State's Super Six - DEFENSE

Who are NC State's top six defensive players entering the start of preseason camp next month?

6. Ray Michel
Fort Myers (FL) Senior Linebacker

An unheralded signee out of Fort Myers High in the 2005 class, Michel has greatly improved over the course of his college career.

He came in a playmaker, as he totaled 127 tackles, including 65 solo tackles, and six sacks as a senior which led to him being named Florida's 4-A Player of the Year by the Florida High School Athletic Association. A three-year starter, he left Fort Myers as the school's all-time leader in career tackles and carer sacks.

Ray Michel

Michel started out at weakside linebacker for the Wolfpack, and he redshirted in 2005. The following fall he mainly played special teams, seeing action in all 12 games. He backed up Reggie Davis at weakside, and totaled game-highs of three tackle against North Carolina and Maryland.

With the development of Nate Irving, Michel shifted from weakside to middle linebacker in 2007, backing up senior James Martin. He would make his first career start in the season finale and ended the year with 43 tackles, two tackles for a loss, and a pass breakup.

After Martin graduated, Michel moved into the starting spot last fall and led the Wolfpack in tackles (85) and chipped in three tackles for a loss, six quarterback pressures, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

The season started slow for Michel, but he consistently improved over the course of the year and was a steady performer over the final half. He's shown a knack for being around the ball, wrapping up on tackles, and delivering the payload.

He came back this spring and performed extremely well, leading the team in tackles (13) in the the Pack's three scrimmages.

Michel isn't the biggest or fastest player on the football field, but he has a nose for the ball and with Irving's injuries the Pack will lean heavily on Michel and his experience.

5. Clem Johnson
Carlisle (PA) Senior Safety

As with wideout Jarvis Williams, I believe Johnson can breakout in 2009. One of the top pure athletes on the Wolfpack's team, he made major strides at safety last fall.

Johnson spent two years at Valley Forge Military College in Pennsylvania where he was named first-team all-conference and Seaboard Conference Offensive Player of the Year at quarterback. He was talented enough at quarterback that Georgia Tech reportedly pursued him to run their offense.

However, Johnson's ultimate goal is to reach the NFL and he believed the best way to do that was making the transition to safety, a position he hadn't played since high school.

"Georgia Tech wanted me to play quarterback, but I'm not really interested in that," Johnson said when he committed to NC State. "Not on that level... I want to get to the next level, the NFL, and that I think can happen at defensive back.

"I have a natural ability to play defensive back. Throughout my whole career I've been on offense but, when I've played defense I've been a lockdown guy and made a lot of plays."

Clem Johnson

He enrolled last summer and began to impress right away. However, after appearing to lock down a starting position, Johnson broke his jaw making a tackle during a fall scrimmage, an injury that some thought would sideline him for much of the year.

"Clem Johnson broke his jaw in the scrimmage so he's out for maybe the year," O'Brien stated after the scrimmage. "We brought him in here for a purpose. The way he was playing, he would have been the starter at safety for us... with the way he was going. It's a big loss for us right now."

Johnson wasn't going to waste the opportunity presented to him. He would miss just five games, and quickly worked his way back into the rotation.

In his first game against Boston College, Johnson tallied seven tackles and picked off a pass. The 6-foot, 190-pounder added stability to the secondary and his impact was noticeable. In seven games, Johnson recorded 40 tackles, three pass breakups and two interceptions.

He was making perhaps his biggest impact in the North Carolina game (six tackles) where he helped shutdown the Hakeem Nicks and the Tar Heel's passing attack in the first half. But just before halftime he went down with an ankle injury that sidelined him for the rest of the regular season.

"[Clem Johnson] is out... it's a huge loss for us," O'Brien said after the UNC game. "He finally got back and was playing. He was playing the best he's played all year on Saturday. We were getting the play out of that spot at safety that we wanted to get in week one but we didn't get until week 11. That will be a huge loss for us."

Johnson bounced back and returned to the field for the bowl loss to Rutgers, totaling seven tackles, one interception, and a pass breakup.

He was able to use the spring to work on fundamentals and gain additional reps at a position he's still growing into.

"Clem [Johnson] has to be much better, and we've got to keep him healthy," said O'Brien. "He's like the other two guys up front, he gets to go through a spring practice where you are not worried about playing a football game, you are worried about stance, alignment, reads and all the things that you have to do to be successful."

