RALEIGH, N.C. -- In most places, it would speak volumes that Kalen McCain and Germaine Pratt, both just a few weeks into their college careers, were running with the second-team defense Saturday during NC State’s first scrimmage of the spring.
Indeed, both freshmen safeties have impressed teammates so far. McCain is instinctive, according to senior Jarvis Byrd, looking like a ball hawk in coverage. In that scrimmage, McCain picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown, but at just 175 pounds, he needs to add some bulk. Pratt, on the other hand, is a charging bull in the secondary. At 6-foot-3, nearly 200 pounds, he plays like a linebacker -- a throwback to his high school days when he spent significant time in the box, playing the run -- and still needs refinement in coverage. But when he hits, he hits hard.
It’s a promising start for both players, but for the Wolfpack, their spot on the depth chart is a matter of necessity.
“They’re running with the twos because they have to,” safety Hakim Jones said. “We only have four safeties.”
This is the landscape in Raleigh for the nine early enrollees at NC State -- seven scholarship freshmen, along with long snapper Robert Brunstetter and preferred walk-on Ty Linton, a former North Carolina commitment who has played professional baseball for the past four years. There is opportunity at every turn, the result of a disproportionately young roster, but it is also a trial by fire.
“You go through this whole recruiting process and it seems like it should take a long time, but then you get here and it’s fast,” said Bo Hines, one of two freshman wide receivers enrolled for the spring. “Everything is moving.”
By coach Dave Doeren’s math, 71 percent of NC State’s roster this year will be freshmen or sophomores. Many saw action last year as the Wolfpack struggled to fill out a depth chart amid myriad injuries en route to a disastrous 3-9 season in which they didn’t win a game in conference play. The new arrivals, meanwhile, are getting a healthy dose of snaps on the practice field with an eye toward playing time this fall.
It’s a challenge, Doeren admits, but it’s also an investment in the viability of a crucial freshmen class this fall.
“[Many of] those guys are playing with the ones at times out there,” Doeren said. “Just imagine the learning curve for them in August when the other freshmen are coming in. It helps a lot.”
And this spring isn’t simply a chance for the freshmen to dip their toes in the pool and test the waters of life in the ACC. It’s a blank slate, with a chance for them to etch their names into permanent jobs when the Wolfpack open the 2014 season.
“Since Day 1, since we went into the first meeting, [Doeren] said nobody had a guaranteed spot,” Pratt said. “I’m pushing hard to earn my spot.”
Perhaps as important, Doeren said, is the veterans are now pushing harder to keep their spots.
With such a thin roster a year ago, Doeren had little choice but to hand playing time over to unproven players. The results were mixed. Some blossomed, like receiver Jumichael Ramos, who caught 11 passes and scored three times in the final three games of his freshman campaign last year. Some struggled, including a defensive line that featured a trio of freshmen and sophomores who earned regular playing time, but finished 103rd nationally in run defense. Others, like receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (12 catches for 174 yards in his first two games, 10 catches for 107 the rest of the way) did a little of both.
All of that was to be expected, Doeren said. What concerned the second-year coach was that, after winning playing time by default in 2013, complacency could set in this season. The nine new faces this spring can go a long way toward alleviating those concerns.
“The freshmen are coming to me, asking how to run a route and what the concepts are or just asking how we felt when we came in as freshmen and what we did to play,” Ramos said. “I do feel older. I don’t feel like a freshman anymore.”
Still, Doeren is aware of the reality. Most of the time, it’s 18-year old freshmen asking 19-year old veterans for advice, and that’s not an ideal recipe for success. That makes NC State’s real veterans -- the handful of juniors and seniors like Byrd and Jones -- an immensely valuable asset this spring.
It’s a role they’ve been happy to take on, receiver Bryan Underwood said. Last year, he was a mentor for Ramos and Valdes-Scantling. Now, he’s finding more room under his wing for the new arrivals.
Jones busies himself each night hosting his new protégés in the secondary, too. Pratt and McCain are fixtures in his room, the playbook spread open throughout the evening.
“We came to them with open arms and just -- welcome to the team,” Jones said.
That’s exactly what Doeren was hoping for, but it’s hardly the end of his concerns.
Pratt and Hines and the rest of the new arrivals are still wide-eyed and overmatched more often than not. It’s a learning experience, and for now at least, most of the lessons will be tough ones.
But that’s the other advantage of this big class of early enrollees for NC State. Even after the toughest workouts, the miserable have plenty of company.
“Having those guys around,” Hines said, “we’re all going through the same thing.”