SCOUTING REPORT Three years ago, NC State's secondary was in shambles. His hand forced by injuries and departures, coach Tom O'Brien plugged a pair of first-year players in at safety: true freshman Brandan Bishop and redshirt freshman Earl Wolff. Another redshirt freshman, C.J. Wilson, consistently saw the field and started twice at corner. "They got their brains beat out early," said O'Brien. "They were thrust into a situation they shouldn't have been in." In 2012, much has changed. Now that trio, joined by junior All-America cornerback David Amerson and nickelback Dontae Johnson, give the Wolfpack one of the nation's premier secondaries. "They lived through it," O'Brien added. "They've grown from it and gotten better."It's a situation similar to the one facing O'Brien's linebacking corps this season, which lost starter Audie Cole and top reserve Darryl Maddox to graduation, Terrell Manning to early NFL draft entry and D.J. Green to a year-long suspension after he tested positive for a banned substance. Their replacements are not quite as inexperienced as the Wolfpack's 2009 secondary: Sophomores Brandon Pittman and Rodman Neal, juniors Rickey Dowdy and Ryan Cheek and senior Sterling Lucas, a two-year regular who missed last season with a knee injury, are in the mix for playing time. But they are still untested as starters, meaning struggles -- especially early in the season -- should be expected. "They're gonna be thrown into the fire right away," O'Brien said, "so hopefully they don't get discouraged and we can help them be successful."Luckily for the Wolfpack, the rest of the lineup is heavy on experience. In addition to the secondary, the defensive line returns upperclassmen and part-time starters Brian Slay (three sacks in 2011) and Darryl Cato-Bishop (five) at defensive end, along with sophomore Art Norman, whose breakout freshman season featured a team-best seven sacks and 30 quarterback pressures. The offense brings back the deepest and most experienced line of O'Brien's six-year tenure to block for last season's leading rusher, senior James Washington (897 yards, 4.0 yards per carry), and junior Mustafa Greene, the program's top rusher from 2010 (597 yards, 4.5 per carry) who missed last season with an injured foot. Leading the attack will be senior Mike Glennon, a 6-foot-6 slinger who shook off the constant Russell Wilson comparisons to throw 31 touchdowns last season -- tied for second-most in NC State history -- while competing 62.5 percent of his passes.The pieces are in place for O'Brien to lead his best squad yet, but the importance of the most unproven players is impossible to ignore. "It's gonna come down to the linebackers," O'Brien said. They'll have to grow up quickly. For the rest of this Wolfpack -- not least of all a standout secondary -- the time to win is now.
THE BIG IF Can a young linebacking corps mature quickly enough to keep the Wolfpack in contention?
TELLING NUMBER 27 -- Interceptions made by the Wolfpack last season, the most in the nation and the most by any team since Nebraska's 32 in 2003.
KEY RETURNEES Brandan Bishop, S, Sr. -- A veteran leader in the battle-tested secondary (his 37 starts lead the unit), the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder made five of the Wolfpack's FBS-leading 27 interceptions last fall.
Mike Glennon, QB, Sr. -- Though three of his top four 2011 targets are gone, don't expect much of a drop-off from Glennon. More seasoned than a year ago, he threw 11 touchdowns against just two picks during the final three games of last season.
James Washington, RB, Sr. -- Mustafa Greene's return adds depth to the backfield, but expect Washington to continue getting touches. Washington is also a potent receiving threat, making 42 catches for 315 yards last season.
Earl Wolff, S, Sr. -- The team's leader in career tackles with 255, Wolff is a preseason All-ACC selection. He registered double-digit tackles in five games in 2011 and has been called the "heart of the defense" by O'Brien.
BREAKOUT PLAYER Thomas Teal, DT, So. -- A broken left foot derailed his redshirt freshman season, sidelining Teal for seven games. Now healthy, the 6-foot-2, 315-pounder should clog the middle and justify comparisons with former O'Brien recruit and current Green Bay Packer B.J. Raji.
