Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich
It’s not that NC State coach Tom O’Brien is concerned about his secondary, he just doesn’t quite know what to expect.
He’s not the only one.
The starting lineup for tonight’s game against South Carolina is comprised of redshirt freshman C.J. Wilson at field corner, redshirt sophomore free safety Justin Byers, senior safety Clem Johnson and redshirt senior Koyal George. They have combined for 14 starts, one former walk-on receiver and one formerly broken jaw. While much attention has been paid -- and deservedly so -- to the huge void left at linebacker by the loss of Nate Irving, the Pack’s unproven secondary might be the bigger question for NC State’s defense.
They’ll be without injured cornerback DeAndre Morgan, who is the most experienced of the group, but lost the job to Wilson this summer and has an ankle injury. Also missing from the group is strong safety Javon Walker, who tore his ACL in 2007 and missed 2008 as he continued to rehab from reconstructive knee surgery. And sophomore cornerback Dominique Ellis, who played mainly on special teams, decided to transfer in July.
“I think our depth is OK,” O’Brien said. “The inexperience is what we’re going to have to play with. C.J. Wilson earned the right to start in the game. He would’ve started whether Morgan was healthy or not. Rashard Smith is a freshman that’s come in and he’ll be our starting nickelback. He’s earned that position. He’s very capable, but along with those freshmen you just don’t know what’s going to happen Thursday night. If they continue to play like they practiced and continue to play like they did in scrimmage situations, I think they’ll be fine.”
The players are well aware of the questions outsiders have about them. Johnson said even he considered the defensive line to be the strength of the defense right now.
“We definitely do have something to prove, just for the simple fact that everyone expects us to be the weakest link of the defense,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and try to focus on what we’re supposed to be doing, executing and making plays.”
Johnson, a senior who played in just eight games last year after transferring from Valley Forge Military College and suffering a broken jaw in the preseason, is suddenly the veteran of the group. He showed the potential to be an impact player when he was healthy with two pass breakups and two interceptions. He returned from his broken jaw against Boston College on Oct. 4, and was playing well before he injured his ankle in the first half against North Carolina.
George, formerly a walk-on wide receiver, moved to the secondary and earned a scholarship last spring. He earned the starting job at corner last year against Florida State and Miami, but played just one snap against the Hurricanes.
“Me and Koyal are both on the boundary side, and right now I have no worries about him playing well on Thursday,” Johnson said. “He just has the natural ability of a corner. I think he has an edge on understanding routes. I feel really comfortable with him as the boundary corner on my side.”
Wilson said he thinks they’ll match up well against sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia, who has been inconsistent during his career so far but is the only quarterback on the Gamecocks’ roster with any experience. He started three games last year and was 1-2 with a win over Tennessee.
“We’re very talented back here,” Wilson said. “We might not be as experienced as them, but we have good enough athletes and our coaches know the game real well. Listening to them and their coaching points, we should be fine come Thursday.”