It's unlikely that a position battle will be settled in the spring, but what is more plausible is that players will begin to emerge as likely favorites for starting jobs entering fall preseason camp. Here are five position battles worth watching this spring.
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The pre-spring favorite is probably redshirt junior Curtis Underwood. He redshirted last fall, but he had been the third running back his first two seasons in Raleigh. The coaches praised his efforts working with the scout team in 2009. His chief competition this spring will come from sophomore James Washington and redshirt sophomore Brandon Barnes.
Washington ran 21 times for 76 yards and two touchdowns, and caught five passes for 44 yards and another score, in five games last season before injuring his knee. He is expected back for spring practice. Barnes ran 25 times for 79 yards and a score, and caught three passes for 33 yards in 2009.
Fifth-year senior Michael Lemon seems like a good bet to start at one defensive end, probably stepping in at the spot held by Shea McKeen last season. Finding a replacement for Willie Young, though, is not near as clear-cut. Fifth-year senior Audi Augustin, a heralded recruit in the 2006 class, will have his last chance to make an impact. He posted 10 tackles last season and pressured the quarterback twice.
Redshirt junior Jeff Rieskamp, who missed last year with a sports hernia injury, will challenge Augustin. Rieskamp had a promising rookie campaign in 2008, compiling 23 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and 1.5 sacks. The wild card could be David Akinniyi, a fifth-year senior transfer from the now-defunct Northeastern football program. Akinniyi notched 40 stops, 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2009 at Northeastern, and he posted two tackles for loss in a game against Boston College.
Redshirt junior J.R. Sweezy is a heavy favorite to be one of the two defensive tackles, probably at right tackle replacing Alan-Michael Cash, but there could be a spirited competition for the left tackle spot. The two favorites are senior Natanu Mageo and sophomore Brian Slay. Mageo was a junior college transfer who made 10 tackles, including three for loss and a sack, and had an interception in 2009. He may have the pre-spring edge, but Slay cannot be discounted. He managed to play in 10 games as a true freshman, splitting reps with Mageo on the second line for much of the year. Slay posted four tackles, broke up a pass and recorded a pair of quarterback hurries. Mageo is the stronger of the two, while Slay is more athletic, even playing some snaps at defensive end last season.
If fifth-year senior Nate Irving returns to form, then two linebacker positions should be set with Irving on the weakside or middle and redshirt junior Audie Cole at strongside. The other linebacker, however, is a question mark. The likely candidates are juniors Sterling Lucas and Dwayne Maddox, and redshirt sophomore Terrell Manning.
Maddox has the most experience, with almost all of it is at outside linebacker. He had 43 stops, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack last year. As in Maddox's case, Manning's experience, too, is exclusively on the outside, but he may have the most upside of the trio. He recorded 42 tackles, 2.5 stops for loss and an interception in 2009.
Lucas posted 39 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, last year. He has played nearly his entire career at NC State in the middle.
It's no secret that NC State needs improved performances at the safety position if it is going be better on defense. The likely favorites are sophomore Brandan Bishop and redshirt sophomore Earl Wolff. Bishop recorded 32 tackles and three pass breakups, while Wolff added 42 tackles and two breakups. Both showed flashes in their rookie seasons, but were also inconsistent. Redshirt freshmen Donald Coleman, Dean Haynes and Everett Proctor will also get long looks this spring. All of them will need to impress this spring if they want to fend off challenges coming from four incoming recruits in the fall.