North Carolina State's top three tacklers in the loss at South Carolina last Thursday were all linebackers, followed by both starting safeties, which is exactly how the Wolfpack defense is set up.
Redshirt sophomore weakside outside linebacker Nate Irving led the Pack with 10 tackles, nine of them solo, and one spectacular one-handed interception. Irving recorded eight of his tackles in the first half, and added two tackles for loss in the game.
Robbie Leonard, a redshirt senior who made his first start at strongside outside linebacker, followed Irving with nine tackles, and redshirt junior Ray Michel added eight solo stops in his second career start.
"They did a lot of good things, but that is just one game," NC State linebackers coach Andy McCollum said. "As the game got going, for some it was the first time at that position, but I thought the effort was great. They made some plays but we still need to shut them down. We have a lot of growing left to do.
"I think overall, they did a lot of good things, but they can get a heck of a lot better. We just have to keep continuing to work."
Irving was hailed as the leader of the crew and a potential star for the future. He didn't disappoint in any area, making it seem like he was everywhere on defense.
"Irving stood out and made some big plays, getting the turnover, and making some big tackles," McCollum said. "He still has some growing to do."
Irving's impressive hands were not a surprise to McCollum.
"Nate is a good athlete and has grown up so much from the first year to the second year," McCollum said. "He is just fundamentally better. He is a bright kid and a very smart guy, and sees things well. He's playing with better pad level now and he wants to be good. It means something to him."
Michel started the season finale last year against Maryland. He was able to log 264 plays a year ago as James Martin's backup, recording 43 tackles. He played 60 snaps against the Gamecocks.
"Michel with the exception of the last drive, did some good things," McCollum said. "The last play, he had a tackle and he missed. That's one that will be in his mind every single day because he played very tough and made a lot of plays. We just have to learn how to finish."
Leonard was able to dispel some doubts after making the move from safety. The 6-foot, 205-pounder held up well and played more plays against South Carolina (63) than he had previously in his whole career (40) for the Wolfpack.
Leonard and other members of the defense did a quality job of shutting down South Carolina tight end Jared Cook, who only had two catches for 19 yards, though he did sneak in a late 13-yard touchdown to finish off the scoring.
"Leonard playing a new position made a lot of plays," McCollum said. "Robbie is a tough guy and an older guy, though he hasn't played a lot. We have at a position that allows him to do some things. He's a high motor guy who plays fast. He'll only continue to get better."
The opener also marked the first games for freshmen Sterling Lucas (middle linebacker) and Dwayne Maddox (weakside outside linebacker), plus another new member to the group, senior Ryan Goodman, who has moved from safety to strongside outside linebacker just as Leonard has.
"It was great getting Sterling, Dwayne and Ryan in there, getting them about 10-to-12 snaps apiece," McCollum said. "We have to continue getting them snaps to help us because we are going to need them. However, every day is a learning experience for them. They just have to make sure they do what they are supposed to do in the defense, but they are still learning."
McCollum expects the linebackers to take another step forward this Saturday in the home opener against William & Mary.
"It's a good group to coach and they want to be good, and they know nobody thinks they are," McCollum said. "That is a chip they carry on their shoulder every day they go to work."
Redshirt freshman Justin Byers, a versatile defensive back lining up at safety for NC State, was one of a few rookies to get their first career start last Thursday in the season opener at South Carolina.
"I was excited and at the same time a little nervous," Byers said. "It was my first time in a crowd that big, never played a game at this level of football. My nerves were a little jittery, but after the first couple of plays they went away.
"That first drive they were pretty loud. After a couple of drives they quieted down a little bit. The first drive they were pretty loud out there, never heard anything like that."
Byers said though that South Carolina's Space Odyssey 2001 introduction did not do much for him.
"Coach told us about it, he said he wanted us to see it, maybe it would be something interesting to watch," Byers said. "Looked like a regular pregame to me."
Byers finished the game with five tackles, four of them solo, and intercepted a pass. Overall he said he would grade his effort as a "C."
"I got a lot of things to work on," Byers said. "A couple of times when I got tired my mind went blank and I went back to bad techniques, bad fundamentals, and I when I get tired I need to go back to my fundamentals because it will keep me fresh, keep me doing what I am supposed to do."
On the interception, Byers had to hustle to get into position for the pick.
"I knew they thought Jeremy [Gray] was going to blitz on the play because he was showing blitz," Byers said. "So I figured they were coming that way. He ran the post. At first I thought I was beat because he had a step on me. As I turned to run, I seen the ball being thrown and I see that it was going to be thrown behind him. In my head I was just thing, 'Stop and go get it before he comes back and gets it.'"
NC State's defense held up very well for three quarters, allowing just 161 yards when the fourth quarter started, and 10 of South Carolina's 13 points came after Wolfpack turnovers started the Gamecocks' possession in the red zone.
"There are things we need to work on," Byers said. "There is no perfect game in football. There are still things we need to work on. I feel like our legs got a little fatigued before the end, and we weren't sticking with what we had been doing the whole camp, and when we stop doing that, that's when they started making plays."
Byers said he loves playing safety, but he has no qualms about moving to cornerback if needed.
"Wherever they put me I'll play my heart out at," Byers said.
One of the leaders of the defense is redshirt junior defensive tackle Alan-Michael Cash, and Cash is confident that NC State will give a great effort Saturday against William & Mary after the 34-0 loss to South Carolina.
"Yesterday we practiced better than the last two days going into the South Carolina game, so the tempo is still there. Everybody is still pretty positive on the team," Cash said.
"I think we do have to make a statement. Defense knows what we have to do. We want to shut them out basically. Offense, they'll bring it together and do pretty good in this game out there."