The fourth installment of our six-part series on NC State's 2009 Scout Team focuses on the Wolfpack's defensive line!
The task of preparing the first team offensive unit for upcoming games has been difficult for the scout team defense in recent years, trying to match-up against the speed and skills of players like Russell Wilson, Jamelle Eugene, and Jarvis Williams, not to mention the first team offensive line.
But according to Graduate Assistant Bobby Blick, who has been running the defensive scout team over the past three years, 2009 was a little different because of the talent he had to work with – especially along the defensive line.
Of course, as Blick readily admits, it often helps to have an experienced veteran like Marcus Kuhn anchoring that line. Kuhn, currently a redshirt junior, played extensively during his freshman and sophomore seasons, but decided to redshirt the 2009 campaign in order to take some time to improve his game (much like running back Curtis Underwood did this past year).
Kuhn's on-field experience made him the perfect candidate to lead the scout team defensive line in practice, and according to Blick, it made him a valuable addition to the entire unit.
"I didn't have to worry about Marcus," he said. "I could just tell him what defense we were running, and he'd just line up. Even when I asked if he wanted to take a break, he would just waive it off. He stayed in there all the time and barely ever came out for rest."
Kuhn's hard-working demeanor soon rubbed off on his fellow linemen. In fact, Blick confirmed that the young defensive front wouldn't have worked as well if Kuhn had not been there to take charge early on.
"He was like our field general out there," said Blick. "He got those young guys up to speed during the first 3-4 weeks of practice. That was especially important for the freshmen coming in, because they've got all that stuff outside of football that kind of bogs them down.
"Just to get them caught up to the pace at which we practice is half the battle; and having a guy like Marcus on the line to bring those young guys along that quickly – you just can't put a price tag on it. He was awesome."
While Kuhn started out his NC State career at defensive end, he played at tackle exclusively with the scout team last fall and used the offseason training to bulk up and fill out. Now, he stands a solid 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds and looks every bit the run-stopping force the Wolfpack will need to anchor the defensive line in 2010.
With the departures of Alan-Michael Cash and Leroy Burgess (along with the suspension of backup J.R. Sweezy), Kuhn will have every chance to prove his leadership and step into a starting role at defensive tackle.
Next to Kuhn, Blick was able to see a lot of true freshman Brian Slay in between stints with the second team defense. Slay originally was not expected to see much game time in 2009, but Blick said he was able to pick up on things faster than other freshmen, and that helped to put him on a fast track for defensive assignment.
"He was quicker mentally than anyone we had," said Blick. "He understands the concepts. When I tell him he's got ‘B-gap' responsibility because the linebacker's coming in ‘A', he knows he has to get there for the whole play to work. He gets the whole picture, which a lot of guys takes a longer time to get. That was tremendously helpful – something that wasn't the case in years past."
At 6'3", 290 lbs., Slay will also figure strongly in the mix at defensive tackle in 2010, and his experience with both the scout team and the second team defense will only help him solidify his standing on the organizational chart.
"I knew Slay would be something special even before they had him pull double-duty," said Blick. "They'd pull him off the field and go a couple rounds with the team, and he might come back and he might not, depending on injuries. I was always sad to see him go. I loved to have him on the field."
When Slay was not with the scout team, Blick used freshman walk-on Tyler Kloc to fill his spot. At 6'3", 240 lbs, Kloc did not necessarily look the part of a defensive tackle, but Blick stated he had the necessary smarts and skills to contribute at the position.
"Kloc definitely stepped into that DT role, and was someone we could count on from day one," said Blick. "The speed of our practice was a little new to him, but once he got into the groove of it, he showed some signs of being a real competitor in the trenches."
While the tackle position was solid all season for the scout team, Blick admits it was the talent on the ends that really made the difference – and perhaps no one on the team had a bigger impact than DE Darryl Cato-Bishop. This freshman phenom turned heads from the very first day, and his rapid improvement made everyone take note – especially the first team offensive line.
"All the times I watched our scout team, time after time, Cato stood out going against our starters," said Blick. "I mean, he's got a whole different engine. He has the potential to be something special. He's got all the physical tools. He's doing all the necessary things to see the field with a very high percentage next year."
At times, Cato-Bishop impressed coaches with his speed off the line, and with his size (currently, 6'3" 280 lbs.), he was a load for the offensive tackles to handle. His consistency at the position earned him Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year honors, and his presence often put Blick at ease with running the unit.
"It was great having a guy like Cato-Bishop on the field," said Blick. "He would line up on the same side with Kuhn, and the two of them would work in tandem. If that carries on, that wouldn't be a bad thing. I liked having them on the same side, because I always knew that side was good."
Now, Cato-Bishop will have to compete with returning defensive ends like Michael Lemon, Audi Augustin and Jeff Reiskamp for immediate playing time, but he certainly has the size and skills to make a lasting impression on the Pack's defensive line for years to come.
Not to be outdone by his fellow classmate, freshman Sylvester Crawford also made an immediate impact at defensive end. Crawford demonstrated the speed and tenacity that Wolfpack coaches have been seeking at the position for years. But even Blick was quick to admit that he might have been going a little too hard at times.
"Crawford is really good, but there were cases where we have to take him down a bit because he was going so hard," said Blick. "Sometimes, he was coming so hard at the QB, we'd wonder if he was going to pull up at the last second because he has such a good motor. Of course, he never connected, but it made you wonder sometimes because he fought with our tackles quite a bit."
Even though his progress in 2010 may be slowed a bit because of a recent injury and the fact that there are several other defensive ends on the roster, there's no doubt that Crawford skills and physical tools to be a solid contributor, if not future star, along the defensive line. In fact, Blick is proud of the fact that he had both Cato-Bishop and Crawford at the same time, and knows that they will create a pair of book-ends for this defense as long as they are together.
"By far, they are the two best ends I've ever had in scout team," he said. "There's a tendency in scout team that once the speed is realized in practice and the routine sets in, you get the mindset that they're not valuable to the system, and I never saw that with Cato or Crawford. They'd rotate plays, and they would go as hard as anyone I've seen. They never took a play off."
So, where does that put the defensive line in terms of the rest of the scout team unit? According to Blick, they were the ones that set the pace in practices, and they will be a force to be reckoned with in the years ahead.
"I'd have to say that most of them great talent I had to work with was on that defensive line," said Blick. "They were by far my best unit, and the sky is the limit for them."
Stay tuned for Tales of the 2009 Scout Team: Part 5, where we will focus on the linebackers!