One look at NC State senior defensive backs Dontae Johnson and Jarvis Byrd could be misleading. Johnson, the fourth-year from Pennington, N.J., measures 6-2 and 195 pounds, while Byrd, a fifth-year senior from Pahokee, Fla., checks in at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds.
Based on looks, the casual observer would probably expect Byrd to line up at cornerback and Johnson at safety when the defensive huddle breaks, but that would actually be the opposite of where the two play in the Wolfpack defense now.
Johnson moved from the back line to full-time cornerback last season, although he served as the team's nickelback in the previous year. He finished 2012 with 80 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and one sack, and four pass breakups while starting every game.
Meanwhile Byrd has been a cornerback up until this spring when the new staff put him at free safety. He appeared in four games last season, but logged just nine snaps from scrimmage and no statistics after he successfully recovered from his second major knee injury.
The duo, who will lead a new-look secondary after the departure of three starters, admit that they sometimes revert to their basic instincts, but they try to use that to help each other.
"We have different eyes," Johnson said. "I'll have the safety eyes sometimes when he doesn't and he'll have the corner eyes sometimes when I don't. We are always exchanging information and bouncing different things off each other; it allows us to get comfortable with where we're at now."
Johnson and Byrd are two key members of the senior class that head coach Dave Doeren noted, "has a look in their eye that you like to see.
"They know they're out of time and they've got to get it done now."
Dontae Moving Down
When the previous coaching staff first approached Johnson about moving from safety to nickelback, he saw it as a way to get on the field despite the presence of an outstanding and experienced safety duo in Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop, both of whom are now in NFL training camps.
He had no quarrels making the move permanent the following year, even though he had never played corner before his time at NC State.
"Honestly, moving was a shock to me, but the coaches trusted me to move because I'm athletic enough to play the position," he said. "I just wanted to help the team win."
Johnson's athletic ability and size served in well at corner, where he settled in quickly. Despite his inexperience at the position, the former safety is a grizzled veteran compared to the three starters who will surround him in the secondary this fall. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Juston Burris played extensively in the nickel package and pulled down three interceptions in 2012, but Byrd and fellow safety Hakim Jones are expected to see significant action for the first time in their respective careers. That doesn't mean the elder statesmen lacks for confidence in his group.
"I really feel comfortable with Jarvis and Hakim coming in and playing right away," he said. "Jarvis was a corner, but he hasn't played due to injury and he has a chip on his shoulder to prove that he's capable of playing. By switching from corner to safety, I feel that's really going to help him a lot in the coverage aspect. He's really physical already and that's going to be huge."
Trial (And Success) By Fire
Johnson may only have one year of experience as a full-time cornerback, but he has no doubt in his own abilities, either. He acclimated himself well as a first-time nickelback in 2010, when he totaled 30 tackles, including a trio of sacks over the final four games, and he continued the rapid improvements last season. He has moved around the defense his entire collegiate career, but that has only aided the veteran of 16 starts in learning and understanding defensive schemes.
"It's kind of tough, but it's just one of those things where I just have to keep at it in the film room, studying the playbook and asking a lot of questions when I don't understand things," he said. "I understand the defense a lot better by knowing it from different positions. I'll know where my help is going to be and it allows me to play a lot faster.
"I've sensed I'll be moving around again this year. Whatever it takes for me to help this team win, I'm willing to do, whether it's me playing nickel or outside."
Cornerbacks coach Richard McNutt said that Johnson's skill set and intelligence allows him to play anywhere in the defensive backfield. He wouldn't reveal the staff's plans for the corner in his final year of eligibility, but he did note how valuable the veteran is to the secondary, as well as the entire defense.
"He's a senior, he has game experience and he's a leader for the whole group," the coach said. "As long as he's back there, he's another coach on the field and in the [meeting] room, he helps out tremendously.
"He provides confidence and experience to the whole unit. He has all the intangibles - the height, weight and speed. He's a technician and he has a very high football IW, which allows him to make plays that a lot of other guys can't. He can play man and zone coverage; he's going to be a great one."
Johnson admits that moving closer to the line of scrimmage sped the game up significantly, especially in the beginning, but the senior has never been one to back down from a challenge.
Last year, he was tasked with shutting down Wake Forest receiver Michael Campanaro, and he aced the difficult test during a 37-6 win. The small and shifty pass catcher led the ACC and ranked eighth nationally with an average of 7.9 receptions per game, but was limited to five catches for just 14 yards on that day. Johnson is now ready for the challenge of facing No. 1 options on a weekly basis, which he noted will require great attention to detail and flawless technique.
"I welcomed the challenge during the offseason by training harder and getting ready for that jump in competition - covering dynamic receivers that are talented and are the best receivers on the opposing team," he said. "I'm really looking forward to it.
"That's what you play the game for, to compete and see at the end of the day who comes out with a victory. It's great to see different athletes across the ACC and when we get on the field, it's a competition; I love it."