TOP RECRUIT Deylan Buntyn, DT, Jr. -- Ranked 22nd among JUCO prospects, according to Rivals.com, the 6-foot-4, 330-pound New Mexico Military Institute product should make an immediate impact on a team looking for difference-makers inside.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT The game's MVP award may have gone to quarterback Mike Glennon, but it was his decorated defensive counterpart who provided the moment that most wowed N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien during last December's 31-24 Belk Bowl win over Louisville. With the Wolfpack up 14 points midway through the third quarter, then-sophomore cornerback David Amerson baited Cardinals quarterback Terry Bridgewater into a throw along the right seam, leapt to pluck the ball from in front of the receiver, then weaved his way through nine Louisville players for a 65-yard pick-six. "That," said the 63-year-old O'Brien, "was as remarkable a play as I've seen in all my years coaching."For Amerson, who would later seal the victory with another interception in the game's final minute, it was the perfect cap to sophomore season in which the 6-foot-3, 194-pound Greensboro hauled in 13 picks, setting new school and ACC records and ranking second in FBS history. The breakout campaign gained Amerson not only a spot on the all-conference first team, but also first- or second-team All-America honors from eight media outlets and the Jack Tatum Award, given to the nation's top defensive back. "He's a confident young man that has a lot of ability," O'Brien said. "And he has a really good football IQ to go along with his talents, too."What's most surprising may be how quickly that football IQ developed. Amerson first suited up for Greensboro's Dudley High as a junior, when coach Stephen Hill lobbied him to join the team after seeing Amerson dunk a basketball while wearing a pair of Timberlands. With athleticism in spades, the rookie took no time earning a starting spot at safety, where he ball-hawked his way to 60 tackles and nine interceptions in his first season. Soon he was ranked among the nation's top 20 safety prospects, establishing himself as a natural with a promising future. "It's an instinct," Amerson said. "I try not to second-guess myself. If I get beat, I get beat. If I don't, I'm the hero. I guess a lot of times that's worked out better for me than worse."There was a brief time, however, when Amerson let those second-guesses get the best of him. During his freshman fall in Raleigh, just two years removed from his Dudley debut, Amerson stopped trying to be the hero and instead attempted not to mess up. In the week before his first career start against Virginia Tech, he had picked up on a Hokies' tell: whenever they motioned the slot receiver across the field, the outside receiver ran a quick out. Lo and behold, the slot was motioned before Virginia Tech's first snap of the game, cluing Amerson in to what was coming. But instead of taking a risk and jumping the route, Amerson held back. "He caught the ball and I just tackled him," Amerson recalled. "But it could've been an interception if I just went with my instincts."Fortunately for the Wolfpack, intuition has long since regained the upper hand. He spent this offseason training his tendencies in the film room, where he also addressed flaws in his technique and lapses in execution. With those issues cleaned up and the addition of a bump-and-run game, he sees even more improvement in his future. "There's definitely a lot of room to keep growing," Amerson said. "I don't think I've reached my full potential. I can get a lot better than what I am." For opposing offenses, that should be a scary thought.
COACH Q&A SI: Did last season's strong finish carry into the offseason? TO: I think it gives the kids confidence. For a while there, they couldn't catch a break. Every time, first half of the season, we'd take one step forward and we'd end up taking two back. So I think there's confidence that if we're healthy and our good guys are out there, then we're gonna have a chance to be competitive with anybody in the country. SI: Given the inexperience in the linebacking corps, how important is Sterling Lucas? TO: He's got the most experience and understands the defense the best, so he has to be a leader out there and help us get through things, whether he's playing or on the sideline helping guys out. SI: How pleased were you with Mike Glennon's development last season? TO: I think we saw the change from the last game of the year to the bowl game. When he finally had a chance to take a breath and look back, he certainly improved. He played very well in November down the stretch, used that time to go back and look at a lot of little things that we wanted him to work on and he came out and had a great bowl game. He's in a much better spot going into this camp than he was a year ago and hopefully he will continue to improve. SI: How did you think he handled the Russell Wilson comparisons last year? TO: I think he was exceptional with it. He's such a mature young guy. The biggest strength he had is he realized he had no control over those situations. The only thing he could control is how he played and that's what he focused on.
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