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Supermassive NC State Football Preview: Defensive Front

We’ve officially wrapped up our previews for State’s offense, which means that it’s now time to talk about Davin Vann. Welcome to preview number three, the defensive line and the linebackers.

Defensively, NC State was never as bad last year as its offense was in the early stages, but it followed a similar trend line over the course of the season. It was solid all year, but the unit proved vulnerable to explosive plays for the first seven or so games. The Pack did a lot of things well but struggled with assignment football at times. Guys were overplaying their roles, measured aggression was being replaced with reckless aggression, and the defense was getting gashed by read options and play action shot plays. 

It started to shut this stuff down in the back half of the season as the unit transformed and got older. By the end of the year, it looked a lot more like the dominant 2022 defense as it held its final seven opponents under 30 points and gave up just six to each of Miami and Wake Forest. It started with a dominating rush defense anchored by a rotation of very large immovable objects on the defensive line. 

The men who can't be moved

The defensive line is the anchor of the defense for State. The linebackers get a lot of the credit but the line is consistently underrated because the stat counters don’t have anything to count. Gaps clogged is not a stat, although it should be. Savion Jackson was a personal favorite of mine as a guy that was a critical piece of this defense the last two years and an all-league caliber lineman. He will never get his due, but feel free to tell him he’s awesome if you ever see him. He deserves it. 

Since the switch to the 3-3 stack, guys like Jackson have become the mold. State does not employ 250-lb edge rushers anymore. Every run play in the game is dependent on creating displacement on the defensive line, and State has leaned on pure beef to minimize displacement. It has objectively worked quite well. 

Sadly, Savion Jackson exhausted his eligibility, and CJ Clark also fell into the transfer portal, but the Pack still returns a good bit of production from last year. Davin Vann is a freak, Brandon Cleveland is a good nose tackle, and State brings back Travali Price, Red Hibbler and Noah Potter. The Pack has done well finding guys who can still pass rush at the required size. Price, Hibbler, and Vann are all very good athletes. The athleticism and get-off allows them to not just be effective as pass rushers, but to also attack gaps and get penetration to blow up zone plays. 

Vann is the best of the group. He’s a problem. Let’s look at what he can do. Here’s a GT counter play from Clemson. The Tigers ran this a few times against State. I don’t think a yard was gained. Vann is the 4i technique end on the right side of your screen and is going to attack the B gap and get penetration underneath the down block from the right tackle.

He disrupts the pulling tackle and the play literally never even reaches the point of attack. 50 is ultimately supposed to block Fordham, who just kind of watches because there is nothing for him to do. 

Here’s another GT counter play that Davin Vann ruins. Same story, right tackle is supposed to drive Vann away from the point of attack. He gets off to a good start and then gets embarrassed.

Vann loses on the first step and then plants his foot and drives the tackle back into the play, winning easily. That down block from the tackle (often it’s a double team) is the key block on gap scheme plays like counter. Vann’s ability to absorb that and not be displaced squeezes down the size of the gap the running back is looking to hit. It makes the job of the linebackers 1000x easier. State’s strength and physicality at end with Davin Vann and Savion Jackson made it really difficult to run any gap scheme concepts effectively. You couldn't displace them.

Davin Vann also has an outrageously good get off and he’s huge. He really is kind of an alien. Finding players like this makes State really versatile at stopping the run. As discussed, most gap scheme plays depend on a down block on the defensive end to create space for the play to hit, and State’s ends are so difficult to displace that it made these types of plays very ineffective. At the same time though, zone runs are particularly vulnerable to penetration, and Vann’s launch speed made him a weapon there too. You really can’t say enough about how good Davin Vann fits in this system. He and Jackson last year were beasts, and until there is a Vann-Jackson presidential ticket, they’ll never get the publicity they deserved. Vann’s physical ability also makes him super versatile. He can easily play nose tackle in a pinch. 

