NC State's improved defense other half of winning equation

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

NC State is going to be a legitimate contender to win the Atlantic Division and it's not just because the Wolfpack has the best quarterback in the league in Russell Wilson.

It's also because the defense should be one of the deepest, most productive units the program has seen in recent years, starting up front with Shea McKeen, Alan-Michael Cash, Leroy Burgess and Willie Young.

"I think our strength of our defense will be our defensive line," defensive coordinator Mike Archer said. "Our first four guys ... it will be the best defensive line they've had here since Mario Williams and [John] McCargo. Those guys were No. 1 picks. I'm not saying they're as good as them, but they're comparable in the sense they've got talent and they really have gotten better and developed."

NC State is confident in its two-deep at both defensive line and at linebacker. The secondary is where some lingering competition will remain this summer, but there are plenty of options. The players are much more comfortable with the staff and the system now that it's Tom O'Brien's third season, and the familiarity, communication and trust has made a difference.

This spring, Archer said he's heard the players talking about something they haven't before -- playing in the ACC championship game.

"We feel like we have as good a chance as anybody," Archer said. "If you don't believe it and you don't dream it, it's never going to happen."

It's a significant transformation from mid-way through last fall, when Archer had to challenge his defense because it ranked last in the ACC in nearly every relevant statistical category.

"The last half of the season, during practice, I very seldom had to raise my voice, I very seldom got upset because they learned how to practice, they went about their business, they got their work done and they got off the field," Archer said. "... To me, that was the biggest thing they learned, how to prepare in practice and how to go out and play on Saturday."

The latter half of the season also showed how good NC State's defense could be when everyone is healthy. Linebacker Nate Irving missed three games, Cash missed three games, and safety Clem Johnson was also out for a few. It was no coincidence that when they returned, NC State started to win.

Despite the loss in the Papajohns.com Bowl, NC State ended the 2008 season with its best defensive performance of the year. At the time, Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel was on a hot streak, but the Pack was still able to get to him numerous times.

"I don't want to be overboard with the confidence," Archer said, "but I feel much better going into this season than I did the previous two."