Following the graduation of fifth-year senior captain Sterling Lucas (now a G.A. for the strength and conditioning staff), NC State obviously needed to find a new man to play in the middle of the defense. The player that currently resides at the top of the depth chart is sophomore M.J. Salahuddin, even though he has never played middle linebacker before.
"I have played safety, wide out and I played SAM [linebacker]," he said. "This is my first rodeo in the middle, but I like it."
Salahuddin led the Red team &mdash comprised of the first-team offense and defense - with eight tackles, including one for loss, and he also recovered a fumble in the spring game. He has a lot more responsibility riding on his newly broadened shoulders this year - he estimated that he has already put on 15-20 pounds this offseason - but he is getting comfortable at his new spot.
"When I first came in this winter, I probably first weighed in at 205," he remembered. "Now I'm stronger, I'm getting smarter in the middle and I'm just starting to learn. I learn every day about this defense.
"I'm definitely not satisfied. I'm going to try to get up to 230 before the season starts, so that if it does happen to slip [once the season starts], I'll still be around 220-225."
The prep safety had to force himself to eat in order to gain the weight, and sometimes he convinced himself that he was hungry when he actually was full. However, Salahuddin has been pretty successful when he puts his mind to something. He had the goal of making the coaches put him on the field last year as a true freshman by being so good they couldn't keep him off of special teams. That mission was accomplished - he appeared in 12 games and even played three snaps on defense against Virginia.
"With this coaching change, I knew that there would be an opening and everybody would have an equal shot at getting a position," he said. "I just tried to put in the extra work - at the training table, eating to get my weight up; in the weight room to get my strength up and in the film room. I used all three of those tools to get on the field this year."
"He loves football," head coach Dave Doeren said of his middle linebacker. "He's got a great motor. Every day he walks in here, he has the same attitude, and that's what I love as a coach. Him and [wide out] Rashard [Smith] are a lot of the same, they've got juice to them, they're spunky, they've got attitude, they love playing the game and there's not an up and down part of who they are as a person.
"Those kind of guys get better and better and better. I know he'll get better as we go, but that's one thing - he always has great energy and he's a great encourager with his teammates.
Offense's Tempo Can Wear Down Defense
At the post-game press conference, quarterback Pete Thomas was asked if he could feel the offense's tempo - the Pack ran a total of 131 plays despite a running clock in the second half - take its toll on the defense?
Before the signal caller could answer, senior linebacker D.J. Green, who was sitting at the table, laughed and nodded his head yes.
Thomas agreed and said the offense was at its best when it was running at a high tempo.
"I think you can tell when our offense gets rolling and gets some first downs, we can get going and get some momentum," he said. "That's when we're at our best, when we're going fast, lining up quick, getting off on the ball quick, getting the play in quick.
"I think on our touchdown drives, we had a good tempo; when we start slowing down, we have a negative play and we're not going at that fast pace, that's when we're not at our best."
"The offense does a great job when they're up-tempo and it does effect the defense," Green added. "I was part of the defense and they had a pretty good tempo a couple of drives and I know I was pretty worn out. I feel like the offense does pretty good when they're up-tempo."
The high octane offense and the impact it had on the game may have been equalizer in the game because Doeren admits that the defense is the unit that is further along right now, although that is not unexpected.
"It's frustrating because they are, no doubt, but there are more returning starters and there are probably more similarities structurally to [what they did last year]," he said. "There was probably a lot more blitzing a year ago than there is now. We're just playing more square and trying to play as much fundamental defense as we can right now.
"Offensively, there are a lot of new guys in the lineup. The plays are really not that much different, the tempo and the names of the plays are a lot different. I think that's the biggest thing, what they used to call, 'this' is now, 'that,' but there are a lot of the same concepts in the pass game and the run game.
"We are ahead defensively, but that's not a bad thing. The last program I took over, it was the opposite and that was tough because we had to score 65 points to win some games. I would rather be ahead on the defensive side than the offensive, I think we'll catch up and once we get some of our signees here, they'll help these guys from a depth standpoint. I know they're working with short numbers at receiver and tailback right now, there's three tailbacks and six receivers coming in, so our depth will get better, which will help them play faster."
Foundation Laid For Future
The most important goal for Doeren and company was getting out of the spring game healthy. That was accomplished, but there are still several things that need work, according to the coach.
"Sometimes we had a good throw and a drop, and at other times, we had not so good of a throw," he said. "The biggest disappointment, obviously, were the fumbles that occurred. Before I blame it on the running backs, I want to see it on film to see if there were exchange issues on some of them. There are things that we have to correct, and we will.
"I don't think you're ever satisfied, but we got a lot of good things accomplished."
Thomas and the offense are getting better every day and continuing that progression will be the focus this summer.
"Obviously, the entire offense is still thinking, but I think every single day, every single meeting, we're getting better and more comfortable with the terminology, the routes and I think the coaches are doing a great job of coaching us up," the quarterback said. "The summer is going to be huge for us, we can't take any steps back. We need to keep getting more comfortable, so when we show up Aug. 1 for fall camp, we're not thinking, we're hopefully just out there playing and reacting."