This article is third in a series that examines the strengths and weaknesses of the Volunteers and the Wolfpack, according to last season's numbers. Installment One looks inside the offenses, and Installment Two looks inside the defensive line numbers.
This third installment looks inside the numbers on the linebackers and defensive backs of both teams.
The defensive area that presents the most concern for the 2012 NC State team is linebacker. Since they lost the No. 1, 4, 7 and 9 tacklers from 2011 team, this unit is very inexperienced. As a unit, the current group only has 57 total game snaps combined.
Still, there are good athletes among the group, and both Archer and Tenuta have years of linebacker coaching experience. Archer spent seven years with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1996-2002), so whatever they have to work with will be ready to go by game time.
Tennessee counters with a young but more experienced unit. Sophomores Curt Maggitt and AJ Johnson line up on the outsides, and Third-Team and First-Team All-Americans, respectively. In the middle is senior Herman Lathers, who missed 2011 with a knee injury but was the team's leading tackler in 2010.
Even with the youth, expect NC State to attack Tyler Bray from every angle; it's what they do. Expectations are high from the retooled UT defense that will be more aggressive than the past two years (42 total sacks). Expect more blitzing from this defense as well.
The defensive backfield for NC State is returning intact for the third year in a row. The starters are all seniors, except junior David Amerson, a First-Team All-American who set the single season NCAA record last year with 13 interceptions.
The other corner (CJ Wilson) has four interceptions returned for touchdowns in the past two seasons. Both safeties are honorable mention All-ACC last year.
This group is arguably the best secondary in the nation.
The Tennessee defensive backfield returns eight players who started at some point last season. Five of the eight have at least eight starts, and as a unit they will be much improved due to the experience of the starters and their backups.
Senior corner Prentiss Waggner was Second-Team All-SEC in 2010 and had a good season last year. Sophomore FS Brian Randolph was a Third-Team Freshman All-American last season.
The Vol group doesn't have the numbers put up by the NC State players, and in addition, their schemes were not as aggressive in the past. But as a unit, this group starts the year as solid and likely will be remembered as better.
Edge: NC State
In searching through replays of 2011 NC State and UT games, it was obvious that teams who represented a threat in the passing game were very successful running the football on both teams. Cincinnati is an example. They played NC State two weeks after their game at Tennessee.
Versus NC State, the Cincinnati passing game was 25 of 34 for 263 yards, and they ran 46 times for 240, an average of 5.2 yards per rush. Against Tennessee, they were 21 of 34 for 230 passing yards and ran 26 times for 166 yards, averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
However, there was a huge difference in score and outcome UT 45 - Cincy 23 and in the other game; it was Cincy 44 - NC State 14.
It should be noted that the NC State defensive line and linebackers were injury plagued during the first half of the year. Overall, their defense improved dramatically during the last half of 2011.
Even though the Tennessee rush defense should be better than the Wolfpack, if the UT run game has not improved dramatically, it won't matter. For Tennessee to take advantage of the edge they have on defense, they must be able to run the football themselves.
If the game becomes purely an air show, the NC State defense has an edge based on their experience and previous performance. However, if the Tennessee run game improves to the point that it must be respected by NC State, they will be unable to pin their ears back and come after Bray, while playing man coverage with their very good defensive backs.
On the Tennessee side, the Vols cannot allow quarterback Mike Glennon to pick a zone defense apart, but they don't have to throw everyone in there to get pressure. In many cases, UT will be able to generate pressure and get either hurries or sacks with a four-man rush.
Last year, NC State gave up 34 total sacks. UT gave up 18.
A note to the Vol fans who think this team will be an easy win:
This is the time of year that hopes and expectations tend to run wild. The news from the camps is upbeat. All the players are excited and and believing much of what they hear and read about how everything has improved
The coaches speak their coach speak but sound more upbeat overall about players, the team and just things in general.
It's only two weeks until the season starts. Everything is good, it's upbeat without a lot of injuries or losses, and the sky is the limit on wins.
Just keep this in mind: Everything we see and hear is nothing more than words at this point, and words don't win football games.
The last game UT played was a 10-7 loss to an awful Kentucky team. The last game for NC State was a bowl game victory over a team that beat Kentucky.
This is the time of year for enthusiasm. Before you go too wild, go back and look at some of your UT predictions last year at this time—I did.
I predicted 7 to 9 wins including bowl. How about you?
If you are a Vols fan, it would be wise to take NC State very seriously as an opponent. They are well-coached and have an extremely talented senior quarterback and a defensive backfield that set NCAA records last season.
That old UT we'll-beat-'em 38-7 stuff isn't reality. Frankly, UT is a team trying to claw its way back to respectability. And a win—any win—over NC State would be a nice step in the right direction.
My prediction: This will be a good ball game. It is a game that UT can win or lose and will likely be much closer than some Vols fans think.