ACC: Shea McKeen
NC State defensive coordinator Mike Archer hasn’t exactly been sleeping too well these days, and he knows he’s not winning the People’s Choice award right now in Raleigh. But he’s working tirelessly nonetheless to improve NC State’s defense. He’s certain the problem isn’t effort. Long story short, it’s a combination of injuries, inexperience and, at this point, a lack of confidence.
NC State’s defense has given up an average of 482 yards of total defense in its four ACC games, the worst mark in the league by almost 30 yards. In conference games, the Wolfpack ranks last in the league in total defense, scoring defense, passing defense and ranks 11th in rushing defense. The only position on defense that has started the same unit in every game is the defensive line.
|Tim Steadman/Icon SMI|
|Willie Young has been one of the mainstays on the NC State defense this season.|
Here are the highlights of our recent conversation:
Man, another tough year for the D.
Mike Archer: It is what it is. You and I talked this summer, we got off to a rough start with what happened to Nate [Irving]. And then Dominique [Ellis] left the team and Jimmaul Simmons left the team, and Javon Walker, who started five games for us in 2007, and got injured in the Miami game, we were very hopeful he would be back for this year. We were counting on him being one of the safeties and he’s done with football.
You take those four guys, and three of them played on one side of the field, it’s been tough. But it’s part of the game. No one feels sorry for us. Everybody has injuries. It’s been frustrating and it’s been hard. The way we started, the South Carolina game, we played very well and held them to seven points, but realistically they weren’t quite sure of what we were going to do. We played with a true freshman corner and a redshirt freshman corner in that game, and we played a lot of Cover 2. But as the year goes on and that film goes out, people find them. When we were in Tallahassee, I look out there Saturday and we have a true freshman corner, a true freshman safety, a redshirt freshman safety and a junior corner on the field with two freshman linebackers.
It is what it is. You’re not going to be just stoning people when you’re playing young kids. We have to understand that and continue to move forward and keep improving. That’s our job as players and as coaches.
I remember last year when the defense was struggling, you challenged them. Remember that? It was a pretty public thing. Have you guys had a talk like that, or is this not the case for it?
MA: I’ve thought about that and we’ve talked. During the open date after the BC game, we sat down and looked everything we’ve done and it really comes down to execution. We’ve got a good system in place when our guys execute it. When we have the right guys out there, we’re pretty good. We have to execute. That’s what’s been frustrating.
It started in the second half of the Wake Forest game. We were not very good on third downs against Riley Skinner and it ended up costing us the game. The following week at Duke, third downs just killed us. They were 13-of-19 and could not get off the field on third down and picked us apart. Those two quarterbacks are awfully good. They were smart. They went after our freshman corners and our freshman safety. That’s their job as coaches. They get paid, too. They’re on scholarship. But third down has not been what it was early in the season. We were good in the South Carolina game, we were pretty good in the third down against Pitt. But we’ve lost our execution edge and the biggest thing in my opinion, we’ve lost confidence, obviously. It’s become mental.
On the bright side, I would think Willie Young has been one of the guys who has played consistently.
MA: Our front four kids, the four seniors, Alan- Michael Cash, Willie, Shea McKeen and Leroy Burgess have really done a good job all year. All year. When you look at us on defense, there are four seniors and everyone else is freshmen and sophomores. There’s a big age gap there. They’ve done a good job of being positive leaders and keeping everyone’s chins up. Nobody feels sorry for us and we don’t want anybody to feel sorry for us. It is what it is. It’s part of sports. It’s like [head coach] Tom O'Brien] said, we’ve lost 11 guys this year for the year. We thought we had it bad last year. It’s worse this year.
Why? Why does that happen to you guys?
MA: If I knew, I wouldn’t be coaching. I’d be a doctor or a sports psychologist. I’d have your job. ... Everyone says it’s a curse. It’s the way it is. I wish I knew so we could prevent it, but like Todd Rice says, if we knew, we’d prevent it.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
1. Clemson -- The Tigers return three starters up front, and first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's pressure defense is the perfect fit for guys like Da'Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp. Sapp was having a good season last year before he tore his ACL at Virginia and missed the rest of the season. Defensive end Kevin Alexander is a returning starter who had 34 tackles last year, and nose guard Jarvis Jenkins tied Sapp for the team lead with 10 tackles for loss. Opposing quarterbacks won't have time to think against this bunch.
2. Miami -- Anyone watching the Virginia Tech game last year saw what this group is capable of, and of the nine linemen who started at least one game for Miami last year, seven are back. Allen Bailey has moved from end to tackle, but he sometimes played there in third-down situations. He led the team with five sacks. Marcus Robinson is a solid pass rusher, Marcus Forston could also be an impact and Eric Moncur is entering his sixth season and if he plays like he did in 2007 (11.5 tackles for loss) could really give this line a boost.
3. Virginia Tech -- Depth is the only question mark here, as Jason Worilds, John Graves, Cordarrow Thompson and Nekos Brown are more than capable of continuing Bud Foster's tradition of nationally ranked defenses. Nobody is questioning Worilds' toughness, that's for sure, and Graves and Thompson both started every game last year. They're still looking for another defensive end, though, and will keep an eye on what Chris Drager adds to the position after moving from tight end.
4. North Carolina -- Not only do all four starters return, but the depth is the best it's been in recent years. Last year, defensive end Robert Quinn became a starter in the second game of the season, and defensive tackle Cam Thomas had one of his his best season at UNC. Marvin Austin and E.J. Wilson played well, and should be even better this year. Reserves Quinton Coples and Michael McAdoo had solid rookie seasons and will push Wilson and Quinn for playing time this year. Aleric Mullins and Tydreke Powell are interchangeable with Austin and Thomas as starters at tackle.
