Just two years removed from a miserable 4-8 season with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel, the NC State football team has completely flipped the script on the sentiment surrounding the team. Much of the intensity and culture change has come from the defensive side of the ball. Whether it be the star-studded linebacker trio of redshirt sophomore Payton Wilson, sophomore Drake Thomas and redshirt junior Isaiah Moore, the renewed health of the secondary or the sturdy defensive line, this Wolfpack defense truly has the pieces to contend among the ACC’s best groupings.
“Personally, I think we can be the best defense in the ACC, if not the nation,” Wilson said.
The Pack’s greatest asset on the defensive side of the ball is its linebacking corps, as it was last season. Last year, Wilson led the ACC in tackles with 108 and the Pack as a whole had three players rank in the top 25 in that regard, with Moore and sophomore safety Jakeen Harris rounding out the Wolfpack’s representation. Wilson has been nothing short of a dominant force in his first two years with the Pack, but he has a clear route to improving.
“I'm actually 100% healthy,” Wilson said. “I'm healthier than I've ever been since the beginning of high school. Doctors and the trainers did an excellent job of getting me back. I think these injuries, the reason that I play the way I do, the way I play so hard, is because I know this game can be taken away from me in some simple play. My knee could be gone, my shoulder could be gone. Every play I want to go out there, I want to make that play. I want my teammates to know I'm putting everything on the line for them because I would want them to do the same for me.”
As a linebacker, Wilson led the team in interceptions with two and had 3.5 sacks on the year, which ranked third on the team. But Wilson knows that the success doesn’t end with him, the Pack’s defense runs deeper than it has in many years.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we have some of the best leaders I've ever seen like Isaiah Moore, Drake Thomas,” Wilson said. “The leadership varies throughout the team. Like Grant said, it's not just one person talking all the time. Everybody throughout the team has the same mission, the same goal, and we're all on the same page.”
As for Moore, he ranked second on the team with 94 total tackles, which was good for fifth in the ACC. Moore took a step back in his sophomore season with the team due to missing two games, but rebounded in a huge way and rounded out his huge tackling numbers with three sacks and a fumble recovery.
Similar to Moore, Thomas took a huge step forward in his sophomore season and looks primed to break out in 2021, being named as Athlon Sports preseason defensive breakout player for the Wolfpack. Thomas’s on-paper numbers might be overshadowed by Wilson and Moore, but don’t discredit the dominant force that he is, as he posted 58 tackles, 9.5 of which were for loss, and three sacks.
“I mean, I'm here today representing us,” Wilson said at the 2021 ACC Kickoff. “But Drake and Isaiah, they make the thing up. Drake and Isaiah are very smart players, they make me who I am. They help me day in and day out learning the game. Our linebacker corps is very deep. We have a guy like [redshirt junior] Vi Jones, who is a game changer. Young guys coming in that will make a huge impact. [Freshman] Caden [Fordham] and [freshman] Jordan Poole. We're so close together, it's almost like I'm out there playing with my family.”
Though NC State’s takeaway numbers last season weren’t inspiring, the Pack quietly pieced together a solid season by the secondary in spite of numerous injuries. Last year, Harris, junior Tyler Baker-Williams, sophomore Cecil Powell, redshirt freshman Shyheim Battle, junior Tanner Ingle, Isaac Duffy (transferred), freshman Joshua Pierre-Louis, Malik Dunlap (transferred), freshman Devan Boykin and sophomore Rakeim Ashford all saw significant playing time. But now, head coach Dave Doeren is excited to have a seemingly healthy roster, especially in the secondary.
“I hope it's the same guys playing every game,” Doeren said. “I think Coach [Joe] DeForest played six different players at free safety last year. Felt bad for him. Continuity is a big deal. We have experience. We have a lot of people that have played because of the injuries, as you mentioned. So we've got great competition in training camp. I think one of the things I'm excited to watch is who comes out on top.”
Despite the injury onslaught in the secondary, the Pack’s backs didn’t completely fold. Five different members of the NC State secondary grabbed up an interception, and many of those players were underclassmen or first years. Further, the team will get the opportunity to add veterans senior Chris Ingram and junior Teshaun Smith back onto the field.
“We have experience,” Doeren said. “We have some guys that are hungry to play again. Chris Ingram hasn't played in a long time, Teshaun Smith hasn't played in a long time. Excited for those two to be back in the mix, compete with who is coming back.”
And then there’s the case of the Pack’s newcomers, which includes redshirt senior safety Cyrus Fagan from Florida State, redshirt junior Derrek Pitts Jr., who previously played at West Virginia and Marshall, and freshman DB Nehki Meredith, a three-star prospect out of Virginia. In the case of the former two players, the Pack is adding two proven veterans that can immediately add to NC State’s ever-growing secondary strength.
As for the Wolfpack’s D-line, there’s a significant amount of returning talent in spite of the loss of Alim McNeill to the NFL Draft. Graduate defensive end Daniel Joseph is returning for another season, giving the Pack some proven talent on the outside as he racked up 6.5 sacks last season, which led the team. Also on the outside is the wrecking ball that is the 6-foot-5 Terrell Dawkins, who put up five sacks of his own.
On the interior, the Wolfpack has several great potential replacements for McNeill. At the forefront of those options is graduate transfer Corey Durden, who also came to the Pack from Florida State. In 2019, Durden posted a strong statline of five sacks and 39 tackles, along with two pass deflections. Durden isn’t the only strong option on the interior, as redshirt freshman C.J. Clark, freshman Davin Vann and redshirt freshman Joshua Harris all showed flashes last season behind McNeill.
Regardless of how the rotation pans out, every single NC State player at the ACC Kickoff spoke highly of the level of competition this season. Veterans like Wilson pointed out that the intensity in spring training is unlike anything he’s ever seen before.
”When I went out there, I was like ‘Wow, this team, not a lot of mental mistakes, players stepping up when they need to step up,’” Wilson said. “It’s definitely a different team.”