2011 NC State Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - North Carolina State Wolfpack Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Credit the Wolfpack staff for the phenomenal job it did in 2010, transforming a defense that imploded just a year earlier. NC State attacked from all angles, ranking No. 4 nationally in sacks and improving to No. 29 in scoring D. Three starters from that unit are gone, namely all-star LB Nate Irving, but the wave of returners are determined to keep the defense on a northern trajectory. The 2011 edition will be built on the front seven, including penetrating DT J.R. Sweezy and linebackers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning. Ultimately, the group's final grade will rest with a secondary that's been victimized regularly over the past few years. There's no shortage of experienced players, but they've got to do a better job of breaking up passes and defending the red zone.
Star of the defense: Senior DT J.R. Sweezy
Tackles: Audi Cole, 97
Sacks: J.R. Sweezy, 6
Interceptions: Brandan Bishop, 4
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Jeff Rieskamp
Unsung star on the rise: Junior S Earl Wolff
Best pro prospect: Sweezy
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Sweezy, 2) Senior LB Audie Cole, 3) Junior LB Terrell Manning
Strength of the defense: Inside pressure, linebacker, plays for minus yards, forcing fumbles, third down D
Weakness of the defense: The ends, pass defense, forcing picks, red zone D
State of the Unit: Two starters and a handful of letterwinners are gone from a blue-collar defensive line that played surprisingly well a year ago. Yeah, the active linebackers were key players in the results, but the front four did its part for a D that was No. 14 nationally in run defense and No. 4 in sacks. From that unit, starters Natanu Mageo and David Akinniyi are gone, creating openings at tackle and end, respectively.
The unlikely catalyst of the defensive line has been 6-5, 293-pound senior DT J.R. Sweezy . An honorable mention All-ACC selection in 2010, it's hard to imagine that he began his career as a linebacker and grew into an end before flourishing on the inside. Playing quick off the snap and with relentless drive, he led the linemen with 46 tackles, adding 13 stops for loss and six sacks. Physically and emotionally, he'll set the tone for the rest of the D.
Junior Brian Slay is expected to be next to Sweezy on the inside. The 6-3, 290-pounder started the opener and played a pivotal role in the rotation, making 24 tackles and earning about 20 snaps a game. Challenging Slay is 6-4, 303-pound senior Markus Kuhn , a German import who has lettered three times. He returned after redshirting in 2009 to play in 11 games and make 14 stops. He has the right mix of experience and upper body strength to be no worse than an important reserve off the bench.
Senior Jeff Rieskamp is determined to become the Pack's best pass rusher from defensive end. As a full-timer for the first time, he started 11 games a year ago, making 27 tackles, four stops for loss, and two sacks. Playing with the speed of an outside linebacker, the 6-3, 245-pounder needs to turn a few more of his pressures into money plays. On the opposite side, 6-4, 281-pound sophomore Darryl Cato-Bishop is struggling to stay ahead of 6-3, 255-pound junior McKay Frandsden . Cato-Bishop has the size and strength to play tackle as well as end, seeing time at both positions last season. Frandsden is making his debut since transferring from Snow College in Utah, and is being counted on to deliver right away.
Watch Out For .... the development of the ends. The Pack needs to generate more pressure from the outside and from someone other than the linebackers. The program is keeping its fingers crossed that it'll get Rieskamp's best year and something positive from Cato-Bishop and Frandsden.
Strength: Pressure up the gut. Even if Sweezy doesn't get much support from his fellow tackles, he's shown a knack for collapsing a pocket on his own. Playing at a frenetic pace and with non-stop energy, he'll command extra attention, which will help free up Slay and Kuhn.
Weakness: The ends. Until proven otherwise, the edge rushers are a mediocre group, lacking the kind of end that other teams must scheme to stop. Rieskamp won't strike fear into opposing tackles, and the rest of the ends have no track record of success at disrupting the quarterback.
Outlook: Don't be fooled by last year's sack total, which overstated the play of the D-line. Of the eight players with more than two sacks, three were linebackers and five have graduated. Sweezy is a lineman the Wolfpack can count on to make plays every week, but the support around him is going to be suspect and short on big plays.
State of the Unit: Without much notoriety outside of the ACC, NC State staked claim to one of the most underrated collections of linebackers in America in 2010. While only one key cog from that group has departed, it's an irreplaceable one, first team all-star Nate Irving. Laying the foundation for an NFL career, he led the team in tackles, stops for loss, and sacks, setting the tone for the rest of the attacking defense.
In order to fill the void at middle linebacker, 6-5, 239-pound senior Audie Cole is making the move from strongside, where he started 13 games a year ago. A former high school quarterback, with terrific instincts and closing speed, he's made a seamless transition to the defensive side of the ball. Productive in each of his first two seasons as a starter, he was second on the team with 97 tackles in 2010, adding 10.5 stops for loss, five sacks, and three forced fumbles.
Staying put at weakside is 6-3, 224-pound junior Terrell Manning, who really raised the level of his game last season. A full-time starter in just his second year, he responded with 76 tackles, 11 stops for loss, and five sacks. A good fit for this athletic defense, he has tremendous speed and the quickness to dance away from blockers. He'll continue to get better with more reps and more time with the staff.
The biggest question mark is at strongside, Cole's old address. If he can figure out his new assignments, 6-4, 214-pound sophomore D.J. Green has an opportunity to be in the opening day lineup. A backup safety and special teams ace, he flashed a nice burst and made 18 tackles as a first-year player. Senior depth and competition comes from 6-2, 234-pound Dwayne Maddox and 6-2, 238-pound Sterling Lucas on the outside and inside, respectively. Maddox has played a ton of football in Raleigh, starting 15 games in his first two seasons, and will again have a key role on this unit. Lucas, too, has extensive experience, appearing in 36 career games and making 19 stops in 2010.
