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N.C. State lost an all-ACC linebacker to injury. Here’s how the Wolfpack plan to replace him

The loss of two teammates hits home for Thayer Thomas. Literally.

Thomas, the N.C. State junior wide receiver lived with linebacker Payton Wilson on a couple of different occasions the last three years. Thomas is currently roommates with Cyrus Fagan. Both Wilson and Fagan are done for the year with season-ending injuries.

Thomas saw first hand what Wilson went through to battle back from previous injuries, and is now around Fagan daily as he begins his journey to recover.

“It’s just been tough, right?” Thomas told the media on Tuesday. “He’s (Wilson) dealt with a lot since he’s been here. He’s pretty high in spirit. And I’m rooming with Cyrus now, he’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever been around.”

That positivity from the two injured players helps ease the sting for the guys who have to go on the rest of the season. Injuries are a part of football and can’t be avoided. However, losing two defenders, one (Wilson) a captain, in the same game, can take an emotional toll on the team.

But this N.C. State team is out to show they are resilient as ever as they move forward without two starters. Wilson and Fagan wouldn’t want it any other way.

“He just wants us to go out there and play hard,” Thomas said about Wilson. “And continue to have a chip on our shoulders the rest of the season.”

N.C. State (1-1) will see how the defense looks without Wilson and Fagan this weekend versus Furman (2-0). Will there be a letdown – physically and emotionally – after last weekend’s 24-10 loss at Mississippi State? Or will the Wolfpack repeat history and bounce back from a week two road defeat and go on a run? Last season Virginia Tech defeated N.C. State 45-24 in the second game of the year. The Pack responded by winning seven of their final nine regular season games.

Head coach Dave Doeren believes it can happen again.

“We talked about that,” Doeren said. “Talked about the lessons that were learned in that game last year. Sometimes you need to get punched in the mouth. Sometimes you need to realize that winning is really hard. It takes elite focus, communication, discipline, all the things we talk about. It doesn’t matter who you play, it’s how you play.”

Emotions will be high as the team returns to Carter-Finley Stadium, looking to take out their previous loss on the Paladins. They’ll have to do it, though, without two emotional leaders. Thomas did point out the mentality so far from Wilson and Fagan, remaining positive, has helped the rest of the team.

“When someone gets hurt and they are the ones being positive,” Thomas explained, “It only fuels us to go out and perform better for them and play with a little bit of an edge.”

Next man up

A duo of Jakeen Harris and Rakeim Ashford will battle for the job to replace Fagan, with Harris listed as the starter this weekend.

Replacing Wilson will fall squarely on the shoulders of sophomore Jaylon Scott.

Scott (6-1, 245) has one start under his belt, last year in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, and was on the field for 39 snaps against Mississippi State. In 12 games last season he had 16 tackles and one interception. Coming out of Shelby High School in the recruiting class of 2019, Scott was a three-star recruit and the No. 33 player in North Carolina. Since arriving in Raleigh, he’s been playing behind veterans at the linebacker spot, but will be thrust into the spotlight. His classmate, starting defensive lineman C.J. Clark described Scott as a “sneaky athlete.”

“Jalon is a great player,” Clark said. “He’s going to bring that intensity. I’m excited to see him play now that he’s gotten a chance to start. I know he’s going to help us a lot.”

Scott got help in the form of Wilson last weekend in Mississippi. After Wilson went down with his injury, Scott asked him to stay on the sidelines to help him out. Wilson did, standing on the sideline with a huge ice pack on his shoulder, coaching up his teammate when the defense came off the field.

Even when he was on the field, Scott could hear Wilson shouting instructions over all the cowbells inside Davis Wade Stadium. Scott appreciated the extra set of eyes and ears.

“That meant a lot,” Scott said. “The feeling I had when he actually stayed, he still stayed engaged with me even on the sideline, that just proves that he cares about me and he cares about the team.”

Scott acknowledged how big it is to replace Wilson, but that he also prepares each time as if he expects to play 60 snaps a game. His approach to Saturday won’t change at all.

“That’s just my work,” Scott said. “We all prepare as starters.”

In the short time since fans learned that Wilson would be done for the year, Scott had a conversation with him about playing the rest of the year. Wilson affirmed to Scott that he could handle the job.

“He told me I was prepared for this and I know what to do,” Scott said. “Just go ball out, pretty much. He’s a straight forward guy, pretty much. He doesn’t sugarcoat a lot of things.”

Rally cry the rest of the way

When Grant Gibson goes to midfield for the coin toss, he’ll be joined by fellow captains Isaiah Moore, Devin Leary and, instead of Wilson, Drake Thomas.

Gibson has been around the game long enough to know that guys are going to get hurt. He was injured in the TaxSlayer Bowl last year, but was back to full health by the time spring practice started.

During his own recovery process, he would see Wilson, who missed the spring as he recovered from shoulder surgery, working to get back. Gibson arrived in Raleigh a year before Wilson, and while Gibson was getting snaps his redshirt season of 2018, Wilson was recovering from a second knee injury that happened that same summer.

Gibson watched Wilson work himself back into an All-ACC caliber player, earning first-team all-conference honors last year as a redshirt sophomore. Wilson was a preseason All-ACC pick and an early front runner for ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Losing a player like that is definitely an eye opener for the rest of the team.

“I think that this shows guys that you can’t take this game for granted,” Gibson said. “It can be gone like that. And Payton’s injury, just seeing how hard he worked to get back … I feel so bad for him. I feel bad for both of those guys because I’ve seen how hard they’ve worked.”

It won’t be a one man job to replace the production level of Wilson and Fagan. Scott and Harris will be the starters, but expect more snaps at linebacker for Vi Jones and Ashford and Devan Boykin at safety. It’ll take the collective to make sure this is still a successful season, to ensure the loss of two key players doesn’t derail their goals. Gibson will make sure that doesn’t happen.

“It shows guys on this team not to take the game for granted at all,” Gibson stressed. “And to play hard every snap. So that’s what we are trying to do for the rest of the year, just honor those guys with the way we play.”

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV has covered college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central, NC State and the ACC for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.

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