Each preseason a player or two seems to emerge from fall camp as a pleasant surprise or breakout performer. Two years ago J.R. Sweezy converted to defensive tackle and immediately impressed. Last year Dean Haynes earned a starting job at running back while Terrell Manning developed into a playmaking linebacker.
Who are some under the radar players to watch this preseason? Here are five candidates:
Tight end Mario Carter
With junior Asa Watson expected to redshirt, the expectations for Carter have increased. NC State has employed two tight end sets in the past, and with an inexperienced, unproven receiving corps, the Pack may do that more this season if Carter is up for the task.
Carter's promising career has been slowed by a pair of ACL tears, one before his high school senior season and the other during preseason camp his redshirt freshman year. Carter though appears to have recovered, and he caught three passes for 25 yards while passing Watson on the depth chart by the end of last season.
Defensive end Darryl Cato-Bishop
In terms of pure talent, Cato-Bishop makes a case for being the most talented defensive end on the roster. Now is the time for the redshirt sophomore to start showcasing his talent.
The former high school basketball star has grown into a 6-foot-4, 281-pounder. He's big and strong enough to play inside if needed, but with his athleticism he can do more damage at defensive end.
Cato-Bishop was the scout team defensive player of the year in 2009 while he redshirted. Last fall he gained valuable experience, playing both end and tackle in 12 of the team's 13 games, making 10 tackles, including one for a loss, recovering a fumble and recording six quarterback hurries.
Injuries slowed Cato-Bishop down in the spring, and he lost ground to junior college transfer McKay Frandsen for the battle to start at defensive end opposite fifth-year senior Jeff Rieskamp. However, if a healthy Cato-Bishop takes that the next step that defensive line coach Keith Willis wants, then Cato-Bishop could emerge as a force.
"I'm trying to get him to take it to that next level," Willis said. "If he does, he is going to be a dominating player, absolutely dominating player in this league."
Offensive tackle Rob Crisp
Crisp will need a strong camp to overtake fifth-year senior Mikel Overgaard for the starting right tackle position, but there is no denying that Crisp, a former five-star prospect, has the physical tools and talent to do that.
"Robert is really starting to get comfortable, and that's good," offensive line coach Jim Bridge said. "He's starting to get comfortable with his assignment and technique. That means he'll be able to execute. As an offensive lineman, there is nothing more critical than execution. Robert is getting to the point where he can execute at a level that will give us and him a winning performance."
Crisp started the season opener last year against Western Carolina at left tackle and played from the line of scrimmage in eight of the 13 games while lining up on special teams in the other five. After getting his feet wet, Crisp may be in position to take the next step.
Defensive tackle Markus Kuhn
The fifth-year senior started his career promisingly while forced into action as a true freshman in 2007. He made 33 tackles, including five for losses and a sack. Since then though he has not taken the next step. He had 23 tackles, including a pair of sacks, while starting three games as a sophomore, and then Kuhn redshirted in 2009.
Last year he was a rotational player who did not play more than 21 snaps in any game and had a career-low 14 tackles, including two for losses. This spring though, according to Willis and head coach Tom O'Brien, Kuhn began to dominate.
"I was questioning it because in spring there was not one guy on the second team offensive line that could block him," Willis noted. "I was wondering if this was true. I started playing him against the first team, man he was taking it to them."
Kuhn will likely battle junior Brian Slay for the starting defensive tackle position next to fifth-year senior J.R. Sweezy.
Wide receiver Quintin Payton
Someone has to step up at receiver. Seniors T.J. Graham, Jay Smith and Steven Howard are viable options, but after three years playing on Saturdays, NC State has a pretty good handle on what those receivers can and cannot do.
Payton however is a redshirt sophomore that surprised some people by getting on the field last fall despite a crowded wide receiver depth chart. He posted modest numbers, catching four passes for 38 yards, but earning meaningful playing time while six other wide outs who caught at least 10 passes were on the roster is an accomplishment in itself.
The 6-foot-4, 203-pound Payton looks the part, and with consistent performances in fall practice could emerge as a sleeper at the wide out position.
"That is a year where you can make a pretty good jump, and it will be interesting to see how far he goes with that step," offensive coordinator Dana Bible said. "He had strong role models in front of him. We are looking forward to see where he goes with that next step that he takes. He is right at that point where a guy makes a jump. We'll see."