2008 North Carolina State Preview - Defense
NC State DT Willie Young
NC State DT Willie Young
Posted May 9, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - North Carolina State Wolfpack Defense

NC State Wolfpack

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN NC State Preview | 2008 NC State Offense 
- 2008 NC State Defense | 2008 NC State Depth Chart 
- 2007 CFN NC State Preview | 2006 CFN NC State Preview 

What you need to know:
There are plenty of holes to plug on a defense that ranked No. 11 in the ACC and ran out of gas in November. The casualties are everywhere, hindering the staff’s quest to become more physical in run defense and generate a greater number of takeaways. While the Pack will be challenged by the departures of five key members of the front seven, it gets back DE Willie Young and DT Alan-Michael Cash, a pair of playmakers with all-conference skills. Graduation was particularly harsh on the linebackers, which lose all three starters and three of the team’s top five tacklers. S DaJuan Morgan left early for the NFL, creating an opportunity for redshirt freshmen Justin Byers and Jimmaul Simmons.   

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Jeremy Gray, 62
Sacks: Willie Young, 6
Interceptions: Jeremy Gray, 3

Star of the defense: Junior DE Willie Young
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB DeAndre Morgan
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Nate Irving
Best pro prospect: Young
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Young, 2) Junior DT Alan-Michael Cash, 3) Irving
Strength of the defense: The line
Weakness of the defense: Stopping the run, the back seven
Defensive Line
Projected Starters: The line will be built around juniors Alan-Michael Cash and Willie Young, an inside-outside tandem with All-ACC potential. Cash was quietly terrific in his first year as the starter, leading the linemen with 50 tackles and adding 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and 13 quarterback pressures. Very quick and explosive at 6-1 and 286 pounds, he possesses the strength to support the run and the lateral speed to harass the quarterback like a third defensive end.
At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Young has the size and the speed of an outside linebacker, often blowing past tackles, especially when lined up at the weakside. After splitting time with Littleton Wright, he permanently moved into the lineup, finishing an impressive season with 48 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, six sacks, and two dozen quarterback pressures. Somehow he was left off the All-ACC team, which is unlikely to happen a second straight year.
The strongside defensive end will be powerful sophomore Markus Kuhn, a 6-4, 280-pound product of Germany coming off an impressive first season. Extremely strong in the upper body, he’s an every-down player, debuting with 33 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a sack, despite only playing about 25 snaps a game.
The replacement for DeMario Pressley at the other tackle position is 6-2, 281-pound senior Antoine Holmes, who played both end and tackle in his first season removed from Lackawanna Junior College. He’s primed for a productive final season after delivering 20 tackles, four tackles for loss, and three sacks in just nine games.   
Projected Top Reserves: After following his dad to Raleigh and sitting out last season, 6-1, 278-pound senior Keith Willis, Jr. is poised to provide depth at tackle for the Wolfpack. At Boston College, he played in 23 games, displaying the quickness to shoot the gap and make plays for minus yards. He provides valuable experience and a feel for the game that comes with having a father who’s also the defensive line coach.
Filling out the rotation at defensive end is 6-2, 253-pound sophomore Audi Augustin, Kuhn’s backup at weakside. Flashing a good burst off the snap, he got in on 81 snaps as a backup defensive lineman and was a regular on special teams.    
Watch Out For ... this group to give weekly fits to opposing offensive lines. All of the key members of the two-deep are quick and regularly get penetration. Yes, Pressley will be missed, but maybe not as much as originally believed.
Strength: Creating pressure.  From Young and Cash on the first team to Augustin and Willis on the second unit, the linemen use their hands well and have the quick feet to zoom past lumbering linemen. With penetration coming from the ends and the tackles, doubling one player will be like picking your poison.
Weakness: Run defense. State finished last in the ACC against the run, allowing 186 yards a game on the ground. Things don’t figure to get a whole lot better after losing Pressley, a fifth round selection of the New Orleans Saints. 
Outlook: This unit should wind up being the strength of the defense, delivering two players who’ll get strong consideration for postseason honors. If Young and Cash get more help from Kuhn and Holmes, it’ll be a boon to a back seven that could spend most of the year trying to find its way. 
Rating: 7.5
Projected Starters: All three of last year’s starters are no longer on campus, putting the defense in a position to completely rebuild the corps of linebackers. The foundation of the group for the next few years will be 6-1, 225-pound sophomore Nate Irving, who moved into the lineup late in the year and finished with 52 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and a sack. An instinctive defender who got better as the season progressed, his stock will soar now that he’s a year older and wiser.
The favorite to be flanking Irving at strongside is converted safety Robbie Leonard, a 6-0, 205-pound senior who plays much bigger than his size. One of the scrappiest players on the defense, he needs to be more than just a big hitter on special teams and an inspiration to the rest of his teammates.
In the middle for now will be 6-0, 224-pound junior Ray Michel, a steady career backup with 24 games of experience. Instinctive and hard-hitting, he had 43 tackles and two tackles for loss, while contributing on special teams. If he holds off the competition, his knack for being around the ball will lead to huge numbers in this defense.     
Projected Top Reserves
: It’s only a matter of time before 6-2, 225-pound freshman Dwayne Maddox is a starter and an important part of the defense. He graduated from high school early in order to participate in offseason conditioning and spring practice, quickly rising to the two-hole behind Michel. Quick to shed blockers and get to the ball, he has outstanding football instincts for such a young player.
Behind Irving on the weakside is 5-11, 200-pound sophomore Thomas Barnes, an undersized player who packs a punch like a strong safety. One of the few true freshmen to play a year ago, he got in on 168 plays, making 15 stops, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.
Watch Out For ...
Maddox to continue his ascent up the depth charts. This is a unit that’s looking for dynamic playmakers capable of supporting the run. Once he gets more reps, he’ll be a defensive mainstay.
Strength: Irving. With NC State fighting for a spot in the postseason down the stretch, he played his best football, playing stingy run defense and showing a knack for getting into the backfield. He’ll be even more productive in his second season. 
Weakness: Strongside. Graduations took a particularly big bite from the outside spots. Leonard is a feel-good story, but at just over 200 pounds, it won’t feel so good when he gets matched up with a tight end or a pulling guard.
Outlook: Losing three starters always hurts, particularly when too few of the successors have special qualities. Irving and Maddox have a chance to be very good in time, but both are still young and largely surrounded by mediocrity.
Rating: 6
Projected Starters: Very quietly, the Pack did a nice job in pass defense last year, finishing 28th nationally with little star power.  To maintain that trend, someone needs to step up and fill the void left by S DaJuan Morgan’s early departure. Senior J.C. Neal is the new veteran among the safeties, a versatile 5-11, 195-pounder who has literally cross-trained everywhere in the secondary. He filled in nicely when injuries cropped up last year, starting six games and making 40 tackles. Because of the diversity of his experience, he’s comfortable in pass coverage or stepping in run support.
Coming out of spring, the leader at the other safety spot was 6-0, 185-pound redshirt freshman Justin Byers. Very fast and quick to pick up his assignments, he, like Neal, possesses the versatility to play multiple positions in the defensive backfield.
State’s top cover corner is senior Jeremy Gray, a two-time letterwinner entering his second season as a starter. At 6-2 and 188 pounds, he’s difficult to expose over the top and flashes the toughness to be a solid tackler in the open field. In the most extensive action of his career, he started seven games, delivering 62 tackles and a team-high three picks.
Unlike Gray, sophomore DeAndre Morgan lacks ideal size at 5-10 and 170 pounds, but compensates with blazing speed and a feisty demeanor in traffic. He flew up the depth chart last fall, eventually starting the final games and chipping in 31 tackles and eight pass breakups. The younger brother of DaJuan Morgan, he has a high ceiling as an eventual lockdown corner. 

