NC State looks to fill hole at corner heading into opener

An injured veteran at the D's shallowest spot puts the big-name defense at risk

North Carolina State tight end Jaylen Samuels (1) tries to fight off Wake Forest defensive back Jessie Bates (3) after catching a pass in a game last season at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — NC State enters the season with high expectations. The Wolfpack have a talented, experienced defense, led by one of the best defensive lines in recent memory.

“Our front four has been talked about a lot,” coach Dave Doeren said.

Behind the line is a strong linebacking corps.

“The linebacker position has probably the best depth in rotation that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Doeren said.

There’s the old saying about the weakest link in a chain, however, and unless the front seven can get a sack every time the opponent drops back to pass, an inexperienced Wolfpack secondary will get tested.

With the opening game against South Carolina looming, that test got a bit tougher for the State defensive backs.

NC State vs. South Carolina

Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte  |  Saturday, 3 p.m.  |  ESPN

“It was a strange, routine deal,” Doeren said about a play at practice last week where senior cornerback Mike Stevens was defending receiver Stephen Louis on a goal-line play. “They were doing what DBs and wideouts do, having contact near the goal line on a fade — I don’t know the exact route.”

Stevens went down after the play, and everyone held their breath.

“It didn’t look like one of those things where you’re saying, ‘Oh my God, he blew his knee out,’” Doeren said. “It just looked like a bone bruise or a strain.”

Officially, it’s a “lower leg injury” for Stevens, and it will keep him out of Saturday’s showdown at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

The good news is that Stevens will return from the injury.

“He’s doing much better than expected,” Doeren said. “It’s not surgical. He won’t miss a ton of time. He’s lifting. He’s bending. He’s doing really well. … We were lucky. Any time you have something that’s nonsurgical, and you can get a guy back, especially a senior, I feel good.”

In the short term, however, it creates a major hurdle against South Carolina. The Gamecocks return 97 percent of their receiving production from last season, and they’re led by junior Deebo Samuel. A member of the All-SEC first team in the preseason, Samuel had a school- and bowl-record 14 catches in last season’s Birmingham Bowl, putting up 190 yards.

“They’re very good at receiver,” Doeren said. “We have a challenge. An opportunity is how I’d look at it. The one thing I would tell you is we have a really good receiving corps here. Every day, you’re playing Kelvin Harmon and Stephen Louis, so I don’t think they’re going to be saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never covered a guy like this before.’ They’ll be ready.”

Doeren has plenty of options for replacing Stevens in the opener. The top candidates are:

Sophomore Nick McCloud: “He played in the last two games (last season),” Doeren said. “He has good length. He had a good offseason, gained a lot of weight, which he needed to do.”

Redshirt senior and former receiver Jonathan Alston: “He redshirted last year and moved to DB,” Doeren said. “He did it for this reason. We thought that this would be a season that Jonathan could be a really good player on that side of the football, if he took advantage of his year in the development program. He did that. He was our scout team player of the year last year. He’s excited to play. He played a lot of football here at wide receiver. He’s made plays. He’s scored touchdowns. This isn’t gonna be a deal where he’s nervous.”

Redshirt senior Nicholas Lacy: “He’s earned a scholarship. He provides you a guy that has incredible trustworthiness. We know we can put Nick in a game at any time and he’s going to execute the call.”

Redshirt freshman Bryce Banks: “He’s come a long way. He was 165 pounds when he got here. He was a January enrollee. He’s 190-some pounds now. He’s 6-foot-2. He’s played nickel, safety and corner. He’s had a good camp. Had a groin injury early on and missed a little time, but he came back and he’s doing well.”

Redshirt freshman James Valdez: “He’s grown up a lot. I’m proud of him. (Last year) I had to suspend him for academic reasons. He just got an A in summer school. He’s earned his way back.”

Whichever player fills in for Stevens on Saturday, they can expect to see Samuel coming his way, looking for that weak link on State’s big-name defense.

“Now they’ve got to make plays,” Doeren said. “That’s the one thing when you watch Deebo. That guy makes plays on the ball. So we’ve really got to go up with two hands and be strong and fight for the football.”