This time last spring, NC State was looking to replace three starters at linebacker after losing seniors LeRue Rumph, James Martin, and Ernest Jones. The Wolfpack came out of spring and fall workouts with Nate Irving, Ray Michel, and Robbie Leonard listed as the starters, and the trio entered the first game with a grand total of five college starts under their belts.
Now that position is shaping into a strength for the Wolfpack. Irving, a redshirt junior, returns at weakside linebacker and is regarded as one of the top defensive players in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Michel is back in the middle after leading the team in tackles (85) during his junior campaign.
State must replace Leonard at strongside linebacker and one of the youngsters competing for that starting spot is highly-regarded redshirt freshman Terrell Manning.
Regarded by most as the top player in North Carolina's 2008 class, the Laurinburg (NC) native recorded an impressive 219 tackles, five+ sacks, three interceptions, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, over three quarterback pressure, three passes broken up and one blocked kick as a senior at Scotland County High School.
A consensus prep All-American, he was expected to contribute right away in Raleigh, but a knee injury in his final high school game forced him to miss the 2008 season. NC State head coach Tom O'Brien says Manning continues to make progress.
"He's doing fine," said O'Brien. "Each day he gets something new, and it kind of spins his head a little bit. As he learns it, once he learns it, he's got it.
"He's doing a good job. Right now we're still teaching a lot. He's in the process of learning things. Once we settle down here in the next couple of days, there isn't going to be a lot more coming in. Then it's going to be much more repetition for him and hopefully he can play faster. He certainly looks like he has the ability to play."
A big-time playmaker on the prep level, the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder has the quickness and athleticism to play strong side linebacker in the Wolfpack's defensive scheme. Traditionally, the strong side linebacker is a big, physical athlete normally assigned to cover tight ends and assist in stopping the run.
However, with more teams playing the spread, NC State plays their linebackers to either the wide side of the field (strong side), or the short side of the field (weak side). The strong side linebacker must be athletic enough to defend receivers, tailbacks, and tight ends in space, and according to O'Brien, Manning has those attributes.
"We changed the defense a year ago," said O'Brien. "After we signed the class... we looked at guys who would suit that type of a position, and he's the type of guy you would want to play to the field like that.
"We had already signed him, but we hadn't moved to this style of defense until after we signed him... but it really suits his skills."
Joining Manning at strong side linebacker is sophomore Dwayne Maddox. Maddox enrolled last January, and he played as a true freshman at weak side and middle linebacker in 2008. Now he's listed as the starter with Manning in pursuit. The two are close friends, but don't call their competition a friendly one.
"Not so friendly," said Manning. "Friends off the field, no friends on the field. I guess you call it enemy competition until we step outside the lines.
"We're always together. We're almost inseparable. Wherever he goes I go, wherever I go he goes. It's the same way with Sterling Lucas... all of the young linebackers stay together. We try to keep a tight bond. On the field we help each other, but at the same time we know there is competition out there at every position."
With Bradley Pierson graduating, NC State needs to find a punter. Their starting punter might not be on campus yet, as it sounds like incoming freshman Chris Ward will have every opportunity to win the job in the fall.
"We're waiting for the freshman to come in," said O'Brien. "We'll see what he's got. We think he's going to be our punter. We'll see how it goes."
"With the quarterbacks and wide receivers, they've got some experience together now," said O'Brien. "We really didn't lose anybody at that position who's going to be playing [this] year. It looks like they are a little bit on the same page with each other. They are making some tough catches, and we're making some good throws."
After a breakout sophomore season, NC State wide receiver Owen Spencer can't wait to start his junior campaign. Not only will he be looking to put up huge numbers, but he'll be looking to silence critics who question his hands after he dropped some balls late in 2008.
"I just prayed about it and didn't let it get to me. But having the coaching staff and my teammates rally around me in those hard times, it was really comforting. It gave other guys the opportunity to step up as well."
One guy who has caught Spencer's attention is redshirt freshman Mike Glennon. With starting quarterback Russell Wilson playing baseball during spring workouts, Glennon has had a chance to receive a lot of reps.
"He's taking it and running with it," Spencer said of Glennon. "When other quarterbacks go down, you just have to step in. It's all through preparation...Out here he's doing a great job working hard.
"[Between] him and Russell, it's tough. They have some of the same qualities...As far as him being a young quarterback, it really gives him confidence in himself that he can throw the balls to us and feel comfortable with us and have chemistry with us."
"He's a talented kid," O'Brien said of Washington. "I don't know if [Washington is] going to find a way on to the field this year but he certainly has got a bright future here, I would think, from what I've seen so far."
NC State's first spring scrimmage is scheduled for Thursday. The Wolfpack will have another scrimmage on Saturday, April 11th, and the Kay Yow Spring Game is scheduled for Saturday, April 18th.