Preview 2009 - Defense
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- 2009 NC State Defense | 2009 NC State Depth Chart
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What you need to know: The defense played its best football over the second half of 2008, a trend it hopes to carry into 2009. Riddled by injuries and poor tackling early on, the Pack underwent a transformation, creating more turnovers and clamping down in run defense. Keeping the momentum going will depend on a secondary that’s young and still very vulnerable to even mediocre quarterbacks. The good news for CB DeAndre Morgan and his teammates is that they’ll be getting plenty of assistance from a front seven that’ll surprise a lot of people this fall. DE Willie Young, DT Alan-Michael Cash, and LB Nate Irving are All-ACC types, with the athleticism to create constant chaos. Plus, they’re surrounded by solid veterans, like DE Shea McKeen, DT Leroy Burgess, and LB Ray Michel, who will flourish in secondary roles.
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Dominique Ellis
Unsung star on the rise: Junior CB DeAndre Morgan
Best pro prospect: Young
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Young, 2) Junior LB Nate Irving, 30 Senior DT Alan-Michael Cash
Strength of the defense: The Line, Red-Zone Defense
Weakness of the defense: Secondary, Consistency
Projected Starters: The Pack’s knack for producing NFL-caliber defensive linemen is going to continue with this group. The strength of the team, North Carolina State will once again be fueled by the inside-outside senior tandem of 6-1, 286-pound tackle Alan-Michael Cash and 6-4, 250-pound end Willie Young. Cash is your classic three-tech, undersized lineman, who’s has the speed and quickness to slice through the guard and tackle to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. A regular in opposing backfields the last two seasons, he had 35 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and 14 pressure, numbers that were understated by an early-season knee injury.
Young has quietly developed into one of the nation’s better rush ends and a candidate to be selected very high by the NFL next April. A fourth-year starter, he’s collected 102 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, and 50 pressures in the last two seasons alone. Playing with the speed and suddenness of an outside linebacker, he gets off the snap in an instant, blowing by opposing linemen before they can get set. With one more year to impress scouts, he’ll be playing with a noticeable sense of urgency.
After wading his way through his first season out of Georgia Military College, 6-1, 300-pound senior Leroy Burgess believes he’s ready to live up to his lofty expectations. A squat run stuffer, with a powerful base, he took about half a year before things started to slow down for him. Still, he was able to lay a foundation for 2009, starting three games and finishing with 19 tackles and five quarterback pressures.
Young’s partner on the opposite end of the line will be 6-5, 255-pound senior Shea McKeen. A gifted all-around athlete and well-traveled individual, he made stops at South Carolina and Nassau (NY) Community College before settling down in Raleigh. In his first season with the Pack, he started nine games before breaking his ankle, registering 29 tackles, five tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks.
Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Jeff Rieskamp earned a spot in the rotation in his first year of action, earning a pair of starts and making 21 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. Strictly a situational pass rusher until he adds more weight, the 6-3, 235-pound plays with the quickness of a linebacker and a non-stop motor.
The other backup end will be 6-2, 253-pound junior Audi Augustin, a bigger option and a better fit on running downs. A backup and special teamer for all but the bowl game, he’s had limited opportunities in two years, making six tackles and a sack a year ago.
State is taking auditions for reserves at tackle. One possibility is 6-3, 290-pound junior Natanu Mageo, a transfer from New Mexico Military College, who took part in spring drills. A thick, prototypical run-stuffer, he’s hoping to plug the gaps in a run defense that was repeatedly pierced last fall.
Watch Out For ... a big year from Burgess. He was sort of quiet in 2008, but that could be chalked up to a steep learning curve and the difficult transition from junior-college. He’s begun this season on a mission, at times dominating in the spring. With Cash next to him, he’ll never see double-teams, which could mean plenty of stops for minus yards.
Strength: The starting lineup. While not in same league as, say Clemson or North Carolina, North Carolina State boasts a rock-solid defensive line comprised of four seniors, two all-stars, and at least that many kids with an NFL shot. With constant penetration coming from Young and Cash, Burgess and McKeen will be free to make a lot of plays in their final season.
Weakness: Run defense. Is this problem ever going to go away? Two years ago, the Pack was last in the ACC, yielding 186 yards a game on the ground. Last season, despite improvements, it was eighth in the league. State got markedly better as the season wound down, a trend that needs to be maintained in the early parts of this year.