This is the essence of NC State’s defensive line. Large athletes that can’t be displaced and also have the launch speed to get penetration and short circuit run plays in single-gap coverages. State plays from a tite front a lot, which features a 0 technique nose tackle and two 4i technique defensive ends. To put it simply, this means is the nose tackle lines up directly on top of the center and the ends line up on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackles. The ends usually have a pretty simple role of trying to create penetration through the B gap. The nose tackle can play a number of ways here, but the most common for State is to lag, which means the NT is trying to control the body of the center and fall into the backside A gap after the center declares his movement. A linebacker will fit the frontside A gap. State will get more aggressive and slant the nose tackle in short yardage, but the lag technique is its default run fit.

This alignment and approach is certainly not how State sets up every play, but it’s kind of the base approach. The ability to fit three of the four interior gaps with massive humans makes it a lot harder to run between the tackles while also relieving a linebacker of an interior run fit. In a traditional 4-3 or 4-2 front, linebackers would often have to fit both B gaps. That's the beauty of the 3-3 stack that State plays. It gets more beef inside the tackles and lets your athletes play more as athletes.

Moving down the line from Vann, Brandon Cleveland and CJ Clark rotated through nose tackle last year, and Cleveland is locked in to start this season after State couldn’t hang on to both. Travali Price, Red Hibbler, and Noah Potter should round out the two-deep at end. Price, Vann, and Cleveland will probably play close to the max they can handle. The elevation of Price and Cleveland into full-time starter roles will be a storyline in the run defense. Both were good players last year. If they can take another step this year, teams should really struggle to run on State once again. I think Price is slept on, and he is my leading breakout candidate on the defense.

Here is Price and Cleveland combining to shut down a duo play from Miami.

Price is trying to generate penetration in the B gap from his 4i technique while Cleveland is trying to lag to the backside A gap as a 0 technique. As discussed, this is the most common approach State has. Devon Betty aggressively plays the playside A gap. State ends up in a tough spot here when the double team gets to Cleveland and he has a tough time getting to the backside of the center. Miami's duo had more sustained success than any other run play from any other team all season because it got Cleveland and Clark in some difficult positions with double teams that didn't release like they do in zone. Price makes this play though by winning across face and eliminating the B gap. He doesn't generate any penetration, but he gets inside of 64 and seals off the gap. The RB's read here is exactly right, but the B gap is squeezed down by Price and he can't actually fit through it. Cleveland then eventually gets back to the A gap and it's a two yard gain.

On the second unit, Hibbler was a high-level pass rusher last year, and will at the very least be that again. He has a great get-off too, and could be a guy to watch for a big season with an increased snap count. State could use more from Noah Potter this year as a rotational piece. I thought he had some good moments last year generating penetration and capping some outside zone plays. He's a guy I'm watching closely. The big question here is really the backup nose tackle, which likely falls to Chazz Wallace, a Colorado transfer. I know nothing about this man, but I hope he's good.

The men who do the tackling

Linebacker is a spot on the team that brings some serious production replacement questions. Payton Wilson was obviously the nation’s best linebacker if not the best overall defensive player. Beyond Wilson, I thought Jaylon Scott really played well at the end of last season. State has to replace both of these guys, so a backwards step is inevitable. 

Devon Betty and Caden Fordham headline the returners. Both rotated through at the mike as essentially the third linebacker in 2023, typically absent in the dime package. Fordham got his first starting action last year at Virginia when Betty was out with an acute baby-having, and he played a great game that night. I’m pretty high on Fordham. He’s probably the best linebacker on the team and he’s still young. The best way to describe Fordham's tape is "on time." He's not a freak athlete of any kind and he's not huge either, but he's where he needs to be when he needs to be there. This is a great example.

Virginia is running split outside zone from a tackle over formation and Fordham's run fit here is going to be the playside B gap.

CJ Clark gets great penetration to force the play backside. Split zone features the crossing H-back to protect the backside and open this kind of backside cut. Sean Brown flows across the formation to the inside of the puller and Shyheim Battle looks to be late to the backside B gap, leaving him outside on the block, so this has a chance to spring on the cutback to the inside of number 7, but Fordham's fall back stuffs it.

I have no idea what State actually teaches its linebackers, but a common teaching point for fitting the run is the clear/cloudy read, which determines how aggressive a linebacker will fit his gap. Fordham's gap here is "cloudy," which is to say there is an opposing jersey in it and nowhere for the back to go, so he gets his eyes to the back and falls back to the ball, rescuing this play. He did some really nice stuff against UVA.

