What N.C. State’s defense lacks in experience, cornerback Juston Burris hopes it will make up for with homework.
“We have a lot of guys who listen and want to learn,” Burris said.
Young guys who listen? That already qualifies the N.C. State defense as unique. The Wolfpack is counting on an infusion of talent, and a tweak in the scheme, to make significant strides this season.
The first year under defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable produced some shaky numbers on the wrong side of the stat ledger during a trying 3-9 season.
The Wolfpack allowed 5.02 yards per rushing attempt (the most in the ACC). Boston College (420 rushing yards) and Syracuse (362) ran up video-game numbers against a battered unit, which wasn’t the same after safety Jarvis Byrd suffered a knee injury in the fifth game.
In 2013, N.C. State ranked 62nd in total defense (399.4 yards per game), 82nd in rushing defense (180.17 yards per game) and 84th in scoring defense (30.2 points per game).
The top three tacklers from last season need to be replaced, including defensive back Dontae Johnson (who led the team with three interceptions) – the only draft pick from last year’s roster.
Experience is short. Burris, a junior, is one of three expected starters who started every game last season. Four of the expected starters this season didn’t start any games last season, including two freshmen.
Youth is not an excuse, Burris said, because there’s physical talent in the newcomers who have joined the program since coach Dave Doeren took over after the 2012 season.
“There’s a lot of young guys but they’re ready,” said Burris, who is from Raleigh and played at Broughton High.
“Physically, they are there, they just have to get up on the mental part of the game, so the game slows down for them.”
A switch from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 alignment (with five defensive backs and two linebackers), should help the Wolfpack against the increasing number of spread teams in the ACC.
Huxtable made the change in the spring and linebacker M.J. Salahuddin, who will play the middle, said the veterans are already up to speed on the new alignment.
“It puts more pressure on the linebackers to make plays but I think we’ve adjusted to the system well,” said Salahuddin, a junior who started five games last season.
The Wolfpack’s No. 1 goal is to be better against the run. The only way to do that, Salahuddin said, is to tackle better. There are lessons to be learned from the gaudy numbers the Wolfpack gave up to Syracuse and Boston College, he said.
“We definitely don’t lose sight of those games,” Salahuddin said. “We’re using that as motivation for this season.”
Burris said the defense can’t afford to ignore the problems from last season.
“You have to learn from your mistakes and try to get better,” he said.
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