Outlook: Yeah, the run defense needs to show up all year and tackle depth is a worry, but there’s not a lot to dislike about this front four. The Pack boast star power, quality support on the inside and outside, and outstanding depth at defensive end. With Young eyeing a lucrative deal from the NFL, he could deliver an All-America season that helps makes all of his linemates more productive.
Projected Starters: Had he not missed a third of the season with an ankle injury, 6-1, 235-pound junior Nate Irving would be entering this season with a whole lot more national notoriety. Instead, he’ll have to be a well-kept secret outside Raleigh. Despite the lost time, he was able to rack up 84 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, four interceptions, and a touchdown. From his weakside position, he plays as if shot from a cannon, using tremendous range and natural instincts to sniff out plays all over the field. Give him a dozen healthy games, and he’ll finish 2009 as a really big deal.
Joining Irving as a returning starter is 6-0, 229-pound senior Ray Michel, the team’s steady middle linebacker. In the most extensive action of his career, he stepped forward with a team-high 102 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and six quarterback pressures. He’s shown a knack for being around the ball, wrapping up on tackles, and delivering the payload.
The newest member of the starting lineup, 6-5, 234-pound sophomore Audie Cole, spent the offseason turning the heads of the coaching staff. One of the clear-cut stars of the spring, he quickly rose from a weakside backup to a strongside starter. A former high school quarterback, who had 14 tackles a year ago, he brings terrific size and toughness to the perimeter of the defense.
Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Dwayne Maddox got displaced by Cole and actually shifted to weakside, where he’ll caddy for Irving. Wherever he winds up, the versatile 6-2, 225-pounder is going to command a role on this defense. The only true freshman to start a game on defense in 2008, he chipped in 32 tackles, showing uncommon poise and instincts for such a young player.
Like Maddox, 6-2, 227-pound sophomore Sterling Lucas also got plenty of snaps in his first year removed from high school. As a backup in the middle and special teams contributor, he played in 12 games and had 14 tackles. Still a little raw with his fundamentals and reading of offenses, he’s got a high ceiling once he gets more game reps.
Watch Out For ... Irving to get plenty of first team All-ACC votes. When he was on the field last fall, North Carolina State was a noticeably different program. He plays with a frenetic, contagious style that wreaks havoc for opposing offenses. The junior simply has a knack for the big play, which will create quite a highlight reel for the SID to distribute.
Strength: Range. Up and down the two-deep, the Wolfpack is dripping with athletes, who are capable of making stops from sideline-to-sideline. Irving may be the headliner, but he’s hardly alone. The veterans and underclassmen alike have the speed and instincts to make plays all over the field.
Weakness: Pass defense. North Carolina State got burned a bunch of times in pass defense last year, and could suffer similar results again this fall. The athleticism isn’t a concern, but with Michel and Irving barely above 6-0, both become vulnerable versus rangy tight ends drifting down the middle of the field.
Outlook: The Pack has close to an ideal situation at linebacker. The peak performers, Irving and Michel, are veterans with a number of years in the system. Lining up behind them is a slew of talented underclassmen, like Cole, Maddox, Lucas, and Terrell Manning, just itching at a chance to carve out their own identities. Together, they’ll form one of the league’s most underappreciated linebacker corps.
Projected Starters: By far, the biggest concern on defense involves a defensive backfield that was among the most feeble in the ACC a year ago. A couple of starters return from that unit, led by 5-10, 170-pound junior DeAndre Morgan, an all-star candidate and the team’s best pass defender. A ball-hawk, with outstanding speed, he’s been a starter since midway through his freshman season, producing 66 tackles, three tackles for loss, two picks, and 13 pass breakups a year ago. With continued development, he’ll follow brother DaJuan into the NFL.
The new starter at the other corner spot will be 5-11, 190-pound sophomore Dominique Ellis, who padlocked the job with a fantastic offseason. A year after making 13 tackles in 13 games, he appears to have turned the corner in his maturation, playing more aggressively and making nice breaks on passes. While still a little raw on his reads, he has the physical abilities to eventually develop into a lockdown partner with Morgan.
