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The defensive line depth chart looks drastically different than what was anticipated at the beginning of the season.
Projected starters and fifth-year seniors J.R. Sweezy (foot) and Jeff Rieskamp (shoulder) are both nursing injuries. Sweezy, a defensive tackle, has been out since the preseason, while Rieskamp, a defensive end, has missed the last three games.
Sweezy's replacement, junior Brian Slay, injured his ankle against Cincinnati. Slay's backup would have probably been redshirt freshman Thomas Teal, but Teal broke his foot in the season opener Sept. 3. The Pack turned to sophomore A.J. Ferguson, who was limited with a knee injury that he suffered at Cincinnati.
The plethora of injuries to one unit has forced some changes. Head coach Tom O'Brien announced Monday that they are going to move redshirt sophomore defensive end Darryl Cato-Bishop inside to tackle. Cato-Bishop has 23 tackles, including four for loss and three sacks, and 12 quarterback hurries this year.
True freshman T.Y. McGill, pressed into action this year, will back up Cato-Bishop. After that? The fourth defensive tackle is now walk-on and Campbell transfer Jacob Kahut, who started this year at offensive guard.
"He's a little undersized right now, but he'll play low and he'll play hard," O'Brien said about Kahut, 6-foot-4, 257 pounds. "He's the end of the line right now."
Because Cato-Bishop has moved inside, junior McKay Frandsen moves to the first string opposite redshirt freshman Art Norman, who replaced the injured Rieskamp in the lineup. Backing those two up are now redshirt sophomore Sylvester Crawford and redshirt freshman Theo Rich.
O'Brien admitted that his preseason expectations for the team was at least a bowl game, but he's concerned about the injuries.
"We haven't had a defensive football team out there yet after the second week of camp that we thought we would be playing with," O'Brien pointed out. "You can't play if you don't have your guys there to play."
Trying to piece together a defense against Georgia Tech is a scary proposition. The Jackets are averaging 53.2 points, 630.5 yards of total offense and 398.8 yards rushing per game this year, all tops in the ACC. But it's their improvement in the passing game, where they are averaging 231.8 yards throwing a contest, that has taken their offense to almost impossible to defend levels.
"This offense is always hard to play because it's unique, but it's a great challenge for this football team," O'Brien said. "You're going to find out the guys that are disciplined, the guys that are mentally tough. It forces you to concentrate on your assignments each and every play. You can't not play your assignment on one play. The thing they are doing so much better now is they're throwing the ball.
"Obviously last year at the end of the year they decided they were going to get into the passing game. They've always put pressure on you inside. Now it puts pressure on your perimeter people to play both the outside game and the passing game."
O'Brien though praised his team for being resilient. He thinks the healthy players on defense are excited about the challenge.
"Nobody is feeling sorry for us, so we got to get it done," O'Brien said. "It's going to have to take a great effort, but I think we're capable of it."
Click below for audio from Monday's press conference.
Other tidbits from Monday's press conference
- O'Brien said that sophomore running back Mustafa Greene has not been cleared to play yet. Greene led NC State in rushing as a rookie in 2010 with 134 carries for 597 yards. He injured his foot during spring practice, requiring surgery. He has yet to return.
O'Brien said they may be approaching the time to decide whether or not to play Greene or go ahead and redshirt him.
"I think somewhere by the open week all those [decisions] have to be made," O'Brien said. "We keep playing and we'll make the decision somewhere, once we get through the first half of the year, [see] where he is and if he is going to be able to come back to play."
- NC State ran for negative-26 yards on 22 carries against Cincinnati. O'Brien explained though part of that was the function of a game plan that focused on throwing the ball early.
"We thought that was our best chance," O'Brien said. "I think we threw the ball six, seven plays in a row the first drive. We were going to get to the run game as the game evolved, but as the game evolved, we never had a chance to get to the run game. We had to throw the ball to get there."
- O'Brien said that senior receiver T.J. Graham has been "very good" this year. Graham leads the team with 19 catches for 428 yards and four touchdowns.
"It's what we hoped to see out of him when we recruited him," O'Brien said. "We thought he had that potential. He's certainly has stepped up and shown what he is capable of doing."
O'Brien added that because a lot of teams are putting nine defenders in the box against NC State's offense, it has given Graham a lot of one-on-one coverage outside.