Watch Out For .... Cole and Manning to begin getting the recognition they deserve. Both players got ignored by all-stars voters last season, largely for playing in the shadow of Irving. Irving is gone, as will the anonymity that has accompanied the other Wolfpack linebackers over the last two seasons.
Strength: Making plays for minus yards. Under the watchful eyes of coordinator Mike Archer and assistant Jon Tenuta, the Wolfpack loves to attack from the second level of defense. All of the linebackers have good speed and range, allowing them to reach the backfield before plays can develop.
Weakness: Strongside. Although calling it a weakness may be harsh, it is clearly a question mark now that Cole has vacated the position. Green has a high ceiling that probably won't be approached until the second half of his career, and his backups have even less experience.
Outlook: While losing Irving would be a death blow for some groups, NC State is confident it can rally around Cole and Manning. Both players have all-star potential, experienced backups, and the leadership skills to hold the hands of some of the younger linebackers feeling their way through the process.
State of the Unit: The NC State pass defense took a step forward in 2010, but still lagged behind much of the conference when the ball was in the air. The Pack improved to 72nd nationally, yet still allowed 21 touchdown passes and picked off only nine. With literally everyone back from that group, even more progress is expected this fall. Anything less than that will qualify as a huge disappointment.
The Wolfpack is especially solid at safety. At the boundary, junior Earl Wolff emerged in his first season as a full-timer, making 91 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss, two sacks, and forcing four fumbles. A big hitter, who defends the run like a linebacker, he plays the game with tenacity and rarely misses tackles. At 6-0 and 201 pounds, he has the size and closing speed to light up unsuspecting backs and receivers.
At free safety, 6-2, 210-pound junior Brandan Bishop is also back for his third year as a starter. An ACC All-Freshman member in 2009, he contended for all-conference honors last year, chalking up 64 tackles and a team-high four interceptions. A gifted all-around athlete, he's improving in coverage and has started to see the field a lot better on passing downs.
Sophomore Dontae Johnson will continue his apprenticeship behind Bishop. The 6-3, 184-pounder earned about 20 plays a game in his first year, making 25 tackles. Sophomore Dean Haynes was the second-leading rusher among backs in 2010. This year, he's been moved to boundary safety to back up Wolff.
The competition at cornerback figures to be intense, with as many as a half-dozen players bucking for time. At boundary corner, 5-11, 180-pound speedy sophomore Jarvis Byrd started three games in his rookie year before tearing his ACL and missing all of 2010. Behind him, senior Justin Byers is a well-traveled defensive back, with three letters and 14 career starts, he had 15 tackles and four breakups as a reserve in 2010. Sophomore David Amerson is hoping to hold on to the job at field corner. A well-sized and athletic 6-3, 185-pounder, he started nine games in his debut out of high school and made 50 tackles. One of the huge defensive surprises, he's looking to become a four-year starter. He's currently being backed up by 5-11, 179-pound junior C.J. Wilson , one of two defensive backs to start all 13 games. In fact, he already has 19 career starts and made 43 tackles, a team-high eight pass breakups, and two pick sixes.
Watch Out For .... the return of 5-11, 176-pound sophomore Rashard Smith . Yet another corner with starts on the resume, he hasn't played since the middle of 2009, missing 2010 with a knee injury. Back at practice in the spring, he's hoping to do more than just provide depth to the last line of defense.
Strength: Depth. All of a sudden, the NC State secondary isn't as green as it was over the past few years. Out of necessity, the staff was forced to lean on a bunch of young corners and safeties, creating a current two-deep loaded with experienced players.
Weakness: Coverage skills. The numbers don't lie. Even an improved Wolfpack secondary remains vulnerable through the air. If the group improves in 2011, it'll do some from a unit that ranked in the bottom half of the ACC, a league not known for prolific passers, in most statistical categories.
Outlook: The Pack will be better in pass defense than the last few years, but by how much? Obviously, it depends on how quickly the cornerbacks grow up. On a positive note, if everyone stays healthy this fall, the program will have more viable options in the two-deep than at any time during the Tom O'Brien era.
State of the Unit: An already shaky special teams situation could get worse before it gets better at NC State. After struggling in this area a year ago, the Wolfpack is in need of a new punter and placekicker. Oh, and a little more help in the return game and coverage units wouldn't hurt either. Steady Josh Czajkowski could be supplanted by Ellis Flint, the only placekicker on the spring roster. A member of Hofstra before the program disbanded, he was on a couple of kickoffs in 2010.
The new punter could be a rookie, Wil Baumann, one of the better recruits at the position, he showed good pop in high school.
Senior T.J. Graham is once again expected to be the team's primary return man. He took one punt back for a touchdown against North Carolina, but it was one of his highlights of the year.
Watch Out For… the newcomers. Flint has been around for a couple of years, but the program has no idea whether or not he can produce in the clutch. And Baumann has yet to practice with the team, making the summer pivotal for assistant Jerry Petercuskie and the rest of the staff.
Strength: Graham. All things being relative, he's the closest thing to a sure-thing on special teams. He has three special teams touchdowns during his career, and giving the Pack a degree of consistency and occasional spark in the return game.
Weakness: Inconsistency. How well the new punter and placekicker perform is a complete mystery heading into a new season. Plus, the other areas of the unit were spotty last season, getting two field goals blocked and yielding two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Outlook: The State special teams are going to be a work-in-progress. There's no way around it. Graham aside, there are just too many question marks at key areas, like punter and placekicker. If Flint and Baumann can't deliver some degree of consistency, it's going to negatively impact the offense and defense.
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