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July 31, 2012

Countdown to kickoff: Five position battles to watch



NC State head coach Tom O'Brien calls the two-deep an "organizational chart." It becomes a "depth chart" once the season starts. The organizational chart is a fluid two-deep as the coaches try to figure out the best lineups to put on the field.

Here are five positional battles in particular to follow throughout preseason camp.

Linebacker

Not any particular spot at the linebacker but the entire unit in general. No spot on the field lost as much as assistant coach Jon Tenuta's group. All three starters and the top reserve from the 2011 squad have either left or will have to miss this season.

What's left is a very unsettled two-deep. At the Kay Yow Spring Game April 21, the starting threesome featured sophomore Rodman Noel, a converted safety, at strongside, fifth-year senior Sterling Lucas in the middle and redshirt junior Rickey Dowdy at weakside. They remained the top threesome in the organizational chart.

Lucas is the most experienced linebacker on the roster but it also coming off a major knee injury that forced him to miss last season. Dowdy and Noel's combined playing time on defense: one snap.

Others will be in the mix. Sophomores Brandon Pittman and Michael Peek both gained experience as true freshmen in 2010, and Peek even recorded a late sack in the lopsided win over Clemson. Redshirt junior Ryan Cheek, a potential wildcard at middle linebacker, is also hoping to break through on the depth chart, and there will be three newcomers joining the fold, highlighted by junior college transfer Robert Caldwell, who arrived shortly before players reported Monday evening.


Wide Receiver

Fifth-year senior Tobais Palmer figures to be starting on one side. He caught 37 passes for 496 yards and five touchdowns as the third receiving option last year. The battle is likely over which receiver will start with Palmer.

Based on production from last season, the leading contender would be redshirt sophomore Bryan Underwood. He made 16 receptions for 226 yards and two touchdowns last year. Both of his scores came at Virginia when Underwood grabbed three passes for 125 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown. He was just the fourth freshman receiver ever at State to have a 100-yard receiving game.

Underwood (5-11, 170 pounds) is similar to Palmer (5-11, 175 pounds). Both are speedy and quick but smaller receivers. That may open the door for redshirt junior Quintin Payton. The 6-4, 203-pounder brings size to the field that could compliment Palmer and Underwood well. Payton has 11 career receptions for 145 yards.

Converted cornerback Rashard Smith, a redshirt junior, and promising redshirt freshmen Hakeem Flowers and Maurice Morgan, also figure into the mix. O'Brien noted the two rookies "have potential."


Tight End

For the first time in a while, NC State has a competition at tight end. George Bryan has left after three years as a starter. In his place at least three tight ends are vying to start in what should be a spirited battle.

Fifth-year senior Mario Carter is the most veteran of the group. He missed the entire 2009 season with a torn ACL, but since then has played in 25 games, including making two starts.

Carter caught nine passes for 84 yards last year, including is first career touchdown when he hauled in a five-yard score against Liberty in the season opener.

He will be challenged however. Asa Watson, who redshirted what would have been his junior season last year, is the most athletic tight end on the roster and could pose matchup problems for opposing defenses. He caught two passes for 28 yards in his career, but Watson's 74-yard catch and run in the Kay Yow Spring Game showcased his skills.

The sleeper is redshirt junior Anthony Talbert. He's played sparingly the first two seasons, seeing most of his action on special teams, and has not caught a pass. However, Talbert impressed in the spring scrimmage with a pair of catches for 24 yards, and he could be ready for an increased role.


Running Back

Senior James Washington is back after rushing for 897 yards and seven touchdowns on 227 carries last year. He went over 100 yards in three different games as a junior, but with a new position coach in Des Kitchings and other talented backs on the roster, Washington will not be handed the position.

Redshirt sophomore Tony Creecy was the leading rusher in the Kay Yow Spring Game with 45 yards on 16 carries. Creecy, who played receiver at Southern High in Durham, N.C., is also an asset catching passes out of the backfield.

The wildcard is the status of redshirt sophomore Mustafa Greene. He ran 134 times for 597 yards and four touchdowns during an exciting freshman season in 2010, but Greene missed last season with a foot fracture that required two surgeries. He then most of spring due to off the field reasons.


Defensive End

Who starts may not matter too much since defensive line coach Keith Willis likes to rotate at least four players at the position, but there are at least five options to get on the field.

The projected starters heading into the preseason camp appear to be senior Brian Slay and redshirt junior Darryl Cato-Bishop. Both are versatile linemen. Slay started four games at defensive tackle last year and seven at end. He finished with 52 tackles, including five for loss and three sacks.

Cato-Bishop started nine games last fall and had 36 tackles, six of them for loss and five for sack. He added 11 quarterback hurries.

A pair of talented pass rushers though will make sure they get plenty of time on the field. Redshirt sophomore Art Norman was a breakthrough performer on defense in 2011. He had 27 tackles, including 10 for loss and a team-high seven sacks. Norman also had 30 quarterback hurries, another squad-best.

Redshirt junior Forrest West is a Colorado transfer who sat out last year per NCAA transfer rules. He's now eligible, and he showed during the spring scrimmage when he made six tackles, including a sack, that he is ready to play. West had 5.5 sacks as a sophomore for Colorado.

Fifth-year senior McKay Frandsen is also in the mix. He started the Georgia Tech game last year and finished the season with 15 tackles and six quarterback hurries.


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