Projected Top Reserves: Although sophomore Javon Walker may be listed as a reserve heading into summer, he has all of the characteristics of a starter. The 6-0, 197-pounder was just beginning to heat up last fall when he tore his ACL in the upset of Miami. His season ended prematurely with 46 tackles and a stack of rave reviews from the coaching staff. He missed the spring, but should be 100% in August, at which time he’ll make a strong push for one of the starting safety spots.
The staff is banking on 5-11, 190-pound freshman Dominique Ellis being a quick study and the first cornerback to come off the bench. Originally a member of the 2007 recruiting class, he didn’t qualify until earlier this year. An aggressive defender with good speed, he remains raw, which is unlikely to change right away.  
Watch Out For ... the coaches to consider moving Neal to corner to bolster depth. Once Walker is healthy and redshirt freshman Jimmaul Simmons gets up to speed, the Pack will have decent potential at safety. At corner, a more natural position for Neal, the secondary is hurting for experienced bodies.
Strength: The future.  Walker, Morgan, Byers, Simmons, and are all underclassmen vying for playing time early in their careers, and all good enough to be productive members of the defensive backfield for the next three or four years.
Weakness: Depth at corner. As it stands right now, the Pack will head into the season with two backups, Ellis and junior Koyal George, who have virtually no experience at this level. Pray for better health this year, State fans.
Outlook: The pass defense held up well a year ago, but part of that was because teams knew they could just run the ball down State’s throat. This year’s group may not be so fortunate, as opposing coordinators get wise to the fact that it’s a pedestrian and beatable unit. After making just 17 over the last 24 games, a few more picks from the Pack would be nice.
Rating: 6.5
Special Teams
Projected Starters: After delivering mixed results a year ago, the Wolfpack special teams is looking for more consistency and a couple of capable return men this fall. It’ll be tougher than expected to replace PK Steven Hauschka, who nailed 16-of-18 field goal attempts in his final season. Filling his shoes will be sophomore Josh Czajkowski, last year’s backup and one of the nation’s top prep kickers of 2006. A dead-on kicker in high school, he’ll have to deliver pressure kicks for an offense needing all the help it can get.
Senior Bradley Pierson has the edge at punter, but he’ll need to elevate his game to hold off the challenge of junior Jeff Ruiz. A former walk-on, Pierson averaged an ACC-low 37.2 yards a punt last year, earning a scholarship, but little else in his debut.
Ruiz, on the other hand, is a former junior-college All-American, who redshirted with the Pack in his first season. With a year of experience under his belt, he’s back to mount another challenge for Pierson’s job.
Yet another obstacle for assistant Jerry Petercuskie will be to find a successor for Darrell Blackman, one of the nation’s top kickoff and punt returners. The two names that continue to surface as replacements are also key cogs on offense, juniors Jamelle Eugene and Donald Bowens.
Watch Out For ... Ruiz. He was actually ahead of Pierson heading into last summer, but couldn’t hold on and wound up using the season as an apprenticeship. He has the stronger leg and an opportunity to unseat a vulnerable incumbent.
Strength: The punt coverage team. Despite getting so-so support from the punter, NC State led the country in punt coverage defense, allowing a ridiculous 3.1 yards a return.
Weakness: A sure-thing in the kicking game. Who knew Hauschka was going to be so difficult to replace? He was rock-solid in his only season on the job, putting pressure on Czajkowski to carry the torch.
Outlook: There’ll be lots of uncertainty on this unit, ranging from the new kicker and return men to the shaky situation at punter. If the program is going to make a move in the standings, it needs to start doing the little things better, starting here.  
Rating: 6