Johnson proved last fall he's a playmaker when he is on the field. The key is staying on the field, and with the lack of experience in the secondary that is a must for the Wolfpack.

4. DeAndre Morgan
Riviera Beach (FL) Suncoast Junior Cornerback

Just a junior, DeAndre Morgan has as much experience as anybody on the defense, not named Willie Young or Alan-Michael Cash, and should contend for all-conference honors.

DeAndre Morgan

Arguably the fastest player on NC State's roster, Morgan's speed and ability to make plays landed him several offers out of high school, but he chose to follow older brother DaJuan to Raleigh.

Because of his slight frame, Morgan redshirted in 2006, but didn't waste any time working his way into the rotation at cornerback. Coach O'Brien stated from the beginning that playing time is earned and Morgan did just that.

One of just two redshirt freshman starters for the Wolfpack defense in 2007, he got the nod for the Louisville contest and started the rest of the season (he did not start on Senior Day versus Maryland). Morgan finished the year with 31 tackles, eight pass breakups, a blocked kick, a fumble recovery, and a tackle for a loss. Teams challenged him and he made plays, never backing down.

He followed that up by starting all 13 games in 2009, totaling 66 tackles, three tackles for a loss, two interceptions, and a team-high 13 pass breakups... twice as many as anyone else on the Pack roster.

The other cornerback position remains a question mark after the announcement that Dominique Ellis will transfer, but Morgan has more than solidified his spot in the defensive backfield. He flashes terrific ballskills while not being afraid to throw around his 5'10, 170-pound frame.

Like with Johnson and Michel, the Pack will need Morgan to stay healthy and have another productive year. With continued development, DeAndre could join DaJuan on the next level.

3. Alan-Michael Cash
Richmond (VA) Varina Senior Defensive Tackle

Possibly the key to NC State's defense, senior defensive tackle Alan-Michael Cash is one of the top interior playmakers in the ACC.

He originally committed to Michigan State out of high school but switched his verbal to NC State after a late official visit. Cash recorded 63 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks as a senior at Varina High School and played primarily defensive end.

After redshirting his freshman year, Cash wash named the Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year that fall and was being counted on as a player to step up and help replace John McCargo the following year.

As a redshirt freshman, Cash played in all but one game as a backup at defensive tackle, he started the last game of the season against East Carolina when Demario Pressley was out with an injury. He showed flashes that fall, recording 13 tackles and two tackles for a loss in 125 snaps.

Alan-Michael Cash

He had a breakout season as a sophomore, starting all 11 games he played and totaling 50 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, 13 quarterback pressures and an interception.

Poised to have a big-time junior year, Cash battled injuries and played in just 10 games. He still managed to total 38 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and another four quarterback pressures.

The injury bug hit him again in the spring, as he was sidelined for much of the session with a knee injury. As a senior, Cash needs to play the full season and eliminate any durability concerns about him.

There is no denying that when he is on the field his presence is felt. He 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, having Cash in the lineup frees up other playmakers like Willie Young and Nate Irving to make plays.

2. Nate Irving
Teachey (NC) Junior Linebacker

Nate Irving could have easily been No. 1 on this list but his status for this season is unknown after a serious car injury where he suffered a collapsed lung and a broken leg.

A native of Wallace, North Carolina, Irving enrolled at NC State in 2006 after a stellar career at Wallace-Rose Hill High School, one of the top football programs in the state. An all-conference, all-state, and Shrine Bowl selection, Irving recorded 110 tackles, six forced fumbles, three sacks, an interception, and 12 all-purpose touchdowns during his senior campaign.

Because of the Wolfpack's depth at linebacker, Irving was able to redshirt and improve as a player.

"I improved on my fundamentals a lot that year," he said. "I worked on my footwork and using my hands more as a linebacker. The big thing was it helped me get stronger in the weight room."

As a redshirt freshman, Irving started slowly, totaling 14 tackles and two tackles for a loss over the first six games of the season. He battled a nagging ankle injury that forced him to miss the Wofford game, and NC State was starting three seniors at linebacker. Following the FSU game, the Wolfpack had a bye week and the coaching staff tinkered with the lineup and the players put in extra work on fundamentals. It seemed to really pay off for Irving.

