2012 NC State Preview - Defense
NC State CB David Amerson
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - North Carolina State Wolfpack Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The Pack's opposition might be content to run right at it this fall. And who would blame them? Not only will NC State be thin and vulnerable at defensive tackle and linebacker, but few quarterbacks will want to throw into the teeth of its secondary. The defensive backfield welcomes back all four starters from 2011, highlighted by CB David Amerson, an All-American thief with a bright future on Sundays. Plus, the Pack should generate a steady push into the pocket from the defensive end rotation of Darryl-Cato-Bishop, Brian Slay, Art Norman and Colorado transfer Forrest West. However, the run defense is likely to be a liability. The tackles are question marks, but it's at linebacker where State is really concerned. Standouts Audie Cole, Terrell Manning and Dwayne Maddox are gone, as is suspended junior D.J. Green, who was supposed to provide a little relief. One bit of good news is that veteran Sterling Lucas appears healthy again after sitting out 2011 with a knee injury. While he's closing in on the job in the middle, the two outside spots will be hotly-contested throughout the summer. At strongside, unproven Ricky Dowdy and Rodman Noel are duking it out. Weakside is a free-for-all involving Brandon Pittman and Michael Peek.
Star of the defense: Junior CB David Amerson
Tackles: Earl Wolff, 113
Sacks: Art Norman, 7
Interceptions: David Amerson, 13
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior LB Sterling Lucas
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Art Norman
Best pro prospect: Amerson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Amerson, 2) Senior S Earl Wolff, 3) Senior S Brandan Bishop
Strength of the defense: The ends, getting pressure, the secondary, takeaways
Weakness of the defense: The tackles, run defense, linebacker
The Wolfpack is looking to rebuild on the fly, particularly on the interior. Not only has starter Markus Kuhn graduated, but senior Brian Slay is making last fall's midseason switch from tackle to end a permanent move. The 6-3, 290-pounder has the good size to defend the run, yet is still quick enough to generate pressure on passing downs. He set the table for a breakout finale in Raleigh by making 22 stops, five tackles for loss and three sacks.
Also bucking for a starting job is junior Darryl Cato-Bishop. A very similar player as Slay, the 6-4, 281-pounder has the build and experience of player who can line up at either end or tackle. He wound up starting a total of nine games in 2011, generating 26 tackles, five sacks and 11 quarterback pressures. He was hampered by a hand injury last fall, which has since healed over the offseason.
The Pack has no shortage of ends who'll be competing for playing time. Sophomore Art Norman had an auspicious debut, filling in swimmingly for an injured Jeff Rieskamp. The 6-1, 242-pound speed rusher started eight games, making 27 tackles, 10 stops for loss, seven sacks and a whopping 30 quarterback pressures. At worst, he'll be an effective situational rusher coming off the edge.
Senior McKay Frandsden will once again be a valuable component off the bench. In
his debut since out of Snow College in Utah, the 6-3, 255-pounder averaged 20 snaps a week, finishing with 15 tackles.
State has also added 6-1, 270-pound junior Forrest West who has headed east after beginning his career at Colorado. The two-time letterwinner in Boulder is essentially an end in the body of an outside linebacker, employing a good first step to make his way into opposing backfields. In his second year as a Buffalo, West finished the season with a flurry of big plays, making 8.5 stops for loss and 5.5 sacks in limited reps.
It's on the inside where the staff could have some sleepless nights. Sophomore Thomas Teal is in line to win one of the jobs. He broke his foot in the opener, but returned in time to play in six games, start one and make 11 stops and 2.5 tackles for loss. For a 6-2, 315-pounder, he carries his weight well, sliding fluidly to make stops against the run.
Injuries forced the program to burn the redshirt on 6-1, 290-pound T.Y. McGill in 2011. Now that the apprenticeship is over, the Pack is sort of glad that the sophomore got now has 243 snaps under his belt. The only true freshman to start a game last fall wound up with 19 tackles and countless lessons that'll serve him well in his second year.
Providing a veteran presence at tackle will be 6-3, 281-pound junior A.J. Ferguson. He chipped in seven tackles in seven games a year ago, missing a pair of contests to recover from a knee injury.
Watch Out For .... the competition on the outside to make everyone a little better. Unless someone, like Norman, moves back a level to support the outside linebackers, the Wolfpack is capable of going three-deep with quality defensive ends. There are only so many snaps to go around, which is sure to create an intense battle playing time in August.
