May 2, 2006
RALEIGH -- It was evident long before the NFL draft that N.C. State's defense lost an awful lot of talent and had some major rebuilding to do for next season. The draft punctuated that point even more, several times over.
End Mario Williams was the No. 1 pick in the draft, going to Houston. Then end Manny Lawson (22, San Francisco) and tackle John McCargo (26, Buffalo) followed in the first round. That's three first-round picks on the defensive line alone. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch (fourth round, Tennessee) and cornerback Marcus Hudson (sixth round, San Francisco) were taken later.
That's five NFL-caliber players who must be replaced out of 11 positions, and that doesn't include linebacker Oliver Hoyte, who wasn't drafted but will wind up in somebody's training camp.
So how is coach Chuck Amato going to replace that much departed talent? How much was accomplished to that end in spring practice? How good are the replacements? How much will State have to change its defensive philosophy going into next season? What does the draft say about Amato's recruiting ability and his ability to develop talent? Finally, as ESPN analysts kept asking on draft day, how did State go 7-5 with so many pro prospects on its roster?
They're all interesting questions worth further examination.
Question: How is Amato going to replace that much departed talent on defense?
Answer: With his fingers crossed, for sure. Amato is reduced to hoping that the veterans remaining on defense can step up and be leaders, and that the newcomers can develop quickly and gain confidence against a schedule that opens with Appalachian State, Akron and Southern Miss. Five of the first six games are at home.
Amato is comforted by the fact that there is at least one proven, established veteran on every segment of the defense -- DeMario Pressley and Tank Tyler on the line, Pat Lowery and LeRue Rumph at linebacker, A.J. Davis, Garland Heath and Miguel Scott in the secondary -- to help the replacements make the transition and to cover for some of their early mistakes.
Question: How much was accomplished in spring practice?
Answer: The early stages of spring practice were strictly introduction, orientation, evaluating the talent and trying to get players in the right positions.
Position changes continued right up to the spring game. Martrel Brown moved from defensive tackle to end in the final week. Reggie Davis shifted from tailback to fullback to linebacker over the course of the spring. John Amanchukwu moved to defensive end, his third position in a year.
The coaching staff mixed and matched linebackers all spring, trying to identify the three best. They also wanted to get a real good read on James Martin, who is back after playing some end last year. Only in the final stages of spring practice did the staff get a good feel for how to proceed, and some think that a few more position changes will be made at the start of fall practice.
The good news for Amato was that time missed with injuries was minimal, and a lot of players got a lot of reps for the first times in their careers.
Question: How good are the replacements?
The players that Amato wants and needs to come through in particular are the defensive ends, especially Willie Young and Littleton Wright.
Young, a 6-5, 230-pound rising redshirt freshman, has all the earmarks of being good, but he still has to bulk up significantly. His summer job will be in the weight room. Wright, who redshirted after being a juco transfer, has the skills and better size (6-6, 244), but he needs a whole lot of polish.
Amanchukwu got compliments early in the spring, but he's a fifth-year senior who has never done much at any previous position, and the fact that Brown was moved outside late in the spring might say something. Brown is probably to the point in his career where he belongs on the field somewhere, though.
The linebackers need reps, and time together, so one goal will be to make personnel decisions on who gets the nod along with Rumph and Lowery early in the fall, and then let them get comfortable playing together. Ernest Jones has some experience, Martin is intriguing, and two rising redshirt freshmen, Ray Michel and Avery Vogt, may be players eventually. Jimmie Sutton III, a nickel back last year, takes over at one corner for Hudson, and the secondary should be fine.
Question: How much will State have to change its defensive philosophy going into next season?
Answer: The system remains the same, but the success of the newcomers will dictate what winds up happening. So much of what State did defensively last year was predicated on stopping the run and getting opponents into third-and-long situations and then letting Williams and Lawson pin their ears back and go for sacks. That took the pressure off the linebackers and the secondary.
The thinking coming out of the spring was that State may have to go with far more conservative coverages. State's defensive schemes were very vanilla during the spring -- State got no deeper into the playbook than two basic coverage schemes -- just so the new guys could get the nuts and bolts down pat. Appalachian is almost sure to see a lot of vanilla. Then the staff will react and adjust and put in more as it feels it can.
Question: What does the draft say about Amato's ability to recruit and develop talent?
Answer: It didn't take Williams going No. 1 overall for people to know that Amato landed a blue-chipper when he signed Williams three years ago. But go down the list of draftees (including tight end T.J. Williams, taken by Tampa in the sixth round) and you see players who either overachieved or progressed properly.
Lawson was a pencil-thin diamond in the rough when he came to State, and the question was whether he could grow into a tight end. He'll soon be a millionaire. Tulloch was passed over by the Florida powers because he didn't have the measurables, but he grew into an NFL pick at State. McCargo, a high school fullback, turned into a first-round pick as a lineman. Those examples no doubt will be part of Amato's recruiting pitches forever.
Question: How did State go 7-5 last season with so many pro prospects on its roster?
Answer: Maybe this shows just how important the quarterback position is. The old saying "you win with defense" is valid, but only if the offense is doing a decent job.
Here's a mind-blowing stat. In the four years that Philip Rivers was quarterback, State had nine players drafted. In just the past two years, with Jay Davis and Marcus Stone at quarterback, State has had nine more players drafted. Yet State was 34-17 under Rivers, and it has gone 12-11 with Davis and Stone.