Fifth-year senior defensive tackle A.J. Ferguson has worked himself into being a valued cog in the defensive line rotation, playing at least 21 snaps in five different games last year.
The 6-foot-2, 301-pounder from Southport, N.C., finished with 11 tackles, one sack and four quarterback hurries in 194 plays over 11 contests. Ferguson easily eclipsed his numbers from previous seasons in carving out a steady role.
"I think, with the talent we have now, we can be one of the best in the ACC, let alone the country," Ferguson said. "We are staying humble and continuing to work hard."
Ferguson called the 17-16 win over Florida State last year his favorite game, even if he only played a pair of snaps in the upset.
"Our backs were against the wall, and it was on ESPN," Ferguson said. "We had no shot. Even guys on the team had given up on us. We just came through and overcame adversity. That was a great night."
Ferguson originally signed with NC State in the class of 2009, but needed an extra year of academics at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. His career has gone by quickly, and he's adjusted well to new head coach Dave Doeren and defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen.
"It's been real exciting and team oriented," Ferguson said. "They care, just like the old staff, but are more hands-on and personal. I actually got a text from Coach D telling me how I needed to step it up in one class. He cares and wants to see me succeed."
Nielsen played on the defensive line at USC and has brought enthusiasm to his players.
"He is never down; he's always up," Ferguson said. "He has a high motor, and he wants us to succeed. We have hard practices, but he says that when we are in a game, it will feel like we've been there before. I like how he is pushing us and grinding us."
Another change for Ferguson will be his uniform number. He has gone from No. 65 to No. 98 this season.
"I always thought No. 65 was an offensive line number," Ferguson said. "I talked to the coaches, and they said if I can keep my stuff straight, I'd get a new number. I'm now in a defensive line number."
Ferguson estimated he gained about 18 pounds during the winter conditioning program, but called it "good weight."
"Under coach Jason Veltkamp, we are doing great things and are working hard," Ferguson said. "They are motivating us to be ACC champions."
NC State went 7-6 last year and reached a bowl game for the fourth time in six years. Ferguson has noticed the expectations have changed around the program, and the players want to break "the average barrier."
"We are holding everybody accountable, and I like that a lot," said Ferguson, who credits former defensive line coach Keith Willis for helping him learn how to become a man. "There are no more late nights. It's more healthy for us.
"I'm just happy to be where I'm at right now, and to put on the red."