Strength: Pass rushers. While help was certainly provided by the linebackers, the line was the driving force of a pass rush that ranked No. 8 nationally in sacks in 2011. With the depth and complementary parts that exist on the outside, the Pack should once again excel at pressuring the pocket.
Weakness: The tackles. While the program really likes the potential of the tackles, they are going to be very young in 2012. Teal and McGill are building block linemen on the interior, but both are just sophomores. NC State could be vulnerable up the gut in 2012, before stiffening in 2013, when some of this year's recruits are better acclimated to the game.
Outlook: If the coaching staff can maximize the play of a deep D-line, there is a lot of potential lurking within this group. The tackles are going to be green, and evolving as the season unfolds. However, the ends possess the size, speed and impressive depth to be the kinds of tone-setters that the second level of the defense is really going to need in 2012.
A very convincing argument could be made that no corps of linebackers in America has taken a bigger hit than the one in Raleigh, which will be starting from scratch in 2012. Everything that could have gone wrong for the unit has gone wrong. Audie Cole and Dwayne Maddox graduated. Second Team all-star Terrell Manning left early for the NFL. And at the end of February, supposed torchbearer D.J. Green was suspended for the season for testing positive for a banned substance. Ugh. The Pack is banking on the healthy return of 6-2, 238-pound senior Sterling Lucas, who sat out 2011 to recover from a knee injury. The career backup has played in 36 games, peaking with 51 tackles in 2009, and is slated to handle the middle. He'll bring veteran leadership and the will to succeed to a corps that needs his presence on the field.
Behind Lucas at middle linebacker is 6-1, 240-pound junior Ryan Cheek, one of last season's reserves and special teams contributors. He appeared in all 13 games, and finished the year with seven stops.
At strongside, 6-2, 240-pound junior Rickey Dowdy is contending for the starting role. He's been in on exactly one play during his career, emblematic of this group's youth and inexperience. However, the coaching staff does like his size, and feels as if he can gradually evolve into a productive run defender and pass rusher.
A pair of second-year sophomores will be battling for the weakside job. Brandon Pittman got a taste of action in six games, mostly on special teams. At 6-3 and 216 pounds, he's long and lean, with the athleticism to be effective on the blitz or dropping back into coverage. Michael Peek had a similar debut as Pittman, appearing on special teams, and making nine stops. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, he's also safety-sized, with the range to leave a mark on the game in a number of different ways.
Watch Out For .... Lucas to embrace his role as the leader of the linebackers. He's relishing the opportunity to be more than just a starter on the field, but also one of the more prominent figures in the locker room. Buried for much of his career, he has a chance to finish his Wolfpack career with postseason recognition.
Strength: Big-play athletes. NC State rarely has a problem getting quality athletes to play linebacker, and this season figures to be no different. The Wolfpack defenders should be able to cover a large chunk of the field in the shortest possible time, giving the coaching staff a lot of options on blitzes.
Weakness: Sure-things. This group was essentially stripped to the bone a year ago, losing a ton of experience and quality playmakers. In place of the departed steps a swath of players who have spent most of their career as little-used reserves. None of the returners had more than 15 tackles in 2011.
Outlook: The Pack has a ton of work to do at linebacker, a weak spot that's going to be especially detrimental to the run defense. After relying so heavily on this unit to set the tone in the past, State will begin the season with far more question marks than answers. The program could be surprisingly steady in the middle with Lucas, but the ends will be works-in-progress.
The 2012 NC State defense will be led by a secondary that could be among the stingiest in the ACC, if not the entire country. Everyone is back from a year ago to form a defensive backfield that will discourage opposing quarterbacks from throwing the ball on the Pack. The cover boy will once again be junior CB David Amerson. The program always knew it had a special player in Amerson. The rest of the country was left with its mouth agape by his 2011 performance. In just his second season on campus, he went from a wide-eyed rookie starter to an All-American, making 59 tackles, and setting the ACC single-season record with 13 interceptions. If NC State finds itself light on wide receivers, Amerson would be an ideal two-way guy. He boasts uncommon ball skills for a defensive back, high-pointing throws, breaking suddenly on passes and never allowing his chest to touch the ball. Oh, the corner is also 6-3 and 194 pounds, with long arms, making some scouts and GMs believe that he'd make a fantastic free safety on Sundays.
