NC State will be releasing their first depth chart of the 2010 season in the coming days, and according to defensive coordinator Mike Archer much of the two-deep on his side of the ball remains to be settled.
The one unit that does appear to be stable is linebacker, where fifth-year senior Nate Irving mans the middle and redshirt junior Audie Cole and redshirt sophomore Terrell Manning handle the strongside and weakside spots respectively.
Over the summer Archer told The Wolfpacker he thought the linebackers could be as good as any in the ACC, and he still feels confident about the unit under the direction of new linebackers coach Jon Tenuta.
"Most of the experience is linebacker, so we're putting a lot on them," Archer acknowledged. "Those guys have taken the coaching from Jon, and Jon has done a good job. I think those three guys have shown us this preseason they are going to be the guys. Up front we are losing some players and some starters, and some good players, so we got to mix and match and get some players there. Linebackers are going to have to carry us at the beginning of this year."
Irving's return to the defense could potentially be a significant boost. He missed all of 2009 while recuperating from a compound fracture in his leg, broken ribs and a separated shoulder from a serious car accident.
"We've tried to be smart and not overwork him," Archer noted. "We've held him out of some of the scrimmages. Even when he's been in there, he's been productive. It obviously makes a big difference for our defense."
The secondary does have some valuable experience, returning four players who have started at least four games in their respective careers, but redshirt junior Justin Byers (10 career starts) is still the oldest defensive back in a young unit.
"Most of the guys that are playing are sophomores," Archer said. "There's still an experience factor there that's a concern."
Archer listed Byers, redshirt sophomore C.J. Wilson (six starts in 2009), true freshman David Amerson and walk-on Jordan Monk as players getting long looks at corner. He added that they have been changing up the secondary to get a good look at various combinations.
"We've been doing it the whole training camp," Archer said. "We are trying to find the best 11 guys to put on the field. We've moved some guys from safety to corner, corner to safety, to try and get those guys.
"Justin has played safety, he's played corner. David Amerson has been working at both corners. We are trying the best four guys back there and when we go to our nickel packages. So we're trying to move guys around."
Amerson was a four-star recruit in 2009 and considered one of the top defensive back recruits in the country, so it's little surprise that he's been pushing for playing time. He has not been alone however among the true freshmen raising eyebrows in the secondary.
"I think Dontae Johnson has done a good job as a freshman," Archer said. "I think D.J. Green, those three guys when we recruited them, the thing we told them is you had an opportunity to come in and play this year. They are competing for that opportunity. Will it happen over these next 10 days? We'll see, but they've done a good job up to this point."
The defensive line is trying to replace four starters from last year's team, but part of the losses have been offset by the addition of senior Northeastern transfer David Akinniyi and return of redshirt juniors Markus Kuhn and Jeff Rieskamp. Kuhn redshirted last year while Rieskamp missed the season with a sports hernia injury.
Kuhn, who had 56 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and three sacks, while playing in all 24 games between 2007-08, figures to be in the mix at defensive tackle. Archer said senior Natanu Mageo, redshirt junior J.R. Sweezy and sophomore Brian Slay are also in the rotation at defensive tackle. Mageo in particular has impressed Archer.
"Natanu had a great spring, and Natanu's had a great camp," Archer said of the former junior college transfer. "He's put himself in a position where he's going to be one of those guys fighting for a starting tackle spot."
Rieskamp started twice as a redshirt freshman in 2008 and made 21 tackles, including 3.5 for losses and a pair of sacks. He is battling fifth-year senior Audi Augustin at one defensive end. Augustin was fifth on the team last year with 11 quarterback hurries while playing 11 games as a reserve.
At the other defensive end, Akinniyi is pushing fifth-year senior and former JUCO transfer Michael Lemon. Akinniyi was a three-year starter at Northeastern before the program closed its doors this offseason. He had 141 career tackles there, including 24 for losses and 12 sacks.
Lemon played in all 12 games last year at State, making one start and finishing his first season in Raleigh with 24 tackles, including four for losses and a sack, and 12 quarterback pressures.
"Getting Jeff back after a year and a half back is a plus," Archer noted. "He's pushing Audi, and Audi's pushing him. You got David Akinniyi, as I said in the spring and it's continued in the fall, has been the best defensive lineman we've had. That makes Michael Lemon better because he wants to play, and position competition makes you better."