First-year NC State coach Dave Doeren is looking forward to Friday's alumni reunion and what his squad looks like Saturday at the Kay Yow Spring Game at Carter-Finley Stadium.
The Wolfpack have been making progress with some new and old players finding success in new roles. The football alumni will be out at Friday's practice at 5 p.m., and then there is a banquet to follow. Doeren is happy to build on the recent tradition.
"I'm excited for that," Doeren said. "I've never worked — even at USC, which is a great alumni base — that had a place that really had an event as well attended as this one is going to be."
The Wolfpack return four starters on defense, but a quartet of players have past starting experience. Senior linebacker D.J. Green started seven games in 2011 at outside linebacker, but missed last year due to suspension. Sophomore cornerback Juston Burris, sophomore linebacker Rodman Noel and redshirt junior defensive end Art Norman also started five games apiece last fall.
Doeren's returns an experienced defensive line and one starter in the secondary from last year (senior cornerback Dontae Johnson). The defense has been ahead of the offense this spring, and also has the advantage of seeing the same plays over and over in practice.
"Our defense has seen our offense for 12 practices and looks like it," Doeren said. "They know the plays. It's kind of expected and those guys have more experience on that side of the ball. I think our receivers have made a few strides the last couple of weeks."
Doeren pointed out following Tuesday's practice that fifth-year senior Jarvis Byrd has adjusted well from cornerback to free safety, and sophomore linebacker M.J. Salahuddin is doing well this spring.
"M.J. is really having a solid spring," Doeren said. "I'm really impressed with what he brings. It's not just that the can run and hit. He really loves playing football."
Byrd has 18 tackles in nine career games, but missed both the 2010 and 2011 seasons due to separate torn ACL's suffered on both knees. Doeren wanted his best four defensive backs on the field, hence the switch from cornerback to free safety for Byrd. He'll be able to handle slot receivers.
"He's playing safety right now with the ones," Doeren said. "He's a senior and he loves football, but has lost football. Guys that lose the game understand how precious it is. He's a guy that we moved after the fourth practice, so it has taken him a while to get comfortable, but now he's playing better."
NC State's quicker pace on offense has led to players to work hard on their conditioning to keep up, but Doeren still called it a "work in progress."
"We are finally at a point where we are running everywhere we go," Doeren said. "The fatigue factor is less and less, and that's big. The guys are starting to understand the tempo and what it means. It's a weapon if you do it the right way."
With quarterbacks Pete Thomas, a rising redshirt junior, and sophomore Manny Stocker still learning the nuances of the playbook, the competition will continue into the fall. Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett, who will sit out next year and have two years of eligibility, will also play in the spring game.
Thomas and Stocker are starting to throw with more accuracy with each and every week.
"They are getting better, but I told someone the other day that I don't think it's fair to make a decision on a guy who doesn't know your offense yet," Doeren said. "We have to give those kids a chance to play football without thinking, and we aren't there yet. Some of the throws that we've made in the last four periods of practice weren't made early on."
The Wolfpack return four offensive starters, but also have a few others with past starting experience, including Thomas, who was a two-year starter at Colorado State.
"We've put in quite a bit because we wanted to see what they could or couldn't do," Doeren said. "There is a fine line obviously in doing too many things and not allowing your kids to play fast.
"When you don't know your personnel like we did coming in, you want to throw a lot of things out there to see what they can do. Now, we can scale things to fit maybe our personnel better."
Doeren has recently praised wide receivers Rashard Smith, a fifth-year senior, and sophomore Charlie Hegedus. Fifth-year senior Quintin Payton and redshirt junior Bryan Underwood also return at receiver.
Underwood caught 44 passes for 620 yards and 10 touchdowns, while starting four games a year ago. Doeren expects Underwood to work even harder this offseason.
"Bryan does a lot of things after he gets the ball in his hands that excites you because of his speed," Doeren said. "He is a small guy that needs to play bigger in the pass game.
"Coming off the season he had, it's normal to expect to be good, but you have to work. It doesn't matter what you did last year. I think he's a guy that likes Saturday's more than he likes Tuesday's. We'll get him there."