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    TIM PEELER: Vets Lead D-Backs into Red & White Game
     
     

     BY TIM PEELER

     

    RALEIGH, N.C. When NC State coach Tom O’Brien looks at his secondary, it’s hard to see anything other an relatively green bunch of guys, looking to take over the last line of defense.

     

    Only one guy started more than half of last year’s games at the position he currently plays, and another started six.

     

    “You look out there and there are a bunch of young guys and guys who have moved to the position,” O’Brien said of his defensive backfield.

     

    Fortunately for the coach and the Wolfpack, seniors Jeremy Gray and J.C. Neal have helped show the way to all the younger players. Both were part-time starters last year, as the Wolfpack made the difficult transition from a primarily man-to-man cover scheme to a zone cover scheme.

     

    The Wolfpack concludes its spring drills on Saturday with the annual Red & White Spring Game at Carter-Finley Stadium. Kick-off for the real-game scrimmage is slated for 1 p.m. Parking lot gates open at 9 a.m. and West-side stadium gates open at noon. The game is available live to Pack Pass subscribers on www.GoPack.com. Click here for more coverage of spring practice.

     

    Last season, Gray started seven total games, one at right corner and the final six at left. Neal began the season at right corner, starting three of the first four games, but switched to strong safety midway through the season. He started there in the Wolfpack’s final three games last year.

     

    Couple their relative inexperience with the loss of three upperclassmen who made 58 starts over the last four years departed seniors Jimmie Sutton III and Miguel Scott and safety DaJuan Morgan, who left a year early for the NFL draft and the Wolfpack shows as much green as it does red. That’s a concern for a team that was third in the ACC in pass defense, allowing just 207.5 yard per game through the air and 14 passing touchdowns.

     

    But Neal, now entrenched at strong safety, and Gray have enough experience to show the younger guys the ropes. They had 13 starts between them last season and have been regular contributors for two seasons.

     

    “They are a settling influence back there,” O’Brien said. “Their leadership has been invaluable back there in the spring, so they are going to have to be good leaders for us in the fall.”

     

    Neal said being a leader in the secondary has been relatively easy so far.

     

    “We have a lot of younger guys, so we just have to make sure that they are doing the right things, on and off the field,” Neal said. “We are just taking charge of the secondary, making sure they stay out of trouble and do the right things.”

     

    Neal has been working with converted linebacker John Ware at strong safety, and will get help in the fall from Javon Walker, who was a starter until he injured his knee at Miami. He has missed all of spring practice while rehabilitating his injury.

     

    But he has had to break in a handful of younger players at the safety position, redshirt freshmen Jimmaul Simmons and Justin Byers.

     

    “He’s done a good job of helping them get lined up and into the right spots, so they can play a little faster,” O’Brien said.

     

    Gray, who tied for the team lead with three interceptions last season, doesn’t have a lot more experience to work with at the two cornerback positions. Sophomore DeAndre Morgan, second on the team with eight passes broken up last year while starting seven games at right corner, plays on the opposite side, but neither potential backup has ever played a snap of college football at cornerback. Former walk-on Koyal George moved from wide receiver to corner for the spring, while true freshman Dominique Ellis enrolled at NC State in January.

     

    Gray's leadership philosophy is pretty simple, based on what he learned from Lamont Reid his freshman season and Marcus Hudson his redshirt freshman year.

     

    “Basically, we just need to go out and do all the right things and let the young guys see us do it,” said Gray, who tied for the team lead with three interceptions last season. “By watching us, they will see how to hustle to the ball and play with intensity. That’s what I learned when I was younger, and that is how I am going to try to be a leader on defense.”

     

    Neal has confidence that with a mix of veterans and some talented younger players, the Wolfpack can be strong again in 2008 on pass defense.

     

    “We can be great,” Neal said. “We can be tops in the ACC, if we can just learn to play with intensity and get guys on the same page. I have a good feeling about what we can do.”

     

    You may contact Tim Peeler at tim_peeler@ncsu.edu.


     

     

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