The final installment of our six-part series on NC State's 2009 Scout Team focuses on the Wolfpack's defensive backs!
Every scout team must deal with the constant coming and going of players due to injuries and other factors on the first and second teams. But for the 2009 NC State scout team, no particular unit experienced such attrition more often than the defensive backfield.
A lack of experienced depth and various injuries among Wolfpack defensive backs were major factors in the performance of the 2009 defense and, to a lesser extent, the operational capabilities of the defensive scout team. According to Graduate Assistant Bobby Blick, it was not an easy transition from the previous year.
"Basically, last year's [scout team] secondary was up on defense in 2009," said Blick. "We didn't have guys like Earl Wolff or Justin Byers – a lot of the guys that did a good job for us last year. That mental capacity was gone. We had a bunch of new guys come in, and we had to re-teach them certain things, techniques. We had to make adjustments and bridge that gap."
Of course, when fall practices started, the scout team lineup looked very promising in the defensive backfield. Incoming recruits like Rashard Smith, Jarvis Byrd and Brandan Bishop would've given Blick one of the best defensive backfields of any scout team in recent memory.
However, as fall workouts continued and the talent gap and depth needs became apparent on the first and second team units, Smith and Bishop assumed prominent roles with the starting defense. That left Blick to find additional help from walk-ons and other players to fill the gaps. Yet, he did have the luxury of holding on to some of the more-talented scholarship players for a majority of the season – including Jarvis Byrd.
"He's a guy that, when we had him on our field, we felt like we were steel," Blick said of his start defensive back. "His competitiveness is what sets him apart. He just loves the game. And when he's out there, it just takes on a whole different dimension because he makes everyone around him better – the enthusiasm he brings is contagious. He loves the challenge day in and day out. And our wide receivers love going up against him, because he's such a good challenge for them."
At 5'10", 170 lbs., Byrd wasn't the biggest guy on the field, but his athletic ability drew immediate comparisons with cornerback classmate Rashard Smith. But, as Blick said, it wasn't just the natural talent that made him stand out. His outstanding leadership abilities also made him a favorite with the coaching staff, and Blick was quick to mention his importance as a leader on the team.
"Byrd was the voice of that unit," he said. "He didn't play like a freshman, and he knew what he was doing, he would make sure everyone else is doing the right thing. He would motivate everyone, yelling at them supportively.
"He's the kind of guy that would talk you up and then, if you get knocked down, he'd be there to pick you up. He's just got such a good attitude towards the game, and the rest of the secondary fed off of that."
But toward the end of the season, Byrd finally received the call to move up to the first team unit at cornerback. He played an outstanding game in the season finale against UNC – that is until an unfortunate altercation with Carolina's Greg Little took him out of the game with a torn ACL. Now, Byrd will likely have to spend the entire 2010 season rehabilitating his knee and preparing for 2011, when he will be counted upon to fortify the corner position.
"When we had him," said Blick, "in the back of my mind, I kept thinking that it can't be for long. It's tough to see what he's been through now. But I know he's going to attack the [rehab] treatment just like he did practice, so he'll be back and good to go."
At the other corner, Blick only had Smith for a couple of days at the most before he received the call to play with the first and second units, so he turned to sophomore walk-on Jordan Monk. The Rhode Island native played a pivotal role when he was called up to replace the injured Byrd during the season finale against Carolina.
His lockdown performance against UNC's Little helped secure the Pack's win, and according to Blick, it was a direct result of the experience he gained in his two years with the scout team.
"He had been in the system before," Blick said, referring to his stint on the 2008 scout team. "He knew what to do and knew what to expect in practice, so there wasn't a lot we had to worry about with him. He did a great job for us, and it showed when his number was called for the UNC game."
Monk will certainly be in the mix for playing time in 2010 as the incoming recruits develop, as will another walk-on, Jesse Riley, who filled in behind Monk on scout team duty.
A speedy freshman from Leland, Riley took a little longer to catch up, but like other scout team members, he had to learn to adjust before he could take that step forward.
