As wide-open, spread offenses have become more and more common across college football, defenses have to do something in response. The solution at NC State next fall could reside in the 4-2-5 alignment — which is basically the nickel package they employed last year, but it could be used more this fall.
When head coach Dave Doeren was hired, the former defensive coordinator noted his background was rooted in 4-3 defenses, and the same can be said of defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Dave Huxtable.
The Wolfpack is likely to continue to utilize multiple looks on defense, and even their 4-2-5 will utilize those traditional 4-3 principles that are so familiar to the coaches, according to Huxtable.
"It gives us a little more speed and athleticism on the field," he said of putting five defensive backs on the field. "We had four senior linebackers last year that graduated and aren't with us anymore, so we don't have the numbers and depth at linebacker. We're a little bit deeper back there in the secondary so that was a reason for that, and like I said earlier, it gives us a little more speed on the field."
State started a pair of seniors in the middle of the defense last year, while then-junior Brandon Pittman and M.J. Salahuddin, a year younger than Pittman, battled for the starting spot at weakside linebacker all year.
Salahuddin started summer camp atop the depth chart at middle linebacker before he was moved outside and went on to start five games. He recorded 25 tackles and a pair of stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Meanwhile, Pittman started the other seven games, including each of the final four — a span in which he totaled 37 tackles with five stops behind the line of scrimmage and two sacks. He finished tied for second on the team with three sacks, in addition to ranking fourth with 62 stops and fifth with seven tackles for loss.
Huxtable has no doubts that that pair of upperclassmen who were in competition last year can compliment each other this fall.
"Absolutely they can," he said. "Right now, they're at different positions so they'll be on the field together.
"They are very similar in size and athleticism, as well as the way they play the game."
After the school announced earlier this spring that safety Jarvis Byrd will return for a sixth year thanks to a medical hardship, Huxtable has no shortage of options on the back line. Byrd suffered the third torn ACL of his career after he started the first five games of 2013, but was an integral leader on the squad and the coach expects the most senior member of the team to fill that role again this season.
"Bless his heart, Jarvis has been through a lot of adversity and he has just hung tough," Huxtable noted. "I'm so excited for him. He was a great leader for us last year, and he's a tremendous player. He's going to be a great player for us again this year."
Redshirt junior strong safety Hakim Jones should be able to provide similar experience and leadership from the secondary after he started all 12 games a year ago and totaled 61 tackles with two interceptions. Outside of that pair, Huxtable may not have much game experience but he has some intriguing options to fill out the lineup.
Redshirt junior Tim Buckley played in 12 games last season and was the main nickel back down the stretch after Byrd was hurt and former cornerback Dontae Johnson had to move back to safety.
Buckley checks in at 6-foot and 195 pounds and sophomore Dravious Wright is also an option, but the Pack boasts a plethora of plus-size safety possibilities - redshirt sophomore Josh Sessoms (6-2, 197), redshirt freshmen Malcolm Means (6-2, 197) and Josh Jones (6-2, 210), plus early enrollees Germaine Pratt (6-3, 195) and Kalen McCain (6-2, 186), could all factor into the competition.
"They're big dudes with that length and athleticism they give you," Huxtable said. "It's good looking back there and seeing guys with that size. Because they are so athletic and so rangy, it's going to allow us to do a few more things."
At corner the Pack returns junior starter Juston Burris and sophomore Jack Tocho, who started off as the team's nickel back but was moved into the starting lineup for the final seven games and finished the year with 25 tackles and two interceptions. However, another player at the position has caught Huxtable's eye early on this spring.
"That experience goes a long ways, but I'll tell you the other guy who is having a [heck] of a spring is [redshirt sophomore] Niles Clark," he said. "He made a big play out here [Wednesday] for us in practice, and I think he has had three picks this spring. He's had a really nice spring so far."
Pratt and McCain — who according to this ESPN.com article were playing with the second-team defense in the team's first scrimmage of the spring — represent just half of the four early enrollees on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Ty Linton and defensive tackle B.J. Hill also arrived on campus between semesters.
"All of those guys have really done a tremendous job," Huxtable noted. "I've been really impressed with how quick they've learned and picked up the system, and how hard they've worked. I'm sure that some things are still swimming up top, but they're working really hard and doing a good job picking it up."
Hill adds another promising body to the unquestioned strength of the team: defensive tackle. The Pack returns three significant players from last year's rotation up front in fifth-year senior Thomas Teal, senior T.Y. McGill and sophomore Monty Nelson. Redshirt freshman Kenton Gibbs also drew rave reviews before he tore his Achilles tendon and missed the campaign.
"We are [counting on them to be the strength], and they should be," the coach said. "Monty is back after having a great freshman year, and we've got T.Y. and Thomas, too. We also get Kenton back. He hasn't gone through a lot this spring, but he's going to be healthy. B.J. Hill, who graduated early and is here, has done a tremendous job for a guy that has been here for just two-and-a-half months. That position inside should be a strength for us."