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Supermassive NC State Football Preview: Secondary

Welcome to the final installment of the supermassive NC State Football preview. We're on to the secondary, a unit that was once historically bad and has become a strength over the last four years. The Pack has a defensive approach that requires great corner and nickel play, and it has gotten this from guys like Aydan White, Tyler Baker-Williams, Derrek Pitts, and others.

Instead of discussing the scheme last, we’re going to start with the scheme here. State is really at its best as a cover 1 team. It presents a lot of middle-of-field closed pictures, which just means one high safety, and it will play a lot of man coverage out of that look. Manning up with just the one high allows State to put a lot of extra pressure on the box with an additional safety. This is what Tanner Ingle did so well. State will also play a good bit of cover 3. Those are the defaults.

If you have the horses to play man coverage, this can be really difficult to move the ball on. State didn't lose a lot in man, and Tony Gibson has demonstrated some pretty creative answers to basic man-beating concepts like mesh. If you don’t have the horses, you’re going to give up 27 yards per attempt. State has had the horses for the most part the last couple of years with Aydan White and Shyheim Battle being stalwarts at cornerback. Cornerback is where we will start here because it is absolutely a must-have in this defense. The system will not survive with crappy corner play. 

Fortunately, there is Aydan White, who is the ACC’s best cover corner and another NC State defensive player who is underrated because the stat counters have nothing to count. When it comes to trustworthy corners, it’s hard to do better than White. If Aydan White told me to invest all of my money in shady crypto stocks, I would do it, and it would work. 

White will play as many snaps as he can handle this season. It’s hard to overstate how important getting him back was as he briefly sniffed around in the transfer portal. State has some legitimate questions at corner outside of him, but it only needs to fill one starting spot now instead of both, which would have been a little spooky to take on. 

Opposite White, Shyheim Battle is gone. This may be a hot take, but I actually thought Battle was just kind of okay last year. He struggled to cover verticals at times, occasionally getting beat and giving up explosive plays. The majority of explosive pass plays that featured a lot of air yards, which still isn't very many, came at his expense.

The Pack added 417 defensive backs in the transfer portal, so it’s not short on options. Ironically, homegrown Brandon Cisse is probably the starter on day one opposite White. Cisse was a camp offer and kind of your textbook example of the “diamond in the rough” cliche, or at least the Pack hopes. The sophomore corner is an x-factor for State this year. If he is really good, it goes a long way for the defense. If he ends up struggling and State has to start cycling through guys, it could end up vulnerable to explosive pass plays. 

Cisse played a lot as a freshman, almost exclusively as the sixth DB in the dime package. He held up well in this role, although he did spend a good bit of it covering tight ends when State was in man. His only real action isolated on the outside was against VMI, where he had a rough go of things. We will not be judging people on their first career start though. Cisse certainly looks good on film. Corners need to have quick hips and fast acceleration, and he’s certainly not playing the wrong position. I’m personally bullish on him long-term, but won’t be counting the eggs before they hatch. 

State also brings in Devon Marshall from Villanova and Corey Coley from Maryland, and that figures to be your two-deep. Coley is a senior and Marshall is a junior. State didn’t bring in upperclassmen transfers if it wasn’t expecting them to at least offer playable depth immediately. 

Sean Brown, Devan Boykin, and Bishop Fitzgerald was the safety rotation last season. Brown is a linebacker now and Boykin may not be available at the start of the season, but he and Fitzgerald played a lot of ball last year. 

Safety was a trouble spot early last year for the Pack. They got gobbled up by play action week two against Notre Dame, and there were lots of issues staying home on any kind of misdirection concepts. This stuff largely corrected itself over the course of the season. This is particularly true for Fitzgerald, who was a bit of a deer in the headlights early on, but got into more of a groove later in the year. Boykin is a pretty reliable coverage safety and Fitzgerald's trajectory makes you feel good about what they could bring to a rotation this season.

State also added Donovan Kaufman from Auburn and KJ Martin from Akron to the safety room while Terrente Hinton moves over from corner. The move makes sense for Hinton, whose body more fits the safety mold at 6’3. 

Kaufman and Martin are both seniors, as is Boykin. State is old at Safety and it’s pretty deep. It’s hard to be bad under those circumstances. Kaufman is a guy who brings some versatility and probably starts at safety, but could move to nickel if necessary and still leave State feeling good about what it has at Safety. 

I can’t speak too much to the strengths of guys like Kaufman and Martin because I have no tape on them. DBs are honestly the hardest to find tape on because most of what they do occurs off camera and finding college all-22 film requires a heist crew led by Danny Ocean. I’m not going to talk out of my ass, but one thing that is for sure is that State has lots of experienced options at every position in the secondary. It is deep. 

The final portal addition was Ja'Had Carter from Ohio State and Syracuse. Carter was a freshman All-American in 2020 and honorable mention All-ACC in 2022. He made waves early with an excellent freshman season in 2020 where he was second on the team in tackles. Carter should step directly into the nickel spot vacated by Robert Kennedy.

The secondary has been a strength in Raleigh really going all the way back to 2020. Doeren made some critical staff decisions after 2019 and we’ve been watching the payoff of those ever since. With White back, great experience and depth at safety, and Carter stepping into the nickel role, State is one cornerback spot away from likely having another really strong year of secondary play. If Cisse delivers out of the gate, this could be an excellent unit.

We’ve now come to the end of the previews. Thank you for reading. These were super fun to write and I hope you enjoyed them. I’ll leave with this parting thought. I keep a pretty optimistic view on State sports, but I’ve never thought of myself as unrealistic. If I think something sucks, I will write that it sucks. For example, State’s offense sucked in the first half of last season. The backs were bad, the offensive line was a mess, and Armstrong was playing poorly. The strides the team made on both sides of the ball were truly tremendous, and the proof of concept that the entire coaching staff has put on tape over their respective tenures coupled with the transfer portal haul puts State in a position to win the ACC. This is 100% a team that can win the ACC. They are my pick to do so. 

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