NC State has a quartet of former starters to replace in the secondary heading into next season. After the graduations of cornerback C.J. Wilson and safeties Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop, as well as the early departure of corner David Amerson for the NFL Draft, there are several starting spots open for competition under the new coaching staff.
Rising senior cornerback Dontae Johnson is one starter that can be written down in ink at one outside spot, while rising redshirt sophomore Juston Burris is ready for his chance to shine after he backed up Amerson at the field corner spot last year and also played outside in the team's nickel package.
Burris, who appeared in all 13 games and was credited for five starts with three interceptions and eight pass breakups, is actually very similar to Amerson, who is expected to be selected in the first two rounds of April's NFL Draft.
Both in-state products check in around 6-foot-1 and were stellar high school safeties that switched to cornerback after they arrived on campus. The major difference is that Amerson played immediately, while Burris redshirted, but that year of learning could pay dividends for State - while Amerson, the school record holder for interceptions, did not record any picks during his first year on the field, Burris debuted with three last season and took advantage of the redshirt season by adding 20 pounds to his frame since graduation.
"He taught me just to be patient," Burris said of Amerson. "He taught me things like if the receiver is lined up inside, play outside; things like that, which you wouldn't be able to see unless you broke it down on film. He took me in the film room, things like that. Being behind David was a valuable experience.
"If I could be similar to David, I would love that. I'd love to be a guy like that and I'd love to be better than David. I'd love to take what he taught me and put that in my game this year. I feel like I could do a lot better than I did last year by just taking tidbits from the things he did."
Amerson wasn't the only guy that has mentored Burris, and he credits his elder foursome of former teammates, as well as Johnson, with giving him some invaluable lessons in Raleigh. He's looking forward to serving in that role now for his younger teammates.
"They were very valuable, that's something you can't put a price on," he said. "Now I see that I'm one of those guys that needs to be very talkative. They helped me through a lot of things, like the checks we had last year and things I needed to know, but I didn't know because it was my first year playing.
"Now, I have to be the one that is more vocal and helps the younger guys, like Niles [Clark] and Marchez [Coates]. I have to help those guys through some of the things that they don't know because they haven't played. I have to let them see the things that I've seen playing last year."
Although Burris has only been playing cornerback for two years and he admits he is still far from a finished product, he is leaning on his experience gained last year, in addition to the advice elder teammates have given him.
"Last year definitely helps a lot," he said. "I saw the speed of the game. After redshirting my first year, I didn't get to see the full speed of the game. Last year, getting thrown into the first against Tennessee and playing against some guys that are going to play in the NFL, I got to see the speed of the game. Going into this year, I know what to expect. I know what I have to do to prepare myself to go out there and shut a receiver down.
"It's still a learning process and I'm still going through everything to get to where I feel real comfortable, but I'm definitely getting there."
Burris also called learning the new defensive scheme a learning process, but one that is moving quickly. Although the secondary lacks the experience it boasted last season, the rising redshirt sophomore is confident the group will get the job done, as long as they continue to communicate.
"Obviously it's a new defense and we're coming into our own with that, but we're definitely talking through the calls, talking through the motions, talking through the checks and things like that," he said. "Everybody knows what they're doing, but everybody has to be on the same page, so it's definitely good that everybody is communicating, there's a lot more talking out there. Communication is always key.
"I'm very confident [in the secondary]. We have a lot of grinders. We have a lot of people that are going to go out there are work. We have guys that are in the weight room everyday, they are even going on campus to the weight room. We have guys that are working hard in drills after practice, we're always trying to get better. That's definitely pushing the group, third-string guys are pushing first-string guys, you can't come out here comfortable.
"Niles and Marchez, they are going to be players. They are going to push me and Dontae to get on the field early. They are going to play, I know that; they are scrappy. They have two different games. Niles is a more finesse, cover guy and Marchez is a physical guy that will punch a guy at the line. They are definitely going to be good, I can see it."
With the new energy that has infused the program, Burris noted that the players look forward to practicing and have clear goals for the future.
"It's been great, high-tempo," he said of spring workouts. "A lot of us are getting tired with the change in tempo, but it's a lot of fun. There's a lot of energy out here, a lot of guys talking and a lot of communication, so it's definitely a lot of fun coming out here to practice.
"We're coming out trying to win the ACC Championship. We're not trying to just win seven games. We're coming out here trying to work to be the best that we can."