The corner is also taking on the task of emerging as a leader for the whole squad. Doeren admits that Johnson is not a really vocal guy by nature, but he's still more than capable of leading the troops.
"He's a guy that shows up, does his job, does it really well and handles himself off the field in the right way," the coach said. "I don't care what position you are, if you do your job, you always do what the coaches ask and more, people are going to respect you and we're going to be able to use that guy in a lot of ways.
"Everything you want a player to be like is what he does."
Motivated For More
The lanky former safety paired with David Amerson to form the tallest starting cornerback duo in the country last season, and he'll be a part of another twin tower combination when he lines up opposite of Burris, who is 6-1, this season. The results didn't always meet expectations in 2012 and outside prospects might be lowered this fall when that is coupled with the Pack's coaching transition, but Johnson and his teammates are using the doubts as fuel this fall.
"It definitely gives you motivation just to go out there and re-identify yourself as a football team," he said. "People are looking at it and say, 'they just lose their coach, this is probably a rebuilding year,' and we're taking that as a chip on our shoulder. We want to go out there and prove people wrong.
"With it being Coach Doeren's first year here, I'm trying to be one of the leaders to get the ball rolling. I really take pride in my University, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure we're great this year and we get the right back into NC State football, so we can give the fans what they deserve."
Byrd Bounces Back
When Byrd took the game field last season it was his first live action since he played in five games with three starts as a true freshman corner in 2009. Against North Carolina that year, he suffered his first torn ACL, and he went down again before the 2011 preseason - when he was a projected starter - after he tore his other one, which played a role in the coaches' decision to move him to the back line.
"We were just trying to get our best 11 on the field and we felt like, at corner with him, Dontae and Burris, those were three of our better defensive backs," Doeren explained. "Byrd, having the ACL injuries he's had - not that he can't run - he's a better fit [at safety]. He's a fast safety, so it's a way to make him a more effective player."
Byrd thinks the move fits his vocal personality, as well. He said the safety is responsible for making all of the defensive calls and adjustments, and he has embraced that leadership role.
He has also had a plethora of former NCSU safeties to quiz about the position, in addition to Johnson. Byrd looked to former teammates DaJuan Morgan, who was drafted in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, as well as Bishop for pointers on playing the back line.
"I was trying to get as much advice as I could to be the best safety I can possibly be," he said. "All of the guys told me to make sure I learn the playbook first. Then, after I learn it, to keep going over plays and formations so that it is memorized. Other than that, they said to just play my game and don't be nervous."
Although Byrd has never played safety before, he thinks the game has slowed down with his move further back from the line of scrimmage. There is more responsibility on his shoulders and more things that he has to read, but he has adjusted well.
"Playing at cornerback, I used to be zoned in to one or two guys," he remembered. "At safety, you can never get tuned in like that.
"I can watch everything unfold in front of me and, after that, I've just got to play football."
Byrd is just thankful to be back on the gridiron after battling through a pair of ACL tears. He admitted that he nearly gave up on the sport after the second injury, but noted several teammates kept him positive through the arduous rehabilitation process. He said there's no place he'd rather be than on the gridiron with the guys that picked him up when he was done.
"Those are the guys that watched me when I was hurt," he said. "They came to me then and I've grown with those guys through both of my rehab processes. They also know what kind of player I'm capable of being when I'm 100 percent, so just to go out there and give it all I've got with those guys is like a blessing.
"Without those guys, I don't know where I would be today."
When Byrd returned last fall, he brought a new attitude with him, and that is his way to repay those teammates who were always by his inside. Instead of loafing when times get tough, now Byrd pushes even harder. When he sees younger teammates slacking, he'll share his story in an attempt to get them to pick it up.
"I'm stronger physically and mentally because going through the rehab process twice, you realize that to play college football at a big-time university like NC State is a blessing," he noted. "It made me change my ways big time and it made me grow up as a man; it helped me mature faster. I think everything happens for a reason because when I first got to college, I didn't really have my head on right. The injuries settled me down and it made me realize it's not all about me, there's a bigger picture."
Byrd will play a huge role on the defense as a vocal leader - Doeren called him one of the best on the entire unit - and he's also a guy that will help deliver something many might not expect on first glance.
"I think our team respects the adversity he's overcome," Doeren explained. "He's a tough dude, and he's one of the best hitters pound-for-pound on our team. I think our guys have a lot of respect for him."
The safety sees the same sense of urgency that Doeren noted in his classmates, and the group has added a phrase to the coaching staff's motto to make it: "One Pack, one goal, one shot."
"For the guys like Dontae and I, this is our last year," he explained. "We're going to put it all on the line this year, try to the best of our ability and play like we know we can. We want to go out and win an ACC Championship and we want to prove to the nation we're one of the best groups of defensive backs."