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The big 2021 NC State football preview: Let’s meet the defense

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NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As you may have heard, it’s nearly football season. And unless the loudest, stupidest, and most unvaccinated people on earth ruin it, it really is almost football season. But when have the loudest and stupidest people on earth ruined anything?

Sorry, what were we talking about? Right.

The overarching theme for NC State football this year is of course not who’s missing, but who’s back. There’s a ton of experience on this roster, which ain’t breaking news—you’ve seen, you’ve heard, you know. Let’s get on with it.

The departed

Taking a look first at the defense, even going only by tackles, it’s apparent how little is missing from 2020. There were 23 players on the team last year who recorded at least 10 tackles. Of those 23, five are gone:

Notable Departures — Defense

Player Position 2020 GP 2020 Starts Snaps Tackles TFL Sacks INT
Player Position 2020 GP 2020 Starts Snaps Tackles TFL Sacks INT
Isaac Duffy FS 12 1 240 27 2 1 1
Alim McNeill DT 11 10 493 26 4.5 1 1
Malik Dunlap CB 9 5 426 20 1 1 0
Calvin Hart LB 10 0 155 18 3 2 0
Val Martin DT 8 1 179 12 1.5 0 0
TOT 50 17 103 12 5 2

Alim McNeill is literally and figuratively a big honkin’ chunk of a loss; his numbers do not come close to illustrating the impact he had on the field for NC State. Massive, massive loss. He leaves behind the most significant question-mark spot on the defense.

And it’s not like the other guys here lack talent. Calvin Hart transferred to Illinois, a power-conference program. Val Martin transferred to Minnesota, also a power-conference program, despite being tundra-adjacent. And Malik Dunlap landed at Texas Tech, which was a power-conference program at the time.

The returning

It can be a little overwhelming to try to figure out how the playing time breaks down at a lot of positions, but hey, I’ll go ahead and put some guesses on the record that’ll end up looking bad in four months. That’s why they pay me the ... bucks.

Secondary

Have to figure Dave Doeren feels as good about the depth in his secondary as he has since he was coaching somewhere else, probably. You might say he’s Ja-keen on the group’s prospects. I wouldn’t say that, but you’d use that kind of pun, wouldn’t you.

Projected starters:

NICKEL — Tyler Baker-Williams
CB — Shyheim Battle
CB — Derrek Pitts
FS — Tanner lngle
SS — Jakeen Harris

Baker-Williams, Battle, and Harris each played more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Ingle would have logged tons of plays as well if he could’ve (1) kept healthy and (2) avoided getting thrown out of games. Battle and Harris both were emergent stalwarts among an otherwise injury-plagued group.

Pitts started seven games and collected 42 tackles for Marshall last season, and while I’m making an assumption based on the fact State brought him in, if there’s a starting secondary spot up for grabs, it’s this one.

Cecil Powell, who logged almost 500 snaps last year, is also an option at corner. And, hey, remember Chris Ingram? He sure was promising before a knee injury knocked him out of the 2019 season and kept him out of the ‘20 season as well. If he’s 100 percent, he could help a lot.

Josh Pierre-Louis played 300+ snaps in between nickel and safety and can fill multiple roles again if necessary. Freshman Aydan White logged 200+ snaps over the last quarter of the season.

Safety Rakeim Ashford played a lot prior to his season-ending injury against Virginia Tech, and then there’s FSU transfer safety Cyrus Fagan, who played in 30 games during his Seminoles career.

Look at all these guys! I don’t know what to do with my hands!

Linebacker

The defense’s star power lies at linebacker, which not coincidentally also has the most clear-cut depth-chart picture. We know who will carry the load, and one of them might be the best defensive player in the ACC.

Projected starters:

SAM — Drake Thomas
MLB — Isaiah Moore
WLB — Payton Wilson

Moore led the group with 773 snaps and he’ll rather quietly be really good once again. Wilson had some injury problems that are the natural result of someone who is everywhere all the time. There wasn’t a better playmaker on the defense last season, and nobody was more productive. He is a heat-seeking missile that plays with an edge, which is a dangerous combination for everybody else. Thomas took a big step forward between his freshman and sophomore seasons and has plenty of room to get better.

Behind that trio, Vi Jones is back—he made four starts in 2020 and played 456 snaps. After Jones, the depth gets iffy. Calvin Hart would have been a nice luxury to have, but understandably he didn’t want to play a reserve role for another season.

Jaylon Scott played 149 snaps last season and will likely fit into the two-deep. Does Devon Betty, primarily a special teams guy a year ago, step into a larger role? Does Jordan Poole carve some time as a true freshman?

The top-line talent is outstanding, which ideally will allow the team to slowly bring along the guys behind them. Among the things to be sorted during the rest of camp, it’s how and when the use the reserve linebackers.

Defensive line

Alim McNeill, see above, etc. Can’t do anything about losing an NFL-caliber defensive tackle except hope the next defensive tackle, owning that same potential if not the track record, can get it done.

NC State is fortunate in that it has recruited blue-chip defensive linemen well. Its 2019 class in particular was star-studded: Savion Jackson, CJ Clark, and Josh Harris each were four-star recruits. It’s their turn.

Projected starters:

DE — Daniel Joseph
DT — CJ Clark
DE — Savion Jackson

Joseph was a godsend last season as a grad transfer from Penn State, and he’ll be the team’s best pass rusher in ‘21, but he can’t do it by himself, which is where the youths elsewhere realizing their talent is key.

Jackson has everything necessary to be an elite threat off the edge and played over 400 snaps as a true sophomore in 2020. Pencil him in as a breakout candidate. Clark was also on the field for more than 400 plays and I think he’ll be better and more productive in at least that many snaps this season.

FSU transfer Cory Durden might well walk into the starting spot at tackle, but a lot of that probably depends on where he’s at after opting out in November of last year. I have a hard time seeing someone like that popping into camp and taking a starting job after being gone for 10 months, but if he’s that good, well, good for us.

NC State also has experienced help from defensive Ibrahim Kante, who started five games last year, and end Terrell Dawkins, who started seven games. Davin Vann played sparingly as a true freshman but can work either at tackle or end, and he’s another of those highly-regarded youths.

Best case scenario, I figure: Jackson and Clark make steady progress—maybe one flashes future All-ACC potential—while Joseph does his thing, and Durden’s pure talent eventually shines in the latter two-thirds of the season to give the Wolfpack a variety of different potential looks.

NC State is going to need to sort exactly how good its first-string will be, but the depth is fine, and State should be comfortable enough in its rotation that it doesn’t have to worry about wearing anybody out. That’s a good place to be.