Most Wolfpackers watched Coach Doeren’s first spring practice closely in hopes of picking up as much information and indication about the future of NC State football as possible. Of all the nuggets that we got, the most prominent personnel development of the spring was the emergence of MJ Salahuddin at starting middle linebacker.
ESPN profiled Salahuddin’s emergence in this piece today:
M.J. Salahuddin was one of five true freshmen to play for NC State last season. But he toiled largely unnoticed, as a key member on special teams.
He was a backup linebacker, but did not get many snaps there. And when he went into the spring, he was largely unnoticed as well, as a backup on the outside. That all changed in 15 practices.
Salahuddin quickly emerged as a playmaker on a defense in search of one. So much so, that defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable decided to move Salahuddin to middle linebacker before the team’s first spring scrimmage. Salahuddin arrived at NC State as a safety. He had never played middle linebacker in his life.
But he took to the position right away, and ended up with a team-high eight tackles in the team’s spring game last month.
“M.J. is consistent, he has a great motor, he’s vocal,” coach Dave Doeren said. “He can run, and he’s got a good skill-set from a movement standpoint. He’s a tough kid that loves football. He can play outside linebacker as well. Really, Coach Huxtable was trying to find the combination of three guys that were playing the best and who fit best in the middle out of the three between D.J. Green and Brandon Pittman and M.J. We felt like those three guys made the most plays.
“So there are still some guys competing. I know Zach Gentry had a good spring for us as well. But M.J. is just really productive, a high motor, positive guy that we liked having out on the field.”
The Wolfpack had to replace two of their starting linebackers on defense, with Rickey Dowdy and Sterling Lucas gone. Lucas started every game at middle linebacker last season. Salahuddin backed up Rodman Noel on the strongside. But now, Green is ahead of Noel at that spot, and Salahuddin is ahead of Gentry in the middle.
There is plenty more work to be done between now and fall camp, but if spring is any indication, Salahuddin could make a major impact once the season begins.
It is always good news for any player to unexpectedly emerge as a bona fide contributor. It is even better when that emergence happens at a position of weakness for a team; and there no arguing that linebacking play was a significant weakness at NC State in 2012.
With Salahuddin (So) starting in the middle, DJ Green (Sr) is currently listed as the starter at weakside linebacker and Brandon Pittman (Jr) is listed on the strongside. If Salahuddin delivers in accordance with some of the preseason hype, then this group – backed up by Rodman Noel (SLB), Zach Gentry (MLB), and Drew Davis (WLB) should be much improved upon from last season.
For me, one specific mystery at linebacker remains for some discussion – Robert Caldwell. You may recall that Caldwell signed with NC State in 2012 as junior college linebacker from California. He chose the Pack over Iowa and some other FBS programs. When he signed in 2012 Caldwell still had three years of eligibility to play two years, but he played extensively on special teams last year and now has two years available to play one. At 6’3 and 250 pounds and with NC State’s quality & depth issues at the position a lot of fans expected Caldwell to be more competitive for time at linebacker. It appears as though his opportunity to emerge has been replaced by the younger Salahuddin.