N.C. State could use as many as six linebackers, at two different positions, in Saturday’s season opener against Troy.
That’s a welcome change in depth from the beginning of the 2014 season.
“That’s a great situation to have at linebacker,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said on Monday. “It’s a better situation than it was a year ago.”
Last year, in the first week of training camp, starting middle linebacker M.J. Salahuddin tore the ligaments in his left knee and missed the entire season.
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Jerod Fernandez was thrust into a starting role at the most important position on defense. Fernandez, a sophomore, finished the season with 78 tackles and two interceptions in 12 games.
Understandably, as a first-time starter Fernandez played better by the end of the season. His progression coincided with that of the defense’s overall.
“You could see his confidence grow as he got more comfortable,” defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable said.
Fernandez returns at the middle or “mike” linebacker for the Wolfpack this season. He’s a little a bigger (6-0, 231 pounds), a little stronger and a little smarter after going through his first college season.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” Fernandez said.
Sophomore Airius Moore, who served as Fernandez’s backup last season, has moved to the outside linebacker spot in the Wolfpack’s 4-2-5 scheme. Moore, who started four games last year, had 37 tackles and 3.5 for a loss.
He will be one of the primary blitzers in Huxtable’s scheme, a role in which senior Rodman Noel thrived in the second half of the season.
Moore, who’s a bit undersized (6-0 and 232 pounds) for a pass rusher, has the strength and quickness to get into the backfield and pressure the quarterback, Doeren said.
“He’s a very good ‘dogger,’ ” said Doeren, using a bit of blitz vernacular. “He’s really explosive. His lateral movement skills are going to serve him well in our pressure packages.”
As a group, Moore said the linebackers now have a better grasp of Huxtable’s scheme.
“Last year, a lot of people were young and this year we’ve got good experience,” Moore said.
Salahuddin, a part-time starter in 2013, will back up Fernandez at the mike as will sophomore Ford Howell.
Junior Ernie Robinson and Riley Nicholson, a freshman who enrolled in January, are backing up Moore and both impressed Huxtable during training camp.
“We’re three-deep right now in both positions,” Fernandez said. “I feel like we can all play.”
Doeren said N.C. State will continue with the pressure schemes that worked in the second half of last season. The Wolfpack played mostly base defense early in the 2014 season. With more blitzes came more sacks (15) and more takeaways (nine) in the last five games.
“We’d like to be very similar to how we finish – pressure and playing tighter coverage and mixing our packages as much as we can,” Doeren said.
And that will mean more opportunities for their young but experienced linebackers.
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