"Once he got the gist of it, he took off," said Blick. "He's got a lot of speed, played a lot of special teams, but he needed to see the importance of scout team development before he stepped up. Once he did, he did a solid job for us."
Blick also had the services of Gary Grant for a while before he also took time on the second team defense. A scholarship redshirt freshman, Grant had been plagued by injury for most of the 2008 season, and is still working back into game shape. With the type of injuries he's sustained, fans are wondering how long it will take before he's back to 100%, if at all.
"He looks like he's getting there," said Blick. "I think it's more mentally trusting the injury, and getting back in the swing of things."
However, Blick admits that Grant's key issue is motivation.
"When he gets angry, and finds something that challenges him, that's when he plays his best," he said. "Hopefully, he can tap into that more often, because I think he can be good."
The safety positions were relatively more stable for Blick's unit, mostly because the year-long contributions of freshmen Dean Haynes and Donald Coleman. Both rotated their safety positions throughout the season, but even though Coleman had a leg up in terms of practice time (he joined the Pack for Spring workouts in 2009), Haynes quickly became the one to watch.
"Haynes really excelled," said Blick. "A lot of times, he was the down safety, so he'd be in the box and make some big plays there. He was also the nickel guy, so he had plenty of opportunities to match up on the offense's speed guy, and he was able to demonstrate that tremendous athletic ability. I always wanted my safeties to get after it and attack the ball – and I know he's always going to attack the ball."
Haynes was originally brought in to play cornerback, and he even had an opportunity to run scout team quarterback after freshman signal-caller Everett Proctor went down with a shoulder injury, but he finally settled in at field safety where Blick thinks he is a natural fit.
"Haynes feels comfortable there," he said. "He likes to hit, so it's a natural position for him. He did a good job as far as picking it up quickly."
In the meantime, Coleman settled in at the boundary position because he had slightly more size than Haynes (6'1", 195 lbs.) and because he was able to handle a great deal of responsibility. But Blick also thinks that he could challenge at either position, as long as he has the right mindset.
"Early on, I think the coaches wanted Coleman to be their guy at safety," said Blick, "but I think it will depend on his mindset. If he comes in the fall with the mindset to win it out, I don't think anything could stop him."
Haynes and Coleman often switched positions between boundary and field safety depending on who the team was facing the next week and what defense the scout team needed to run. Both will be in the mix during workouts, and as Blick pointed out, it won't be easy to beat out the current starters on Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop.
"The game experience with Wolff and Brandon gives them a huge leg up, and it cannot be overlooked," said Blick. "So it's going to be hard for the guys underneath to make that many strides to overcome them. I don't want to shortchange [Haynes and Coleman], because I think they can do it. I know this much: they will challenge the guys ahead of them. Whether they catch them or not, that's up to them."
Will they both stick at safety? Blick says that it's looking that way now, but he doesn't see them making a switch unless it is necessitated by another situation or injury.
"They have the ability to turn their hips and run, so they can play on the corner," Blick added. "They had fun back there, and they challenged each other. They seem to have good chemistry, and that certainly bodes well for the future."
Backing up Haynes and Coleman was a walk-on that seemed to garner a great deal of respect from his fellow scout teammates – Fuquay-Varina native, Zach Powell. The junior had two previous years of scout team experience, and that helped him assume more of a leadership role with the unit.
"Zach knows everything about our defense," said Blick. "He played safety for us, played corner for us, rotated to anywhere we needed him, played every play. He's not as vocal as Byrd, but he's every bit as effective in leading the other guys. He's not afraid to tell others what to do. He's been there a while, and everybody respects him."
Overall, the defensive backfield did an admirable job in dealing with constant turnover, and according to Blick, it all worked out for making the first team offense that much better.
"This year, we've had as good camaraderie as we've ever had," he said. "If I'm out there, and I don't have to say too much, I know they're doing a good job. It was all about working hard and making our offense better, and they did that."