While the corners will be fine, the safeties are causing some sleepless nights for the staff. At one opening, there’s hope that 6-0, 200-pound senior Clem Johnson can build on his debut out of Valley Forge (Penn.) Military College. He battled injuries all year, yet still managed to start four games and make 46 tackles and two picks. An all-conference quarterback in junior college, he’s made a nice transition to being a full-time defender.
The front-runner at field safety is 6-0, 188-pound sophomore Justin Byers. After taking some lumps in his first season of action, he’s added some much-needed weight in the offseason and gotten a firmer grip on the playbook. He wound up starting eight games and playing in all 13, making 50 tackles and intercepting a pair of passes.
Projected Top Reserves: Senior Koyal George spent his offseason solidifying a spot as the first cornerback off the sidelines. A former walk-on wide receiver, he began to make the transition to defense last fall. By the end of spring, he was flashing a level of confidence and comfort that was not evident at this time last year.
Challenging Byers at field safety is 6-2, 200-pound sophomore Jimmaul Simmons, a real thumper and the better run defender of the pair. He earned a letter in his first season of eligibility, playing in 11 games and making 16 stops and a pair of picks. A physical tackler and terrific athlete, he’ll earn more playing time as soon as he tightens up in pass defense.
Watch Out For ... the health of 6-0, 197-pound junior Javon Walker. Before tearing his ACL toward the end of the 2007 season, he was beginning to look like the next big thing at safety for the Wolfpack. However, he missed all of 2008 and didn’t suit up in the spring. There’s hope he can be back in August, which would provide a big boost to the safeties.
Strength: The corners. Yeah, they’ll still get burned from time to time, but there’s an awful lot to like about Morgan and Ellis, especially looking out to the future. Morgan is on the brink of becoming a star and Ellis isn’t that far behind. If they continue to learn and grow, NC State will be set at the position in 2009 and 2010.
Weakness: Consistently defending the pass. At a base level, the Pack has a long way to go in pass defense after finishing last in the ACC in completion percentage, yards allowed, and touchdowns yielded. If the young guys don’t prove worthy early in the season, opposing quarterbacks are going to attack them on a weekly basis.
Outlook: There’s obvious talent, courtesy of a string of quality recruiting classes, but it remains raw and unproven. To allow as many big plays in a passer-free conference, like the ACC, was an indictment of this defensive backfield. If the defense, as a whole, is going to make progress, it’s incumbent upon this unit to knock down a few more passes and become a lot feistier when the ball is in the air.
Projected Starters: All things considered, the Wolfpack appears to be in fine shape on special teams. The unit found themselves a placekicker last year in junior Josh Czajkowski, one of the nation’s top prepsters of 2006. A dead-on kicker, he nailed 16-of-19 field goal attempts and missed just a single extra point. At his best in the 40-yard range, he’s not likely to drill one from long distance.
The new punter will likely be senior Jeff Ruiz, who has patiently waited his turn and will not be intimidated by his new responsibility. A former junior-college All-American, he has the leg strength, needing only to exhibit more consistency in order to maintain this spot.
One of last season’s big surprises was the play of sophomore T.J. Graham, the new school record-holder for kick return yards in a season. He averaged more than 25 yards a chance, good for No. 5 in the ACC, and also led the team with an eight-yard average on punt returns. He’ll handle both duties once again this season.
Watch Out For ... Czajkowski’s leg strength. While he had a long conversion of just 42 yards a year ago, he was nailing kicks from 50 yards out in April. Will that translate into more pop this fall? The Pack hopes so because a couple of those boomers could be the difference between winning and losing for a program that plays in a lot of tight contests.
Strength: The punt coverage team. For the second consecutive season, NC State was among the nation’s stingiest punt coverage teams, allowing just six yards a return and finishing 28th nationally. The team harbors a ton of speedy athletes, who get downfield in a hurry and leave little wiggle room for opposing returners.
Weakness: Punter. It’s not as if Bradley Pierson and his 38.8-yard average are irreplaceable, but if Ruiz was better, wouldn’t he have won the job in 2008? Something has to be missing in his execution, or else we’d have seen him occasionally in the last two years.
Outlook: North Carolina State invests a lot of energy in its special teams, and it shows. The Pack covers well, has an exciting return game, and is consistent at placekicker with Czajkowski. If Ruiz finally starts delivering like a former JUCO All-American, State will challenge for the ACC’s most complete special teams ensemble.