While Amerson will be at field corner, the boundary corner will be 5-11, 187-pound C.J. Wilson. The senior is a veteran of 38 career games and 29 starts, and has already earned his degree from the university. A year ago, he made 31 tackles and an interception, which he returned for his third career touchdown. While not as flashy as Amerson, Wilson is a steady defender who'll make quarterback pay if they attempt to pick on him.
The Wolfpack boasts nearly as much talent and experience at safety. At boundary, 6-0, 201-pound senior Earl Wolffis coming off a monster year in which he finished second on the team with 113 tackles, adding three forced fumbles and three interceptions. One of the catalyst and physical leaders of the entire D, he's a tenacious, hard-hitting defensive back who has caused seven fumbles over the last two seasons alone. An honorable mention All-ACC pick, Wolff has next-level potential.
No one in Raleigh has more experience than 6-2, 210-pound senior FS Brandan Bishop. Like Wolff, he was named honorable mention All-ACC in 2011 after making 99 stops and five picks. He now has nine career interceptions, the byproduct of sharps instinct and ball skills. The gifted all-around athlete, with the excellent size, will support the Wolfpack D in myriad different ways in the fall.
The team's nickel back and top safety off the bench will be 6-3, 190-pound junior Dontae Johnson. An impressive athlete, with good size, leaping ability and speed, he was in on 407 plays a year ago, making 30 stops, three sacks and three pass breakups. The staff feels he could even play linebacker with the addition of more weight.
Watch Out For .... Wilson to equal his career total of three interceptions, taking at least one back for six. Opposing quarterbacks will do whatever is necessary to avoid Amerson's side of the field in 2012, which will mean plenty of chances for Wilson to get his hands on the ball.
Strength: Ball skills. Sure, Amerson is the headliner of the pick brigade, but he was hardly alone in the thievery last season. The Wolfpack intercepted 27 passes in 2011 to lead the country, getting help from throughout the defensive backfield. Even the safeties, Wolff and Bishop, have a penchant for acting like wide receivers when the ball is in the air.
Weakness: Giving up the big play. For all of the talent and experience in the secondary, the Pack sure did allowing a lot of yards last fall. The team gave up 12.4 yards per completion, which was only eighth in the ACC. Although State likes to jump routes to make the game-changing play, it has to be a little more judicious in the way it approaches pass defense.
Outlook: After struggling prior to 2011, this could be NC State's best pass defense in a very long time. The defensive backfield is home to an All-American and an awful lot of talent surrounding him. The Pack will once again pick off a slew of passes, occasionally getting beat over the top. After being thrown on more than 400 times in 2011, it wouldn't be surprise if that total was down by at least 10% this fall.
The Pack continues to have its problems on special team, a situation exacerbated by the graduation of top return man T.J. Graham. The program is going to audition numerous players in an attempt to fill the void, including seniors Tobais Palmerand C.J. Wilsonon kickoffs, and juniors Rashard Smith and David Amerson on punts.
One consolation of the unit is that it might not have to search for a placekicker for years. Sophomore Niklas Sadewas one of just six true freshmen in the country to handle the position in 2011, making 11-of-16 field goal attempts. He has ample leg strength, but just needs to improve his accuracy.
Like Sade, sophomore P Wil Baumannwas a first-time performer in 2011 as well. Heavily-recruited out of high school, he only averaged 37.5 yards an attempt, but excelled with his hang time and directional kicks. Almost half of his punts were fair caught, and one-third landed inside the 20-yard line.
Watch Out For… last year's rookies to perform with a lot more stability than in 2011. Sade and Baumann are talented specialists no longer sifting their way through the fog of a first year on campus. The Pack should be able to count on a higher degree of consistency in the kicking game, both this fall and for the next couple of seasons.
Strength: Punt coverage. The combination of Baumann's high kicks and the Pack athletes on the cover team should again result in State clamping down on opposing return men. Last year's squad yielded just 4.6 yards per return, good for No. 10 in the country.
Weakness: Net punting. Baumann has upside and the ability to hang the ball high in the air, but he needs to start adding more distance to his boots. Largely related to that 37.5-yard average, the Pack was 86th nationally in net punting, a drain on the team's defense.
Outlook: NC State may have a long way to go, but it can see the light at the end of the tunnel. After going young a year ago, the program hopes to begin reaping the rewards now that Baumann and Sade are a year older. The staff will continue looking for quality return men, knowing that all of the contenders have the athletic ability needed to be assets.
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