NC State fifth-year defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Dave Huxtable has watched an evolution occur on his unit during his time in Raleigh.
What began as a young, inexperienced defense that took its lumps while laboring through growing pains has matured into an experienced group that turned a corner in 2016. The defense a season ago could be fairly labeled a top-25 caliber unit, and the numbers nationally among the Football Bowl Subdivision provide the proof:
• 8th in rushing defense (108.6 yards allowed per game)
• 22nd in sacks (38)
• 24th in total defense (351.2 yards surrendered per game)
• 25th in third-down conversion rate allowed (34.9 percent)
• 27th in scoring defense (22.8 points given up per game)
• 32nd in tackles for losses (89)
• 33rd in quarterback efficiency rating allowed (122.21)
And the best news for Huxtable: eight starters are back from that team and all eight are seniors. After four years, the defenders know Huxtable’s schemes to the point where the install of the defensive package has taken less time this spring.
“You are not working so much on adjustments and all those things,” Huxtable said. “You are working more at them becoming a pro at their fundamentals and techniques.”
Huxtable noted that the defense will have expectations placed upon them based on last year’s production and the returning talent. His simple message: embrace it.
“Expectations are high, but we can never become comfortable,” Huxtable said. “We have to continue to work hard, and just continue to train, train, train. Every guy that is out there, that has played for the last three years, has some part of his game that he can get better at.
“Our job as coaches is to not let any of them get comfortable. We have to keep them on the edge and push them and drive them and motivate them and inspire them.”
Depth at linebacker was Huxtable’s main concern on the defense a year ago. That has drastically improved. Huxtable semi-joked that it has been a while since he has enjoyed the numbers he now has in his room. That will allow him to rotate more players this fall, which is his plan. He said that he is “very, very excited about the linebacker group.”
Seniors Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore, whom Huxtable described as warriors, are back as starters. Battling Fernandez in the middle is junior Riley Nicholson, and converted safety and redshirt junior Germaine Pratt is working with Moore at weak side linebacker.
“Riley Nicholson has really embraced the move to MIKE linebacker, and the game has just become slower for him,” Huxtable noted. “He’s feeling so much more confident. Germaine, coming to linebacker from the safety position, has worked so hard and had a really good spring.”
Huxtable added that redshirt freshman Brock Miller has shown promise on the linebacker corps.
“He’s just still got to continue to get bigger and stronger, but he has worked so hard this spring,” Huxtable stated.
The defensive line returned everyone in its rotation from last year with the exception of reserve defensive tackle Monty Nelson, who was a senior. Huxtable expects redshirt freshman Shug Frazier, a well-recruited prospect out of Buford (Ga.) High who picked NC State over Florida, to slide into Nelson’s spot.
The secondary is where most of the competition resides on defense. The sore spot on last year’s defensive effort was allowing 244.2 passing yards per game, which ranked 82nd nationally in the FBS. NC State allowed an opposing receiver to get 100 yards in seven out of its 12 regular season games.
In four of the other five regular season contests, the leading receiver for the opposition had at least 75 yards. The only exception was Notre Dame in the conditions of Hurricane Matthew that made any offense impossible.
At corner, starter Jack Tocho was a senior. Both primary nickels — Dravious Wright and Niles Clark — were also seniors. Starting free safety Josh Jones left early for the NFL where he is projected to be selected in the first three rounds.
That leaves senior corner Mike Stevens and senior strong safety Shawn Boone as returning starters. At the corner opposite Stevens, Huxtable called converted fifth-year senior receiver Johnathan Alston, who redshirted last fall, “a tremendous athlete” with all the physical attributes to shine at the position.
Huxtable also noted that sophomore Nick McCloud earned valuable playing time last fall, and that redshirt freshman James Valdez “has shown some really promising things this spring.”
Redshirt junior Dexter Wright is the favorite to replace Jones at free safety, but he is battling sophomore Tim Kidd-Glass. Redshirt sophomore Jarius Morehead is pushing Boone at strong safety, and a fifth safety on the roster has Huxtable excited.
“Isaiah Stallings, our redshirt freshman, has really showed up this spring,” Huxtable said.
Huxtable acknowledged that nickel was a concern for him, but he credited grad assistant Spencer Brown with helping to shore up the spot. Converted corner and junior Freddie Phillips is battling sophomore Trae Meadows, and redshirt freshman Bryce Banks provides further depth.
“Spencer Brown has done a great job with those guys this spring. They’ve worked extremely hard,” Huxtable said. “That was a position I was really concerned about, but they’ve shown a lot of promise.”
With depth, experience and healthy competition across the board, Huxtable is in a far better place this spring than perhaps any point since he has been in Raleigh.
“We’ve got a long time before we play a game, and we have to finish strong this spring, and have a great summer and fall camp,” Huxtable said. “We are very excited about what it can be.”
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