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March 22, 2012

Spring football preview: Five storylines to watch



NC State will start spring practice March 23, looking to build off an 8-5 campaign that concluded with a 31-24 win over Big East co-champion Louisville in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte.

Expectations will be higher in Raleigh this fall. ESPN's Heather Dinich has the Pack fourth in her "ACC pre-spring power rankings" behind Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech.

The Wolfpack, though, has several question marks heading into next season, some of which the coaches will have a better answer for after spring drills. The Wolfpacker takes a look at some of the storylines of spring.

Who steps up at linebacker?

Audie Cole's departure from NC State was anticipated, but Terrell Manning and D.J. Green's were not. Cole, a three-year starter, led NC State with 132 tackles and four forced fumbles and tied Manning with a team-high 14 hits for loss. Cole also had six sacks and broke up a pair of passes en route to honorable mention all-conference honors.

Manning, however, was the breakout star in 2011. Despite missing two games with a knee injury, he was named second-team All-ACC, missing the first squad by just four points. He had 82 tackles, 5.5 sacks, three interceptions, two passes broken up, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Manning also had a knack for making the big play on defense. He decided to forego a fifth-year senior season and go pro.

Losing two all-conference linebackers is a blow, especially since NC State's top backup was Dwayne Maddox, who was a senior last year. Promising rising junior D.J. Green was expected to help pick up the slack. He started seven games before a foot injury sidelined him for the year. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Green had 33 tackles, five stops for loss, a sack, a pass breakup and an interception.

But Green lost a year of eligibility for using a banned substance last year and will not play in 2012.

The wild card in the equation is the health of rising fifth-year senior Sterling Lucas. The 6-2, 231-pounder missed last season because of knee surgery. He has played in 37 career games and has been credited with 86 tackles.

After Lucas, the options are inexperienced. Michael Peek (6-foot-2, 222 pounds) and Brandon Pittman (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) both played last fall as true freshmen, but almost exclusively on special teams. Peek did, however, record a sack late in the lopsided win over Clemson.

Rodman Noel, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound true freshman safety last fall, and Mike Rose, a 6-foot-4, 232-pound rising redshirt freshman, are expected to move to linebacker in the spring.

Who steps up at wide receiver?

That was a leading question heading into last spring, and it remains so this year. The Wolfpack replaced a senior trio of Owen Spencer, Jarvis Williams and Darrell Davis from the 2010 season with a receiving corps mainly led by seniors T.J. Graham and Jay Smith in 2011. Now they are gone, along with reserve Steven Howard.

Graham led the Pack in every receiving category last season, catching 46 passes for 757 yards and seven touchdowns. Smith added 40 catches for 391 yards and four scores, and Howard added 16 receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown.

Rising fifth-year senior Tobais Palmer is a strong candidate to emerge after he displayed his playmaking abilities last fall. The speedy Palmer caught 37 passes for 496 yards and five touchdowns. After Palmer, though, the options are less proven.

Rising redshirt sophomore Bryan Underwood caught 16 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie, but the fast 5-foot-11, 174-pounder is a similar player to the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Palmer.

The Pack would love to see rising redshirt junior Quintin Payton, a physically gifted 6-foot-4, 210-pounder, step up. Payton caught four passes for 38 yards as a rookie, but struggled with drops last fall and finished with seven receptions for 107 yards.

A pair of promising freshmen who redshirted last fall, Hakeem Flowers (6-foot-3, 182 pounds) and Maurice Morgan (6-foot-2, 225 pounds), will join the mix with a great opportunity to get on the field early if they make a big impression starting this spring.

How is Mustafa Greene's foot?

As a rookie, Greene led NC State in rushing with 597 yards on 134 carries, and he had four touchdowns on the ground and two more through the air. The 6-foot, 213-pounder seemed destined for a bright future at NC State, and he was progressing to becoming the team's feature back last spring.

That changed late in spring practice, however, when Greene hurt his foot. The injury required surgery, and at first the prognosis was a return by early October. Eventually, though, Greene needed a second surgery that forced him to miss the season and redshirt.

In his place, the combination of rising senior James Washington and rising redshirt sophomore Tony Creecy held up fairly well. Washington, 6-foot, 186 pounds, ran 226 times for 897 yards and seven scores, and Creecy, 6-foot, 210 pounds, added 103 rushes for 382 yards and a touchdown. Creecy also had three receiving scores.

The return of Creecy and Washington puts State in a good position at running back, but Greene flashed the signs of being a difference maker at the tailback position when healthy. If he can show this spring that he is finally turning a corner to a full recovery, he could be a boost to NC State's offense.

How will the defensive line stack up?

The defensive line should be a strong unit this fall, but the questions are who will line up where.

Rising senior Brian Slay started the bulk of last season at defensive end after injuries derailed the depth there. The 6-foot-3, 274-pound Slay has far more experience at defensive tackle, however, and given the loss of interior line starters Markus Kuhn and J.R. Sweezy to graduation, Slay would seem to be a good bet to slide back inside.

Rising redshirt juniors Darryl Cato-Bishop and Forrest West are two other players that are worth watching this spring. Cato-Bishop started nine games last year at defensive end, and the 6-4, 278-pounder had 26 tackles and five sacks to go with 13 quarterback hurries.

West (6-foot-1, 270 pounds) is a Colorado transfer who is eligible after sitting out last season per transfer rules. He was second among Buffaloes as a sophomore in 2010 with nine tackles for loss and five sacks.

Both could play defensive end or tackle next season. During the open bowl practices, West was lining up at defensive tackle.

What impact will Corey Edmond have?

After five years as strength and conditioning coordinator at NC State, Todd Rice moved on this offseason, landing a similar job at Pittsburgh. During his tenure in Raleigh, Rice emphasized flexibility, but the Pack had little luck avoiding injuries.

Sometimes a fresh face to mix it up can be a good thing for a football team. Replacing Rice is Corey Edmond, a former linebacker at State best known for a crucial sack of Southern Miss quarterback Brett Favre in the Wolfpack's 1990 All-American Bowl victory.

Edmond has spent the past eight seasons heading up Arizona's strength and conditioning program, and before that he spent four years as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Oklahoma where he was on the staff when the Sooners won the national title in 2000.

Edmond has said that the strength coach needs to be the heartbeat of the team. This spring will be the first test of how well his program has been implemented thus far.



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