The season-ending injury to redshirt sophomore linebacker Payton Wilson in the NC State football team’s week two loss to Mississippi State was crushing for a number of reasons. For starters, Wilson is a tackling machine, leading the ACC last year and having the kind of swagger teams crave from a defensive leader. But it’s even more crushing on a personal level. Wilson is no stranger to injuries and adversity, but it especially stings that this is his fourth major injury since coming to the Pack.
And while the injury is certainly heartbreaking for both Wilson and the Wolfpack faithful alike, NC State’s linebackers are uniquely situated to handle a blow and continue chugging.
Wilson is typically the spearhead for the most talented linebacker corps in the ACC, and potentially even the nation. But Wilson isn’t the only reason for this group’s success. Sophomore Drake Thomas and redshirt junior Isaiah Moore are equally responsible for the fear that this unit instills in opposing teams.
Despite the painful loss in Mississippi State, Thomas was a bright spot, and it seems like he’s omnipresent on the field. His ability to make reads and stops is almost unmatched by anyone else on the team. In just three games this season, Thomas has 43.1% of his previous season’s tackle mark in seven fewer games. In fact, Thomas, not Wilson or Moore, was named to Pro Football Focus’ preseason All-ACC team as an honorable mention.
Watch as Thomas (No. 32) and Moore (No. 1) work in tandem on a read against Furman's offense, with Moore ultimately making the tackle.
Moore is equally impressive, finishing last season ranked ninth in the ACC in tackles despite missing time. While his numbers haven’t jumped off the page this season, he’s been effective at stopping the run in his MIKE role.
Look no further than this play from the game against Furman, where Moore (No. 1) made a quick read and slammed the door shut down the middle to shut down Furman quarterback Hamp Sisson.
But there are several other linebackers on the team who are going to be able to take a step forward and prove why this Pack unit is one of the deepest on the team. One of those is the player who stepped into Wilson’s role as a WILL linebacker, sophomore Jaylon Scott.
While Scott has limited playing time thus far, he’s an intriguing outside option that recorded a pass breakup against Furman. As of now, it looks as if Scott will get the start from now on, but will play less snaps than his counterparts in Thomas and Moore. Against Furman, Scott registered 17 snaps compared to Thomas and Moore’s 27.
Scott's (No. 2) instincts are also intriguing, and he's underrated at reading the passer. Look no further than this play where he almost picks off Sisson:
The outside option that will be splitting reps with Scott is freshman Caden Fordham, who made the transition from safety in the offseason and popped off the page in the team’s spring scrimmage. In that scrimmage, Fordham picked off freshman quarterback Aaron McLaughlin for a pick-six, and in his most recent game appearance, he recorded three total tackles.
Between Fordham and Scott, the Pack has two extremely physical outside linebackers with unique physical traits. The fact that Fordham made the transition from safety is particularly interesting, given that he has likely retained the lightning-quick speed necessary to play up in the box.
Fordham's (No. 41) speed was on full display as he made the correct read and found an opening to get up the middle and assist on the tackle.
While Fordham played in 25 snaps against Furman, most of that came in the second half after the Pack had already secured the blowout. It isn’t extremely likely that Fordham will play significant minutes unless something goes terribly wrong for the team.
Outside of that, the team doesn’t have many weak linebacking options. Moore and freshman Devon Betty have the smarts to play several positions as middle linebackers, but running them in as weakside backers is not ideal. There also aren’t many defensive ends on the roster that could switch over to the position.
On the other side of the field the Pack has redshirt junior Vi Jones playing in the SAM position. Jones made a significant impact last season, and though he’s been quieter this year, he’s a viable insurance option for Thomas.
NC State typically instills a 3-3-5 defense, but with the abundance of ends on the roster, it could make some level of sense to run some packages of 4-2-5 plays. However, it’s extremely unlikely that we will see any such packages this season.
Within the confines of defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s lineups, the Pack desperately needs one of Scott or Fordham to emerge on the weakside. The Wolfpack always runs a nickel, and the backers on the roster don’t have the strength that Wilson did to line up in a 4-2-5 defense.
But if there’s anything the coaching staff has learned the past few years, the Pack defense can stand to take a punch and keep rolling and it will try to do just that when the team takes on No. 9 Clemson inside Carter-Finley on Saturday, Sept. 25.