I expect Fordham to play the mike and Betty to play the sam. Betty is a better athlete with more explosion off the snap, and I think he'll play more on the outside where he can the set the edge, pursue from the backside, and stunt into interior run fits. Betty was another reason why gap scheme plays tended to fail against NC State. It was more about the defensive line as we talked about, but Betty was good at IDing pullers and getting to the moving gaps. Here's an example.

Betty's original run fit here is whichever A gap Clark does not fit. Clark is playing a lag technique so his actual fit is determined by the first step of the center. When Betty sees the puller though, his gap shifts one linebacker gap over. So Wilson goes from playing the edge to playing Betty's A gap, Betty becomes the C gap defender that Jaylon Scott originally was, and Scott becomes responsible for the newly created D gap, where he must set an edge. Betty reads it, triggers quickly, gets to his body inside the tackle where he can spill the play. Jaylon Scott loses to the slot receiver which allows the play to spring outside, but Betty's flow is good. Wilson makes the play from across the formation, and that's the kind of bailout play that State will miss this year without him.

The third linebacker is Sean Brown, who is moving from Safety. State’s past obsessions with recruiting massive defensive backs accidentally created a nice little safety-recruit-to-linebacker pipeline, Germaine Pratt being the best example. Brown is the next product, and his move makes sense. He’s a solid tackler and he’s naturally more of a downhill player, which is why he got himself into some trouble at times biting down on play action. Brown is definitely a compelling run defender and he looked very natural fitting gaps and creating penetration during the plays that gave him a run fit last year. State also added 453 defensive backs in the portal and hopes to have Boykin back from his injury by the Tennessee game. It has less competition at linebacker, so it should be a good fit provided he can add a little weight.

Overall, this is a solid group. There is probably not a star here who is going to make a ton of plays outside of their area like Payton Wilson. Nobody in this lineup or maybe in the whole conference is that good of an athlete at linebacker. But Betty and Fordham are solid, and I think linebacker is the right spot for Brown. Payton Wilson did more than his job, but as long as everyone does their job this year, State will be more than fine.

Beyond the starters, Wyatt Wright is a juco portal-add who should have opportunities to rotate in. There is some physical talent behind that, with true freshman Elijah Groves having moon potential, but there is essentially 0 experience. State is not deep at linebacker and needs to stay healthy.

The scheme and overall outlook

The Pack was very good up front in the back half of last season. Its rush defense numbers misrepresent this to a degree because, much like a guy with IBS who ate way too much Taco Bell, it was prone to explosive runs. This was especially true early in the season when it really wasn’t playing super well. It gave up a pretty average 4.2 yards per carry over the whole season, but I would love to see the median number for that data set. What that means is that State had a strong personnel grouping and it could not be run on as long as everyone did their job. It made mistakes, but it wasn't pushed around by anyone.

The same should be true in 2024, although the margin for error shrinks without the freakazoid athleticism of Payton Wilson and the general immovability of Savion Jackson. State will play a lot from that tite front, and if it can continue to get good play at end and stay healthy, the line should be a strength once again.

Tony Gibson will always bring his share of wrinkles too. State had good athletes at linebacker last year, so it would change up the run fits to try and create A-gap penetration, which can blow up a zone play and disrupt pullers on a gap scheme play. State had a lot of success stunting its ends to the A gaps out of that tite front. Stuff like this worked well to completely short-circuit some runs, but it asked a lot of the linebackers. State also liked to stunt Vann to the A gap and fit the B gap with a linebacker.

We talked about that tite front being the basic approach, but State is far from vanilla. It will play other fronts and it gets to its run fits with some creativity, which helps generate penetration by changing the blocking angles. It's even more creative with the pass rush. Gibson has lots of strengths as a coordinator, but bringing creative pressures and disguising them well is a place where he has thrived.

The Pack has put so much pressure on its defense the last couple years by just being completely impotent offensively. With the expectation being some relief, finally, for the weight they had to bare, State seeing a little bit of a backslide defensively is fine. If the defensive front is merely solid, that should be enough. Being more than solid is certainly on the table, though.

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