectation is for them to play. If they aren't ready, we won't play them.
"I would think if you go after a kid from junior college, the hope is that he can impact your program right away. He has to be ready to do that. However, you can't put him out there if he is not ready. That is why you want to recruit a guy that has three to play two because you have that year you can burn."
"Everybody is in the mix," Willis said. "We're still putting together a team here. I'm encouraged. They are doing some good things, using their hands... all the intangible things you ask a defensive lineman to do.
"I wish we could play today."