RALEIGH — Theres a clear demarcation to N.C. States 2011 football season, to coach Tom OBrien, the part without a healthy defensive line and the part with one.
You dont need OBriens football acumen to understand which part was a success for the Wolfpack, 8-5 a year ago, and which was an abject disaster.
Theres an upside, though, to last years injury-induced 1-3 start a group of young defensive linemen, who wouldnt have played otherwise, are a year ahead of schedule.
"Thats always the case," OBrien said. "Its not good for the immediate spot that youre in, but its certainly good for the future."
That future is here for N.C. States defensive front. Despite losing two NFL draft picks (tackles J.R. Sweezy and Markus Kuhn went in the seventh round), the Packs defensive line is shaping up to be a team strength.
Six players who started last season return on the defensive line, and Forrest West, a transfer from Colorado, joins the rotation. State could use as many as 12 scholarship linemen this season.
"We have some depth," defensive line coach Keith Willis said. "Thats a luxury Ive never really experienced."
There was a price for that luxury, which the Pack paid last season. State lost two starters by the first half of the first game of the 2011 season and five of its top eight linemen by the time Cincinnati finished a 44-14 whipping on national television in its fourth game.
In its first four games against Bowl Subdivision opponents, N.C. State gave up 445.2 yards and 36.7 points per game.
In the final seven games against FBS opponents, the Pack gave up 305.8 yards and 20 points per game and won five times.
It got so bad early in the season, walk-on Jacob Kahut, who spent the week of practice before the Cincinnati game on the offensive line, was pressed into emergency duty against the Bearcats.
The next week, fullback Taylor Gentry played defensive tackle in a 45-35 home loss to Georgia Tech.
Overall, the Pack went with six different combinations on the defensive front. By the time the line stabilized, with veterans returning, a few young standouts notably T.Y McGill, Thomas Teal and Art Norman began to emerge.
McGill was forced into action as a true freshman, after Sweezys preseason foot injury. McGill barely knew which way to run, let alone understand States scheme.
"I know a lot more now," said McGill, who finished the season with 19 tackles and one start. "The other guys had to tell me where to go during the game, which is not good."
OBrien compares McGill to Green Bays B.J. Raji, one of the best defensive tackles OBrien coached at Boston College.
McGill, listed at 6-1 and 290 pounds, is built like Raji and is also athletic. In the spring game, McGill ran down tight end Asa Watson after a 74-yard pass play.
Par for the 2011 course, Teal missed seven games with a foot injury eerily, the same injury to the same foot as Sweezy but the sophomore space-eater returned to play six games at defensive tackle.
McGill and Teal are expected to start on the inside, with backup help from Deylan Buntyn, a junior college transfer, and redshirt freshman Carlos Gray.
At defensive end, five players have starting experience, including Norman, who stepped in for Jeff Rieskamp one game into last season. Norman, a third-year sophomore, led the team with seven sacks last season.
There has been healthy competition in camp. Which, in Year 6 of his tenure, is what OBrien wants to see.
"We have to sort that all out, but its good to have 12 guys and have some experience," OBrien said. "You better not missed a practice or youre going to lose a spot."