5. Florida State -- The end position is reason for concern, as the Noles have to replace both Everette Brown and Neefy Moffett, who were first and second, respectively, on the team in sacks. Markus White will be tasked with filling the shoes of Brown, but he had a good transition season from junior college last year to build off of. Kevin McNeil, who had four sacks last year, is the favorite to replace Moffett. The interior should be solid with the return of Budd Thacker, Kendrick Stewart, Moses McCray and Justin Mincey.
6. NC State -- Defensive tackle Alan-Michael Cash and end Willie Young have combined for 46 starts and should be two of the best linemen in the conference. The other two players penciled in as starters -- Shea McKeen and Leroy Burgess -- were both junior college transfers who earned starting time last year. Backup tackles will be a concern, but Markus Kuhn could wind up playing a bit of both until the staff decides where he can help the most.
7. Wake Forest -- Tackles John Russell and Boo Robinson will highlight a defense that recently bid farewell to some of the best seniors to come through the program. It should be one of the Deacs' most experienced groups in recent years, which is important considering the new faces behind them at linebacker. Defensive end Kyle Wilbur showed a lot of promise as a redshirt freshman with three sacks in only seven starts, and Tristan Dorty played in 10 games as a redshirt defensive end last year.
8. Virginia -- It's one of the few units on this team that didn't get a complete makeover, as seven of the top eight linemen return. Sophomore Matt Conrath, who had 35 tackles and four sacks last year, returns at end. There's a lot of experience next to him at nose tackle, where senior Nate Collins and sophomore Nick Jenkins split time last season. Collins' 35 tackles are the top among the returning linemen, while Jenkins finished with 25. Junior John-Kevin Dolce proved himself in the pass rush package with five sacks among his nine total tackles last year.
9. Boston College -- Replacing tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace is obviously one of the biggest concerns for this team, but they've got several options. Damik Scafe, Nick Rossi and Brendan Deska were each second-stringers at the tackle position and are the early favorites to replace the NFL draft picks. The Eagles also signed a pair of defensive tackles in the offseason, including highly touted recruit Dillon Quinn, who could make an immediate impact. Austin Giles replaced the injured Alex Albright last year for 12 starts, and Jim Ramella started all 14 games at the other end position.
10. Georgia Tech -- The Yellow Jackets have to replace three of four starters up front, and until they prove they found dependable replacements, they're going to be stuck down here. The lone returning starter is junior end Derrick Morgan, and there's no doubt about his capabilities, but the Jackets will sorely miss the three starters who combined for 100 career starts and 100 tackles for loss. Ben Anderson, Robert Hall and T.J. Barnes are all candidates to start.
11. Duke -- The Blue Devils took a step forward last year and should improve again with the return of tackle Vince Oghobaase and end Ayanga Okpokwuruk, who started five games and had 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. They combined for 9.5 sacks last year. Oghobaase ranks second in the ACC in both career tackles for loss (29.0) and quarterback sacks (11.5). They'll need new starters at nose guard and right end.
12. Maryland -- The Terps have to fill a void left by Jeremy Navarre and Trey Covington, and so far it looks like that will be up to Derek Drummond, Dion Armstrong, Travis Ivey and Jared Harrell, though Armstrong was dealing with some academic issues. The arrival of De'Onte Arnett, Zachariah Kerr, and Cody Blue this past spring should help with the depth.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
NC State is going to be a legitimate contender to win the Atlantic Division and it's not just because the Wolfpack has the best quarterback in the league in Russell Wilson.
It's also because the defense should be one of the deepest, most productive units the program has seen in recent years, starting up front with Shea McKeen, Alan-Michael Cash, Leroy Burgess and Willie Young.
"I think our strength of our defense will be our defensive line," defensive coordinator Mike Archer said. "Our first four guys ... it will be the best defensive line they've had here since Mario Williams and [John] McCargo. Those guys were No. 1 picks. I'm not saying they're as good as them, but they're comparable in the sense they've got talent and they really have gotten better and developed."
NC State is confident in its two-deep at both defensive line and at linebacker. The secondary is where some lingering competition will remain this summer, but there are plenty of options. The players are much more comfortable with the staff and the system now that it's Tom O'Brien's third season, and the familiarity, communication and trust has made a difference.
This spring, Archer said he's heard the players talking about something they haven't before -- playing in the ACC championship game.
"We feel like we have as good a chance as anybody," Archer said. "If you don't believe it and you don't dream it, it's never going to happen."
It's a significant transformation from mid-way through last fall, when Archer had to challenge his defense because it ranked last in the ACC in nearly every relevant statistical category.
"The last half of the season, during practice, I very seldom had to raise my voice, I very seldom got upset because they learned how to practice, they went about their business, they got their work done and they got off the field," Archer said. "... To me, that was the biggest thing they learned, how to prepare in practice and how to go out and play on Saturday."
The latter half of the season also showed how good NC State's defense could be when everyone is healthy. Linebacker Nate Irving missed three games, Cash missed three games, and safety Clem Johnson was also out for a few. It was no coincidence that when they returned, NC State started to win.
Despite the loss in the Papajohns.com Bowl, NC State ended the 2008 season with its best defensive performance of the year. At the time, Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel was on a hot streak, but the Pack was still able to get to him numerous times.
"I don't want to be overboard with the confidence," Archer said, "but I feel much better going into this season than I did the previous two."