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March 9, 2010
N.C. State will open spring practice without its most recognizable face on offense. The return of a familiar face on defense should make up for it.
After sitting out the 2008 season while recovering from a horrific car wreck that nearly took his life, linebacker Nate Irving is ready to take the field again.
Irving had 84 tackles and four interceptions two years ago despite missing nearly four full games with injuries. He headed into the 2009 season as an All-America candidate, but he didn't play a down because an Aug. 13 crash left him with a broken rib, punctured lung, separated shoulder and a fractured tibia and fibula.
He plans to participate in spring practice, and his return provides a huge boost to a young defense that loses all four starting linemen from last season.
Irving and the defense figure to garner much of the attention because N.C. State's offense will be operating without starting quarterback Russell Wilson, who is sitting out spring practice to play for the Wolfpack's baseball team.
Here's a rundown on the Wolfpack as they head into spring practice.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
N.C. State should boast one of the ACC's top receiving units. Jarvis Williams caught 45 passes for 547 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and Owen Spencer had 30 receptions for 765 yards and six touchdowns. Williams topped the ACC in touchdown receptions and Spencer led the nation with his average of 25.5 yards per catch. The Wolfpack also return TE George Bryan, who caught 40 passes for 422 yards and six touchdowns last season. NCSU also will have one of the ACC's top quarterbacks if Wilson returns for his junior year. Wilson will sit out spring practice while playing for N.C. State's baseball team, and he is eligible to get taken in this summer's baseball draft. If he is drafted early enough, Wilson conceivably could launch a pro baseball career instead of playing football this fall. Thus, developing depth at quarterback is vital this spring.
HELP IS NEEDED
The Wolfpack must break in four new starters on the defensive line and could struggle to find a replacement for E Willie Young, who recorded 20 sacks over the past three seasons. The Wolfpack finished in the middle of the ACC in run defense and sacks with a veteran front four last year; how well will they rush the passer and defend the run with four new starters? N.C. State's offensive line also is cause for concern. The Wolfpack have talented players on the line, but they return only two starters. One of the returning starters -- G R.J. Mattes -- will sit out spring practice as he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
DE Michael Lemon: This fifth-year senior has persevered through tragedy and off-field problems during a career that has taken him from Georgia to Georgia Military College to N.C. State. The Wolfpack's inexperience on the defensive line this season gives Lemon a golden opportunity to crack the starting lineup in his final year of eligibility. Lemon had 19 tackles -- 2.5 for loss -- in a backup role last season.
DT J.R. Sweezy: Although Sweezy wasn't a starter in '09, he still had a productive season that included 26 overall tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. It would be a major surprise if he isn't in the starting lineup when the Wolfpack open their season.
RB Curtis Underwood: After serving as a backup in 2007 and '08, Underwood redshirted last season because the Wolfpack didn't want him to waste a year of eligibility while he remained behind Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene on the depth chart. Now that Baker and Eugene have completed their college careers, Underwood has a legitimate chance to open the season as the Wolfpack's main running back.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
DE Audi Augustin: This fifth-year senior received offers from the likes of Florida, Michigan State and South Carolina out of high school in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area. But he has struggled to earn playing time for NCSU. This marks Augustin's last chance to win a starting job, and he certainly has the opportunity as the Wolfpack look to replace both starting defensive ends. But he first must fight off challenges from junior Jeff Rieskamp and a host of other younger candidates.
Wilson's absence will allow N.C. State to get a closer look at Mike Glennon, the No. 3 pro-style quarterback prospect in the 2008 recruiting class. Glennon almost certainly would take over as the Wolfpack's starting quarterback if Wilson decides on pro baseball. On defense, the Wolfpack will try to figure out how to retool the front four while also seeing if Irving looks as though he can recapture his 2008 form. This also represents new linebacker coach Jon Tenuta's return to the ACC. Tenuta previously worked as defensive coordinator at North Carolina and Georgia Tech before spending the past two seasons on former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis' staff. Although Notre Dame struggled mightily on defense last season, Georgia Tech ranked among the nation's top-30 defenses in total yards allowed, points allowed and rushing yards allowed in each of Tenuta's last five seasons with the Yellow Jackets.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.