RALEIGH — NC State’s entire defensive line from last season — Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill, Justin Jones and Kentavius Street — is in the NFL now.
But according to one of their replacements, the influence of those players is still being felt by this year’s team.
“Having those superstars in front of us, showing us how to do it, showing us the right way and not cutting corners, that was definitely great for all of us to see,” defensive tackle Larrell Murchison, a junior college transfer who redshirted in 2017 while waiting his turn, said after recording three sacks in Saturday’s 35-21 win against Virginia.
“They were great, but we have great coaches and the developmental program here is awesome. So we know we have to step it up and can’t fall off at all.”
Because of the loss of those four draft picks, along with three other starters, it was generally accepted that the defense would be the Wolfpack’s weak link this season.
That hasn’t been the case so far. At least statistically, there has been little to no drop-off in its defensive performance through the first four games this season. State currently leads the ACC in scoring defense at just 15.3 points allowed and is fourth in total defense with 347.3 yards allowed per game heading into Saturday’s Atlantic Division showdown against Boston College at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Although the names don’t roll off the tongue as easily as those of first-round pick Chubb and the other departed stars, the Wolfpack’s new breed of defenders has been just as important to their team’s 4-0 start and No. 23 national ranking as high-profile quarterback Ryan Finley and his explosive offensive unit.
Not that many outside the program have noticed.
“In my career, the unit that gets the least talk is the one that’s the most hungry,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said Monday at his regular weekly press conference. “I think that happened with our defense.
“I think they listened to everybody talk about the other side of the ball all summer and it made them mad. They wanted to prove something. All they heard about was who’s leaving instead of who’s back.”
Among the most motivated of those returning players are linebacker Germaine Pratt, end Darian Roseboro and tackle Eurndraus Bryant, veterans finally getting their opportunity to shine after spending most of their careers as backups.
Pratt, in particular, has been a force as a leader in both the locker room and on the stat sheet, where his 36 tackles are 11 more than anyone else on the team. Holdovers Jarius Morehead, Nick McCloud, Dexter Wright and Tim Kidd-Glass — all of whom play in the secondary — have made significant contributions as well.
But it’s the emergence of newcomers such as Murchison, end James Smith-Williams, linebacker Isaiah Moore and true freshman nickel back Tanner Ingram that has helped State’s rebuilt defense mesh as a unit much faster than anyone expected.
Including, perhaps, its own coach.
“You never know how fast things are going to come together, but coach (Dave Huxtable) and the defensive staff worked really hard schematically to do some things differently and help some guys and our defensive front,” Doeren said. “We just have to continue to do that and focus on our fundamentals.”
Fundamentals such as tackling, which, in Doeren’s estimation, is vastly improved this season.
State tackled well enough last week to limit Virginia’s Jordan Ellis, the ACC’s second-leading rusher coming into the game, to just 30 yards on 13 carries (an average of less than three yards per run). It also sacked dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins four times and severely limited his effectiveness in the passing game until the game was out of reach.
The Wolfpack will face an even greater challenge this week against BC, even if preseason conference Player of the Year A.J. Dillion isn’t 100 percent after injuring his left ankle in last week’s win against Temple.
The Eagles (4-1, 1-0 ACC) have already scored 216 points this season with an up-tempo attack that ran a school-record 105 plays against Temple. And while Dillion remains the focal point of the offense, improved quarterback Anthony Brown has added the element of a downfield passing game, which torched Wake Forest for five touchdowns of 27 yards or more earlier this season.
“This team will be the best team we’ve played, there is no doubt,” Doeren said of BC. “Statistically, they are a very impressive team and they have great players. They have the nation’s best running back.
“They are scoring 45 points per game and are very physical. They have a lot of experience. It’s going to be a great game (with) two really good football teams that are hungry and playing well.”