NC State

New look, improved talent gets NC State defense off to fast start

Previewing NC State’s game against Western Carolina while explaining how to fix college football

The News & Observer's Joe Giglio explains how he would fix college football while previewing the NC State Wolfpack's game against Western Carolina.
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The News & Observer's Joe Giglio explains how he would fix college football while previewing the NC State Wolfpack's game against Western Carolina.

One game into his sophomore season, N.C. State safety Tanner Ingle said he feels like he has made a “tremendous jump” from 2018.

The Wolfpack (1-0), which hosts Western Carolina (0-1) on Saturday (12:30 p.m., Fox Sports South) wants to be able to say the same about its defense as a whole. After one game, a 34-6 win over East Carolina, it’s “so far, so good.”

N.C. State kept ECU out of the end zone, thanks to a forced fumble by Ingle near the goal line, and held the Pirates to 41 rushing yards and 269 total yards.

Ingle, who struggled at times last season at nickel, thrived in his new role at free safety. He finished with eight tackles, two pass breakups and a quarterback hurry to go with the fumble he forced from ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers on the game’s opening drive.

“The game has slowed down and it has been a lot easier for me to understand what’s going on,” Ingle said.

Ingle has lost some weight and gained some confidence, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said, after being put into a difficult situation as a true freshman last year.

“Tanner got thrown into the fire last year. He gave up some plays,” Doeren said. “He has been burned and had to learn from it and deal with failure. I know it motivated him.”

The failure from the bowl game, a 52-13 loss to Texas A&M, and the season-long problems on pass defense motivated the Wolfpack defense this offseason.

The defensive side is where N.C. State has its experience. Ingle is one of eight returnees with regular starting experience.

Add some young talent at linebacker and a new scheme to that veteran group and the Wolfpack defense had an impressive start. It was a far cry from the Texas A&M loss to end the 2018 season when the Aggies ran for 401 yards or the No. 108 national ranking for pass defense.

ECU is not Texas A&M (neither is Western Carolina) but there is a “let’s take care of us” approach Doeren would like his team and defense to use.

Doeren, in part by necessity and part by design, has switched defensive alignments. N.C. State has primarily used a 4-2-5 (four down linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs) during the first six years of Doeren’s tenure.

With multiple defensive linemen out with injuries, and an influx of talent at linebacker, Doeren switched to a 3-3-5 stack (three down linemen, three linebackers, five defensive backs) in the opener.

The three-man, or odd-man front, has been something Doeren has used in previous seasons in passing situations. When he hired safeties coach, and co-defensive coordinator Tony Gibson from West Virginia in the offseason, it made sense to incorporate some of Gibson’s ideas on defense.

The plan was, and still is, to eventually use both alignments.

“We wanted to see how it played it out and have both available,” Doeren said. “Then we get into camp and we lose three or four defensive tackles within a week of camp. It forced us into being more one-dimensional for a three-man front.”

With defensive end Deonte Holden and defensive tackles Joshua Harris and C.J. Clark out for the ECU game, N.C. State pretty much stayed in a three-man front the whole game.

Two years ago, when the Wolfpack had Bradley Chubb (the ACC defensive player) on the end and three other future NFL players, it made sense to play with a four-man front.

“We used to have a defensive front where you wouldn’t want to take one of those guys off the field,” Doeren said.

But the switch also lines up with the health of redshirt freshman linebacker Payton Wilson. After missing last season with a knee injury, Wilson made his college debut against ECU and made quick work. He had six tackles, two for loss, in only 22 snaps.

“I was just glad I was making plays,” Wilson said. “I feel like I was the player I know I can be.”

With versatile options at linebacker, the switch to the stack utilizes N.C. State best players. That has always been the goal, Doeren said.

And the goal is to keep getting better after fast start, Wilson said.

“We have younger guys that are hungry, fast, strong and ready to eat,” Wilson said.

Western Carolina at NC State

When: 12:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh

Watch: ACC Network Extra

Listen: WRAL-101.5 Triangle; WXRC-95.7 Charlotte

Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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