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NC State Football Preview: The Front Six

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So far, we’ve broken down the running game and the passing game, both of which return a lot of guys but have to replace some of last year’s key contributors. Now were on the other side of the ball where the hype train really starts to get going.

Much has been done about the number of returning starters NC State will have next year, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But there is another number that may be more important. State returns 10 of the 11 starters, but it also returns 8 of the 11 second-stringers, bringing together 18 of the 22 players who saw some amount of significant playing time last year. It’s the returning depth here that really kicks the butt, and the value of quality depth, as we learned last year, is immeasurable.

Three of the four departures, including the lone starter, are on the defensive front six. These included starting defensive end Daniel Joseph, backup end Ibrahim Kante, who played sparingly, mostly as a pass rusher, and Vi Jones, who was a backup linebacker who started the second half of the season and was really good.

The d-line was pretty good last year, but it feels like it’s ready to pop this year. I realize these prospects were overwhelmingly optimistic, but if you expected me to hold that in check when we got the defense, well, I’m not sure what you want from me. Five out of six on the two-deep return, and some of those guys were just starting to approach their potential. With another full off-season behind them and (hopefully) completely healthy, this group really has a chance to get measurably better this year.

Cory Durden was the breakthrough player up front last year. He slipped to the nose after CJ Clarks injury and finished in the first team All-ACC, quite an incredible feat considering it was Durden’s first year in the program and he was basically a backup to the position. Durden certainly didn’t have to come back this year, but he now has the chance to anchor something really special.

You can expect him to start at the nose with Josh Harris probably behind him on the official two-deep. Harris was a lighter user throughout his career, playing around 10 snaps per game last year, but was instrumental in a number of season-changing plays in 2020. Now he has a much more efficient playing weight and hopefully ready to contribute as a bigger chunk of the rotation.

Where the state has a chance to get well soon is at both endpoints. Savion Jackson is healthy again and a man many people expect to really explode this year. Jackson really came through last year before an injury in the FSU game ended his season early. He has scored 14 of his 23 tackles in his last three games. Jackson should have locked up an entry-level role alongside Durden and could be a big year, but he may not even be the man with the highest potential out there.

The opposite finishing spot could see a bit of a position battle between CJ Clark, who shifts there after Durden’s rise, and Davin Vann. Vann is a freak of an athlete. Here he does a 300lb backflip.

I really like Vann. He is a versatile guy with his combination of size and athleticism. He’s not a pure pass rusher, but he’s certainly a capable one, being an asset to a defensive front that should replace a man of similar qualities in Daniel Joseph. Vann was second on the d-line in sacks, despite playing as a second-stringer in the rotation for most of the season. Both Vann and Clark will play a lot, but don’t be surprised if it’s Vann who gets the nod to Jackson as the starter.

Whatever happens there, you feel good about the talent level and experience across the board, which is a theme across most of the team. This should be the state’s best line of defense since Bradley Chubb anchored the front in 2017.

Here’s a fun stat. Five of the six players on the two-deep were blue-chip recruits, and depending on which recruiting service you use, it could be all six if Travali Price cracks the depth chart. Doeren has recruited a pretty good run of defensive linemen, and the 2019 class with Savion Jackson, CJ Clark and Josh Harris was his best. It’s decided that these guys are next, and hopefully they’re ready to be stars.

I’m not sure how much really needs to be written about the linebackers. Isaiah Moore, Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas all return and together could be the best linebacker corps in the country. If it’s not the best, it’s easily the top five. You already know this. But I’m going to write a lot of words anyway

It’s funny how much resilience State played here last year. Payton Wilson would be a frontrunner for DPOY. After he went down against Mississippi state, Isaiah Moore was defending his case before the same thing happened to him. Drake Thomas then immediately slid into the middle spot and became the best player in all defense and a first-teamer, leading the team in tackles, TFLs and sacks.

With all three of these guys back, any one of them could win ACC DPOY. It really is that good.

However, both Moore and Wilson had a long way back from season-ending injury. They’ll both be ready for fall camp, but unit health might be the only concern you could crop up here if you were looking for it. This is especially true for Wilson, who you can say is the best and already has an extensive injury history. As long as they stay healthy, this is an elite unit nationwide.

Vi Jones is the only departing unit. Jones has been on the starting line for the last five games after Moore’s injury, and he’s been really good. The USC transfer was also a very good special teams player, and the hell is missed. However, State should still be comfortable with its second unit. Jaylon Scott and Devon Betty played a lot last year with mixed results, but that experience gives some assurance about your depth. Two names that haven’t seen the field much, but that you should definitely know, are Jayland Parker and Caden Fordham.

It’s really exciting how much you have to nitpick to find things to worry about here. This is an elite defensive front with returning first-teamers at linebacker and d-line alongside guys who could be the entire league around them. And we haven’t even gotten to secondary, which should easily be Dave Doeren’s best. There’s a reason this team is getting the preseason expectations it is. It’s the sheer amount of proof of concept here. Didn’t ask if NC State can stop the run? We asked which of the guys who played 500 snaps on a great defense last year will be the backup linebacker? This should be one of the best defensive fronts in America if it stays healthy, and if it doesn’t, it should still be pretty good.

Other previews:

run game

Pass game

Sources

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2/ https://www.backingthepack.com/2022/6/16/23170639/nc-state-football-preview-the-front-six

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