RALEIGH — Freshman Rashard Smith made what coach Tom O'Brien called a "good break" on a deep ball and wound up making one of the biggest plays of N.C. State's first scrimmage Sunday.
Smith's play provided a glimmer of hope that the secondary will perform better than expected this fall. A lack of depth and two unexpected departures have left the Wolfpack dangerously thin and inexperienced at cornerback and safety as the team prepares for the Sept. 3 season opener against South Carolina.
Three cornerbacks -- Smith, Koyal George and C.J. Wilson -- intercepted passes in Sunday's scrimmage.
"When the ball is in the air, it doesn't matter what grade you're in or what position you play," said Smith, who returned his interception 77 yards for a touchdown. "If you're on defense, when the ball is in the air, in the secondary on defense, you should go make a play."
After finishing last in the ACC in pass defense last season at 248.7 yards per game, N.C. State's secondary lost two starters in boundary cornerback Jeremy Gray and free safety J.C. Neal.
Then Dominique Ellis, who was supposed to replace Gray, decided to transfer during the summer. Then Jimmaul Simmons, who was listed as a backup at free safety and intercepted two passes last season, left the team the day of the opening practice.
Returning field cornerback DeAndre Morgan and boundary safety Clem Johnson were starters at the end of last season.
George, who's now starting in the spot vacated by Gray and Ellis, said defensive backs constantly hear fans questioning their ability.
"It's always one of the questions about our defense," George said. "Everybody hears about Willie Young and our linemen. And they hear about all the great linebackers we have. And then it comes to the secondary, and the only person you really hear about is DeAndre."
George, a former walk-on wide receiver, started two games and played 99 snaps last season with limited success. O'Brien said George's confidence has increased significantly, adding that his experience as a wide receiver helps him recognize things the offense is trying to do.
Justin Byers entered the preseason as the starter at free safety. He started eight games last season when Johnson was injured but struggled at times and was limited to a total of 38 snaps over the final five games.
Freshmen Donald Coleman at safety and Smith and Jarvis Byrd at cornerback are among the players attempting to earn playing time with their performance in the preseason.
Coleman got a head start by enrolling in January and participating in spring practice, and Byrd might be N.C. State's most heralded recruit in the class of 2009.
"We've got a couple more weeks here to iron some situations out," O'Brien said. "I think we're athletic enough to be good. We just have to figure out who the right kids are, and they'll give us the opportunity to win."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-8942