ACC: M.J. Salahuddin

NC State defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable is in his first season with the Wolfpack and coach Dave Doeren, and he is also coaching the linebackers. His resume also includes stops at Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Georgia Tech. I caught up with Huxtable recently to get his take on the transition going on in Raleigh. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

How was the spring for you?

Dave Huxtable: It was a good spring. Being new, the coaching staff and players getting familiar and getting to know us, there were some positives, and getting to know each other and installing the defense, and learning the terminology and schemes, I thought the guys did a good job of it this spring. We’re nowhere near where we want to be yet, but we got a lot of good work done.

[+] EnlargeDave Huxtable
AP Photo/David StlukaNew NC State defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable likes what he's seen from his new players this spring.
How much of the playbook did you guys actually install?

DH: We installed the base defense, did not really throw a whole lot at them, but that’s the foundation of what we’re going to do, and as we get into fall camp we’ll have some new installation we’ll ask them to learn, things we’ll pull out of our bag of tools for the season.

I know you coach the linebackers as well, how did those guys look?

DH: I think I saw some improvement at the end of the spring. Again, we have a lot of work left to do at that position, but I really enjoy the guys I’m coaching there. They’re great character guys, they’ve got a great attitude, they’re hard workers and good learners, and there’s some talent there.

What’s your biggest concern heading into summer camp? Maybe priority is a better word -- for what you want to get done by the opener.

DH: I think there’s some depth at some positions. I think our safety position is a concern with depth there, as is our defensive end position. And then, again, I think we finished strong in the spring and I’m looking forward to our guys having a great summer. I know our strength coaches are going to do a great job with them in the offseason here, and I know our guys will work hard and they’ll come to camp ready and prepared. Just for us to pick up with the momentum we had at the end of spring.

How much of a whirlwind was it for you when the guys first went out there with the new staff?

DH: Those first couple of days it was more, ‘Hey you, over there!’ They have their jersey numbers on, but we got a chance to know a lot of them and get familiar with the names and faces in the offseason program, but every once in a while you say, ‘Hey 49, get over here!’ But it was fun, and really a neat group of guys here on this football team. I think guys who really want to be coached and be coached hard. Football is important to them and winning is important to them.

What positions still have the biggest ongoing competitions?

DH: I think at every linebacker position there’s great competition going on. A lot of new guys at those positions that were not starters last year. I think there were two starters that left last year that were gone. At the linebacker spot there’s a lot of competition. I would say the defensive end position. There’s good competition at both of those spots.

Who are some of the guys who are in the mix for both of those spots?

DH: At defensive end, [Darryl] Cato-Bishop and Mike Rose are competing. At the linebacker position, at mike, M.J. [Salahuddin] and Zach [Gentry] and Robert Caldwell came on strong at the end of spring, as did Ryan Cheek. At that mike linebacker position there’s a lot of good competition there. Brandon Pittman has been a guy who played a lot here, he’s fast and really finished the last couple of weeks of the spring strong. But you know, so did Drew Davis, a young linebacker who was very productive in our last two scrimmages. Competition is a good thing, it’s going to make us all better.

Are you running a completely different style of defense?

DH: We’re a base 4-3 defense, which they have been in the past. They probably blitzed a little bit more than what we will do. Then again, the terminology is totally different. What they call apples we call oranges, so there is a terminology to learn for the players.

How have things been going with the staff?

DH: Coach Doeren has been tremendous, just the way he’s handled the staff and the players. His organization, his detail to everything he does has just been outstanding. What a neat staff, a good group of guys who are all very passionate about football and recruiting and understand the business. It’s been really neat kind of being a new guy and getting to know all of the coaches. It’s been a fun experience, and I really enjoy working with them.

How did what you saw on the field this spring compare with what you might have seen on film of NC State?

DH: The players, we spent a lot of time on fundamentals and technique and not a huge amount of instillation. More just trying to be pros at our position and really sharpening the tools and fundamentals and techniques of the players. I think we’ve made some good ground on that from what we had seen on film. They were well-coached, and it’s making our job a little easier because the former staff did a great job with them. Now we just have to get them doing the things we’re going to ask them to do. We have a ways to go in that area, but with our spring practice we got some good work done.
M.J. Salahuddin was one of five true freshmen to play for NC State last season. But he toiled largely unnoticed, as a key member on special teams.

He was a backup linebacker, but did not get many snaps there. And when he went into the spring, he was largely unnoticed as well, as a backup on the outside. That all changed in 15 practices.

Salahuddin quickly emerged as a playmaker on a defense in search of one. So much so, that defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable decided to move Salahuddin to middle linebacker before the team's first spring scrimmage. Salahuddin arrived at NC State as a safety. He had never played middle linebacker in his life.

But he took to the position right away, and ended up with a team-high eight tackles in the team's spring game last month.

"M.J. is consistent, he has a great motor, he's vocal," coach Dave Doeren said. "He can run, and he's got a good skill-set from a movement standpoint. He's a tough kid that loves football. He can play outside linebacker as well. Really, Coach Huxtable was trying to find the combination of three guys that were playing the best and who fit best in the middle out of the three between D.J. Green and Brandon Pittman and M.J. We felt like those three guys made the most plays.

"So there are still some guys competing. I know Zach Gentry had a good spring for us as well. But M.J. is just really productive, a high motor, positive guy that we liked having out on the field."

The Wolfpack had to replace two of their starting linebackers on defense, with Rickey Dowdy and Sterling Lucas gone. Lucas started every game at middle linebacker last season. Salahuddin backed up Rodman Noel on the strongside. But now, Green is ahead of Noel at that spot, and Salahuddin is ahead of Gentry in the middle.

There is plenty more work to be done between now and fall camp, but if spring is any indication, Salahuddin could make a major impact once the season begins.

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