The fifth installment of our six-part series on NC State's 2009 Scout Team focuses on the Wolfpack's linebackers!
While the 2009 scout team defense had the dubious task of going up against the first team offense every practice, they also had to deal with personnel changes, adjusting to the college game, and more importantly, learning the workings of the Wolfpack's defensive system.
For the linebacker unit, the latter task was especially daunting during the first several weeks of the season; but because they had the right pieces in place (with a mixture of skill sets), they were able to become one of the more reliable groups as the season continued.
One of the most promising prospects of the linebacker corps was freshman Hans Rice. While lean at 6'2", 205 lbs, Rice was consistently one of the top performers on the 2009 scout team and is now considered one of the top up-and-coming linebackers on the roster. His knack for making plays and ability to learn on the fly made him a favorite to move up to the two-deep early in the season until he was sidelined with an injury. According to Offensive Graduate Assistant Bobby Blick, his contributions may have been brief, but his talent definitely did not go unnoticed.
"We didn't get to see much of Hans because he was injured during the latter part of the year," said Blick, "but for the first part of the season, he showed as much promise as anybody. When we went through the whole gauntlet of drills at practice, he adapted well to the pressure and everything else. He was close to getting moved up until his injury."
While playing at the strong-side linebacker or "SAM" position, one of the things that stood out about Rice in practice was his ability to cover backs and receivers in zone coverage. This was a direct result of his previous experience of playing safety in high school, and it was something that helped put him a step ahead of the rest of his classmates.
"His experience at safety made him feel right at home at the SAM position," said Blick. "When we were playing a team that played strictly man-to-man, like a Florida State, he loved it because he got to lock up on his guy and just run with him, and that's where he really showed strides."
In 2010, Rice is expected to back up starting SAM linebacker Audie Cole, but if his progress continues through the spring, it's quite possible fans will see him running with the first team once in a while.
On the opposite side, at the "WILL" or weak-side linebacker, Blick was able to utilize the experience of redshirt freshman William Beasley. The 6'3", 225-lb Beasley had to sit out the 2009 season because of academic issues, but was able to contribute on the scout team as he had done in 2008. Just like the previous year, Beasley demonstrated outstanding play-making abilities and often caught the eye of the coaching staff – even though he doesn't always take a vocal leadership role.
"He's not a vocal guy, and he isn't one to tell guys what to do," said Blick, "but he has what it takes to play the position. His personality comes off as a bit ‘lackadaisical', and guys that don't know him would think that he's not in it. But he's definitely got athletic talent; and if he gets the role he's working towards, he's gonna show it."
Beasley will have ample chances to demonstrate his talent in the spring as he competes with Terrell Manning and Dwayne Maddox for playing time. But he understands that, first and foremost, he will have to ensure his academics are in order if he intends to play in 2010.
"He knows what he needs to do to take it to the next level," said Blick. "That's going to be the focus for him this spring: to work out, and then hit the books."
Lining up behind Beasley was freshman Rickey Dowdy. While currently listed on the 2010 organizational chart as a defensive end, Dowdy was able to contribute more often for the scout team as a WILL linebacker. And like all other freshmen, it took some time for him to get adjusted to the position, as well as the pace of the college game.
"During the early part of the year, he had that typical culture shock coming in as a recruit and thinking that the yellow-brick road was open for him," said Blick. "Once that culture shock is realized and you get placed on the scout team, it takes a while to develop the mentality to succeed rather than taking it as a knock. In the second half of the season, he realized that and started to become a factor on the scout team."
Blick recalled one instance where Dowdy was coming on a blitz and running at full speed, but when a running back came at him out of the backfield, he pulled up – and that turned into a real learning experience for him.
"He took the mentality that he was blocked, and so he just stopped," said Blick. "I asked him how that was going to make him any better if three years from now he's playing at Clemson, gets blocked and just gives up on the play. Once we explained that he has to use all of his techniques as far as hand moves to get around the guy and pursue the quarterback, he started to look at scout team practice as a way to get better. After he did that, he was a different guy. He was slow to start, but quick to finish."
Dowdy did play some defensive end for the scout team in 2009, and now that he has added enough bulk to effectively make the transition to the defensive line (up to 6'2", 240 lbs.), the question is whether he will remain at the position or maybe make a transition back to linebacker to prepare for a career after college. Blick was uncertain which position would be best for him, but stated that he was confident in Dowdy's ability to play either one.
"I'm not sure as far as the long term plan for him," he said. "He did a good job for us at linebacker, but his body type could hold the weight necessary to be a d-lineman. He is mobile enough for either position. I can see both cases. I'm not sure where he'll end up."
In the middle or MIKE linebacker spot, injuries prevented the top two scholarship freshman candidates from participating in scout team drills. Ryan Cheek (6'1", 244 lbs.) was recovering from a hip injury, and Colby Jackson (6'2", 234 lbs.) was rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee after moving over from fullback.
This left the door open for more walk-ons to contribute and play a substantial role on the scout team unit. Sophomore Grant Pearce of Fuquay-Varina got the nod at MIKE linebacker, and played well during the season, but left the team in the winter due to personal reasons. Junior Patrick Apple also made significant contributions from time to time.
But likely the one walk-on who made the biggest impact was freshman Mark Walker. A former star at Leesville Road High in Raleigh, Walker came in to the program a rail-thin 6'1", 200 lbs., but he made impressions on the coaches with his quickness and work ethic.
"Walker is a skinny guy, but his motor's high," said Blick. "He goes all out, and I never had to worry about him as far as effort was concerned. He was a guy that showed up every day and did a great job for us. When Hans went down, he stepped up right away. He's in the league of walk-ons that won't stay a walk-on if he continues to do what he's doing."
The contributions of walk-ons like Walker helped to solidify the scout team linebacker corps, and even Blick was quick to mention the importance of having experienced guys like Apple helping to bring the younger players along. But he also said that while the unit needed a lot of adjustments, it didn't take them long to get up to speed.
"As a whole, they were a good unit," said Blick. "The biggest thing is coming to the scout team with the right attitude, and they did that. It might not have been right away, but they got to it. It became a matter of pride, and it worked out very well for us."
Stay tuned for Tales of the 2009 Scout Team: Part 6, where we will focus on the defensive backs!