NC State is close to wrapping up their fall camp, and the obvious question mark heading into the season is linebacker. The Wolfpack took a blow at the position when true sophomore Michael Peek went down with a torn ACL, which will force him to miss the season. Peek was listed as the team's second-string linebacker on the weakside.
"Losing Michael Peek doesn't help, we don't have a lot of depth there right now," defensive coordinator Mike Archer said. "We're kind of moving guys around, trying to find the best three [linebackers] and the best two. That's going to be continuous until we play. We'll come up with three guys that will be able to play. They'll be well-coached and they'll do a good job. We just don't have a lot of experience."
Some reinforcements have arrived for the Red and White at the position, when junior college transfer Robert Caldwell was finally cleared in the middle of last week. However, Archer is not quite sure where the 6-foot-3, 235 pound junior fits just yet.
"It's hard to tell because [Thursday] was the first day he had shoulder pads on," the coach explained. "He hasn't practiced until [Wednesday], so I can't answer that. I haven't seen enough of him, hopefully we'll be able to scrimmage him and see what he can do."
One position of strength for the Pack will be its secondary, led by All-American junior cornerback David Amerson and a tandem of senior safeties in Brandan Bishop and Earl Wolff. One surprise of camp so far was when junior Dontae Johnson trotted out with the first-team defense at cornerback in the team's first practice, in place of fifth-year senior C.J. Wilson.
Johnson, who measures in at 6-3, 196 pounds, gives State an imposing pair of cornerbacks because Amerson also checks in at 6-3 and 190-plus pounds. Archer has been impressed with Johnson's play on the outside so far, as he makes the same move that Amerson did, from prep safety to college corner.
"We've got two big corners, and that's unusual now," Archer said. "They look like what you are looking for in the NFL, and we're very fortunate to have those two types of guys physically."
"[Johnson's move to corner has] been good, we did it in the spring and that gave him a chance to learn the ins and outs of it. Now, we've had 11 practices, and we've installed a lot. I think he's still learning, but he's a very smart guy. Playing the nickel, he has to know what the corners are doing on both sides because of his alignment. Because of that, he has very good football instincts, he has very good football intelligence. Now, it's just a matter of him learning to play corner."
When NC State goes into its sub packages, Archer expects Johnson to slide into his customary nickel slot, in addition to playing on the outside in some situations.
"We're going to do both," he said. "He's played inside, he's a very effective blitzer, he understands [the nickel position]. He's very smart and he makes a lot of calls and checks for us, so that's going to be his primary position. But we've got some flexibility to be able to put him at the corner and move people around because [opponents] are going to be very aware of where David [Amerson] is, and we have to be smart about how we use him."
Archer expressed some concern about the defensive tackle position in the summer during his sit-down interview with The Wolfpacker, and he talked about how the interior of the line is progressing.
"It's some good, some bad," he said. "[Thomas] Teal has missed some time, Brian Slay has missed some time, but that has given reps to Carlos [Gray], T.Y. [McGill] and Dave [Mann]. We've got to get some guys back healthy, but it's the bumps and bruises of training camp. Right now, some days, it's good; some days, it's bad - it's been very inconsistent.
"The ends in particular have done a good job. Art Norman has done a nice job, so has McKay Frandsen, and Darryl Cato-Bishop has had the best camp since he's been here. The tackle position is something we've got to get solidified here in the next three weeks."
Archer also sized up a few of the defensive rookies, who he said are adjusting well, despite the challenges of moving from the high school level to college.
"They've all had their moments," he said. "Their heads are kind of spinning right now as we put more and more in.
"Some of them in particular have done a good job. Kenderius Whitehead and K'Hadree Hooker have done a good job. The two young corners, Niles Clark and Marchez Coates, have picked it up and they're freshmen. The young linebacker, M.J. Salahuddin has done a good job. The two safeties, J.J. Jones and Josh Sessoms, are learning, but I think they're all very capable footballs players. Some of them will play, some of them won't."