Most figure with Willie Young, Alan-Michael Cash, LeRoy Burgess, and Shea McKeen up front, the four seniors should be solid. That's also the case at two of the three linebacker positions.
Nate Irving, a redshirt junior, returns at weak side linebacker and is regarded as one of the top defensive players in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Ray Michel is back in the middle after leading the team in tackles (85) during his junior campaign.
The question mark will be at strong side linebacker, a position that redshirt freshman Terrell Manning is looking to play.
"I think we're going to be real good, especially at the linebacker position," said Manning. "We've got some experience now with Nate Irving and Ray Michel, and we've got some good young freshmen linebackers who aren't too far behind them right now. That's where competition comes in."
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.
"He's doing fine," NC State head coach Tom O'Brien recently said of Manning. "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."
"Progress... progress is being made," said Manning. "I have a lot more to do. I'm just out here working hard and trying to get myself right. I have no problems with my knee though... it's good."
When Manning enrolled, some thought he would have recovered enough to compete for playing time, but the coaches decided to redshirt him for the season to allow his knee even more time to heal. He returned for the Wolfpack's bowl practices and admits he was a bit rusty after being away from contact for over a year.
"I needed a little more time, and the coaches gave it to me," said Manning. "When I came back for the bowl practices it was just like spring practice for me. I was starting out fresh, learning some of the defenses and trying to get back to the past.
"Sitting out and watching... I was able to learn a lot. That also helped me get back to the game of football. I was out for a while and when I came back I had to catch back up with the contact and speed of the game. It's a lot faster on the college level. I knew I was going to get myself back together and get back to my old self... and that's what happened."
A big-time playmaker on the prep level, Manning 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."
"I can play well in space," said Manning. "There's a lot of contact coming your way when you play the 'SAM,' but I also like playing in the box too. I love the scheme and position they have me in, and I think it's going to work out well for me."
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."
This is a big spring for Manning. He's competing for a starting position and will likely see a lot of time on the field in 2009. Growing into the position and learning his keys will determine just how much he plays during his redshirt freshman campaign. For now, he's focused on improving and packing pounds onto his tall, sleek frame.
"I'm out here learning," said Manning. "I'm just trying to learn as much as I can and make plays.
"Right now I'm at 210 pounds. I've gained over 10 pounds since I came in because I was a little light when I first got here. My goal is to be around 220 or 225 pounds by the South Carolina game."