Nate Irving

In the next game against East Carolina, he tallied five tackles in just 23 snaps. That effort led to Irving earning the first start of his career the following week versus Virginia, and he didn't disappoint. In the victory, Irving's six tackles and two tackles for a loss were instrumental, and he used those back-to-back efforts to springboard a great individual finish to the season.

"He's worked really hard, and he's done a great job," NC State head coach Tom O'Brien said of Irving after the Virginia win. "He's got a good feel for the game. He's got a good knack in pass defense too of finding zones, bodying people up... I think he's a young guy that is learning each and every week out there and he really did give us a good boost on Saturday. On the show the other night, we had a couple of clips of him on back-to-back-to-back plays making plays for us. I think he's a kid that is getting a little better each and every week."

"It was an opportunity," said Irving. "I feel it was God-given and I want to thank him for it, but it was an opportunity for me to show that I can play. It showed that the coaches trust me."

Over the final six games of his freshman year, which included four starts, Irving tallied 38 tackles and five tackles for a loss. He ended the year with 52 tackles and seven tackles for a loss, finishing seventh and third respectively on the team in those two categories despite playing limited snaps for much of the season.

He really busted out in 2008. It started with highlight-reel plays and consistency in the games against Clemson and South Carolina. He would flash the big-play potential that some think make him the top returning linebacker in the ACC.

However, he suffered a high ankle sprain midway through the season that forced him to miss three games, all Wolfpack losses.

His return, and the development of Russell Wilson, keyed a late-season resurgence that led to a bowl bid for the Wolfpack.

Irving was a honorable mention All-ACC performer in 2008, despite missing almost a third of the season with injuries. He tied for third on the team with 84 stops and also recorded 11 tackles for a loss and a team-high four interceptions.

At 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds, Irving has good size and above-average quickness. 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. Irving's ability to shed blocks and make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage is a big asset for the Wolfpack.

The question for NC State is when will Irving be back on the field? A timeframe hasn't been given, although head coach Tom O'Brien could announce it at the 2009 ACC Media Kickoff.

If he's out for the season, that would be a huge loss for the Wolfpack, as he is a proven playmaker and one of the top defensive players in the ACC.

1. Willie Young
Riviera Beach (FL) Palm Beach Gardens Senior Defensive End

It really feels like Willie Young has played 13 seasons for NC State, but his senior season is here and his return is a major plus for the Wolfpack.

Young flirted with declaring for the NFL Draft after receiving a favorable grade from the league, but decided to return and help NC State win some football games.

Willie [Young], as we said from the start, he was our best recruit coming into this year," O'Brien stated this spring when asked how important it was to have Young back.

Willie Young

What does he bring to the table? Willie Young has quietly developed into one of the nation's top rush ends and a candidate to be selected very high by the NFL next April.

NC State had to battle for Young not once but twice. A heralded defensive end prospect out of Florida, he picked the Wolfpack on Signing Day 2004 over Florida and Ohio State among others, and a major reason was his relationship with assistant Doc Holliday.

However, Young failed to qualify and headed to Hargrave. Just weeks before he was set to enroll at NC State, Holliday headed to Florida and rampant rumors suggested Young would follow. He didn't... remaining loyal to NC State and is now one of the top defensive linemen in the ACC.

The year at Hargrave helped his physical development, and with the Wolfpack's depth at defensive end Young was able to redshirt in 2005.

He played his way into the starting lineup late in his freshman season, starting the final four games as he totaled 60 tackles and three tackles for a loss with 15 quarterback pressures.

Young followed that up with a strong sophomore season. Making eight starts, his tackles dipped to 48, but he recorded 16 tackles for a loss, six sacks, 24 quarterback pressures and six pass breakups.

Young's numbers dipped last fall, but he played more consistent and within the scheme. Teams looked to account for him more and it allowed other guys to make plays.

He still earned honorable mention All-ACC honors after totaling 58 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, 10 quarterback pressures, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

Playing with the speed and suddenness of an outside linebacker, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder gets off the snap in an instant, blowing by opposing linemen before they can get set. He wreaks havoc on quarterbacks, and uses his long wingspan to knock down passes and disrupt passing lanes.

The Wolfpack will need Young to be a consistent force this fall. With an inexperienced secondary, Young, Cash and the other defensive linemen have to create pressure. A preseason All-ACC pick, expect Young to do his part.

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