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August 25, 2011The loss of NC State co-captain and standout fifth-year senior defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy has created a huge gap in the middle of the defense, but the Wolfpack have always tried to have contingency plans on the defensive line.
Sweezy underwent surgery last Sunday after fracturing his foot during fall camp. The honorable mention All-ACC choice from a year ago had 46 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, six sacks, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Sweezy is expected to be out six weeks, which will create a reshuffling at defensive tackle.
NCSU defensive line coach Keith Willis Sr. prefers to rotate at least four defensive tackles, and sometimes will work in a fifth to have him gain experience for the future.
"[J.R.'s injury] is a blow with him being established," Willis said. "I thought he made unbelievable improvement with technique and his approach to the game. The good thing about it for the other guys, though unfortunate for him, is there is an opportunity to step up."
Junior Brian Slay was the fifth defensive tackle two years ago as a true freshman. He had six tackles in 115 snaps in 2009, and then increased his total to 24 in 284 last year. The 6-foot-3, 290-pounder will be thrust into the starting lineup opposite fifth-year senior Markus Kuhn in the season opener Sept. 3 against Liberty at Carter-Finley Stadium.
"It's a big opportunity," Willis said. "I'm confident that Brian will step up and do a very good job. He's one of the guys when it comes to playing the game of football, he understands it. He's pretty good."
Slay has steadily matured each year in the Wolfpack system. Willis even believes he's athletic enough to play defensive end if need be.
"Having him play as soon as he did has prepared him for this moment," Willis said. "He'll take advantage of this moment. He's a very versatile young man."
Sophomore A.J. Ferguson, redshirt freshman Thomas Teal and possibly true freshman Carlos Gray, will have increased roles behind the starters.
"The dudes got to grow up quick," Willis said. "I always tell them from day one that they are always one play away from playing. The time is now. You are second in line and in the rotation. Every other play, you are playing. You have to take the bull by the horns and make this happen for you and become a good player quicker than you anticipated."
The 6-3, 279-pound Ferguson, like Slay and Kuhn before him, also played as a true freshman last year, getting two tackles in 33 snaps covering three games. Teal was able to use his redshirt season to work on his immense 6-2, 315-pound frame.
"A.J. has improved immensely," Willis said. "He's an undersized kid but is unbelievable strong. He has done some good things and I'm happy for the kid. What that means in games, I don't know. I don't see that happening."
The 6-4, 321-pound Gray spent a post-graduate year at Oak Ridge (N.C.) Military Academy before signing with NC State.
"Carlos will be pretty good," Willis said. "His problem is understanding what the defense asks him to do. Straight ahead, if you don't say anything but 'Carlos, just come off the ball,' he'll do that with the best of them. But unfortunately, we have a scheme and he has to do things within the scheme."
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