Stevens' return boosts NC State secondary for FSU matchup
By AARON BEARD
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) North Carolina State's secondary is getting healthier for Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Coach Dave Doeren said Thursday he expects starting cornerback Mike Stevens to make his season debut in Saturday's league opener against No. 12 Florida State after missing the first three games with a knee injury. It's a welcome boost to a secondary that was a question mark compared to the Wolfpack's veteran front filled with seniors and returning starters.
"I'm so happy that Mike's back," said senior defensive end Bradley Chubb, an Associated Press first-team preseason All-American. "I texted him the other day, just said: `I love you, I can't wait to play with you again.' This is our senior year. We all just want to go out as well as we can, and just have everybody back and have everybody playing as one like we're used to."
It's unclear whether safety Dexter Wright will be ready. The junior is questionable with an opening-game groin injury that had sidelined him for the past two games. Asked about how much Wright had been able to do in practice this week, Doeren said only "not much" but said he was improving.
Stevens, an instate senior from Charlotte, played more snaps last year than any other returning defensive player despite the fact he missed a game and has 22 career starts. That made him and senior Shawn Boone the leaders in a secondary that lost starters Josh Jones, Jack Tocho and Dravious Wright.
But a training-camp injury threw off that plan for the Wolfpack (2-1).
Doeren said Stevens was hurt when he was battling with receiver Stephen Louis on a goal-line drill. At the time, Doeren said it was unclear exactly how long Stevens would be out but that Stevens didn't need surgery.
Stevens returned to practice last week, though Doeren had been cautious to ensure he was fully recovered to rejoin a secondary FSU coach Jimbo Fisher described as "big and long."
"I mean, he had some muscular soreness which you expect, but from an injury standpoint he's completely healed," Doeren said. "So he's just getting back into football shape. But he looked really good in practice."
Stevens didn't specify the nature of the injury, though he's wearing a brace on his right knee. He said there was some early concern that he could be out up to eight weeks, so he said he threw himself into studying film and playing the role of a coach for his teammates in the secondary.
"I've just been practicing, I go hard in practice," Stevens said. "We've got receivers just like Florida State's got good receivers, so I'm not worried at all about rust."
The secondary has already lost cornerback James Valdez (knee) and safety/Nickelback Freddie Phillips Jr. (Achilles tendon) to season-ending injuries. That prompted Doeren to note earlier this week: "We felt like we had almost 12 guys back there we could play with and it quickly went down to six."
Stevens' injury opened an opportunity for fifth-year senior Johnathan Alston, a converted receiver, to start the first three games at cornerback while sophomore Nick McCloud has started at the other corner spot.
This week's depth chart doesn't specify a starter between Alston and Stevens. The same is true at free safety, where sophomore Tim Kidd-Glass has started the past two games since Wright was hurt.
"I feel like we're about to have a lot of fun Saturday as a secondary group," Stevens said. "We're confident."
AP Sports Writer Joe Reedy in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.
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Updated September 21, 2017