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2023 NC State football preview: The linebackers

It’s Payton Wilson’s show now.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Texas Tech at NC State Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As fall camp gets underway today, let’s turn our attention to the linebacking corps, which will have a different look to it, but also star power to anchor it, thanks to Payton Wilson’s decision to return.

Key Losses

Player 2022 GP-GS Plays Tackles TFL Sacks
Player 2022 GP-GS Plays Tackles TFL Sacks
Drake Thomas 13-13 814 101 19.0 7.5
Isaiah Moore 13-13 661 82 15.0 3.0
TOT ... 1475 183 34.0 10.5

Nevermind what the people voting on the matter thought, Drake Thomas was the best defensive player in the ACC last season and did a variety of things well that will be difficult to replace. Thomas not only led the team in sacks and TFLs, he was far and away the leader in quarterback hurries, finishing with 23; the next highest total in that category was Davin Vann’s 10. He was frequently a difference-maker when NC State brought pressure, which it did often.

Isaiah Moore was excellent in run defense as usual, taking advantage of a healthy season to set a career-best mark in TFLs. Like Thomas, he was making plays behind the line of scrimmage often.

Returning Production

Player 2022 GP-GS Plays Tackles TFL Sacks
Player 2022 GP-GS Plays Tackles TFL Sacks
Payton Wilson 11-11 634 82 12.5 4.5
Jaylon Scott 13-2 177 20 1.0 0
Devon Betty 13-0 93 12 1.0 0
TOT ... 811 102 13.5 4.5

If Payton Wilson stays healthy, he could easily get back to 100+ tackles and maybe even exceed the 108 he had in 2020, when he averaged about 11 per game. He’ll be expected to pick up the some of the slack left by State’s departed veterans and his performance will mean a lot to the defense as a whole, especially early on.

Because early on, State may need time to fully sort its linebacker rotation elsewhere, though both senior Jaylon Scott and junior Devon Betty should factor in heavily. State’s stars monopolized the snaps last season, understandably, so the relatively light snap counts for Scott and Betty last season don’t imply they couldn’t handle more—there just wasn’t room for them.

Scott started both games that Wilson missed with injury last season and has appeared in 43 games at NC State; Betty has appeared in 33. Both need to step up for State to be successful this fall, but it’s not like we’re talking about a couple of guys new to the experience.

If Wilson, Scott, and Betty are the starters, then redshirt sophomore Caden Fordham, who spent the bulk of 2022 on special teams, should be the first guy off the bench. Beyond Fordham, the depth chart gets murkier.

Redshirt sophomore Jordan Poole logged 18 snaps—his only action on defense—against Charleston Southern last fall and is a solid bet to land on the two-deep. It’s his third year in the program and hopefully now is the time for the former four-star prospect to start showing his promise.

Redshirt sophomore Jayland Parker spent the majority of last season on special teams as well, while redshirt freshman Daejuan Thompson made four special teams appearances. Thompson was highly productive as a senior in high school but probably still needs time to mature, and the same can be said for redshirt freshman Torren Wright (another four-star ‘croot), who made his mark as the special teams scout team player of the year in ‘22.

Beyond those guys, we’re looking at true freshmen, and who knows, maybe one of them will emerge over the next few weeks. How the linebacker rotation settles is definitely one of the major camp storylines to keep an eye on.