NFL Preview: Carolina connections — from coast to mountains — run throughout the NFL

10 N.C. colleges have players that made 53-man rosters

Undrafted running back Shaun Wilson, who played at Duke, earned a spot on the Buccaneers roster after an impressive training camp and preseason. (Chris O'Meara / AP Photo)

The NFL season kicks off Thursday, and here’s everything you need to prepare for the NFL season: a AFC preview; a look at the Eagles’ path to a repeat in the NFC preview; and what you can expect from the Panthers in Week 1 and beyond.

Plenty of players from North Carolina’s ACC schools have made it to the NFL, but the state’s other colleges — from Sun Belt powerhouse App State to HBCUs N.C. A&T and NCCU — have alumni in the league. Here’s one player to watch in 2018 from each of the state schools represented.

Appalachian State: San Francisco defensive end Ronald Blair III enters his third NFL season. The App State product, a fifth-round pick in 2018, has five career sacks in 22 career games. His performance in the 49ers’ preseason finale against the Chargers — five combined tackles and a sack — helped solidify his roster spot.

Charlotte: Cleveland defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is poised for a breakout season in his sophomore campaign. A year after finishing his rookie season with 32 tackles and a sack on the winless Browns, Ogunjobi — a third-round pick in 2017 — is one of several players that has Cleveland optimistic it can have a better 2018.

Duke: Undrafted rookie running back Shaun Wilson made enough of an impression on the Buccaneers to earn a spot on the team’s 53-man roster. While Wilson, who had 818 rushing yards and another 263 receiving for the Blue Devils last year, will likely see limited offensive snaps, he is penciled in as Tampa Bay’s primary kickoff returner.

Former ECU receiver Justin Hardy will handle kick and punt return duties for the Falcons. (John Bazemore / AP Photo)

East Carolina: Fourth-year receiver Justin Hardy has been a consistent receiving option for the Falcons over the last three seasons, catching right around 30 passes for 200 yards in each of his NFL seasons. His biggest new responsibility will be as Atlanta’s primary kick and punt returner. He’s returned just three kickoffs in his pro career, but Hardy was a frequent punt returner in Greenville.

Former UNC receiver Ryan Switzer, on his third team in less than five months, hopes he’s found a permanent home in Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic / AP Photo)

North Carolina: Receiver Ryan Switzer was a mainstay in the Tar Heels’ attack from 2013-16, but the second-year pro has struggled to carve out a niche in the NFL and is already with his third team. Switzer was dealt from Dallas to Oakland in April, then flipped to Pittsburgh on Aug. 27. A West Virginia native, Switzer said coming to Pittsburgh “feels like home.”

N.C. A&T: Tarik Cohen, a fourth-round pick by Chicago last season, is expected to play a big part in the Bears offense this season. Cohen averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season and also had 53 receptions. The former Aggie will share the running back duties with Jordan Howard.

NC Central: Cornerback Ryan Smith is in his third season with the Bucs and should be a depth player on defense. Smith’s biggest contribution has been as a special teamer, specifically as an effective gunner on the punt coverage team. 

NC State: The Broncos may have question marks at quarterback, but so does every other team in the league when they face Denver’s defense. Joining six-time Pro Bowl quarterback nightmare Von Miller is Wolfpack standout Bradley Chubb. The fifth overall pick in the draft, Chubb gives Denver the most feared edge-rushing combination in the league.

Wake Forest: Defensive end Duke Ejiofor left Houston to come to Wake Forest four years ago, but now he’s back in H-Town after the Texans selected him in the sixth round in April. He’ll start off as a special teams contributor, but Ejiofor has already impressed fellow pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who said the rookie “is going to be pretty good.”

Western Carolina: Cornerback Keion Crossen, a seventh-round pick, bucked the odds and earned a roster spot with perennial Super Bowl contender New England, beating 2016 second-rounder Cyrus Jones. With depth in the secondary, the Patriots will likely use Crossen in a reserve role. But Crossen’s combination of speed and physicality give the defending AFC champs talent to mold.