Fifth-year senior defensive end Michael Lemon arrived at NC State only two weeks before the season began last year. However, he still made one of the biggest plays of the season opener against South Carolina when he snared an interception that would lead to the Pack's only points in a 7-3 loss.
Despite how rare an interception is for a defensive lineman, Lemon refuses to call that the highlight of his season. He saves that distinction for a series of plays that helped seal a conference victory over Maryland. As time ticked away, with the Pack leading by one touchdown, Maryland was driving through NC State's territory. On second-and-ten, Lemon came up with an eight-yard sack. On fourth down, Lemon applied some heavy pressure on the signal caller that led to an incomplete pass and put the finishing touches on a hard-fought win. As the Pack celebrated the win, Lemon was on the bottom of a victory dogpile.
"The Maryland play was pretty big," he remembered. "We won that game and then the big dogpile on the field was pretty nice. That was my highlight [last year]."
Raleigh is Lemon's third stop on a long and winding college journey that began at the University of Georgia in 2006. The native of Macon, Ga. then attended Georgia Military College before finding his way to the Pack. Although, he played a huge role in last year's defense, his role will be even more crucial this season: the Pack must replace all four starters among the defensive line. Lemon prepares every day, though, focused solely on helping the team win games.
"[My role] is the same as always, just to help the team win," the 6-4 and 267-pounder said. "I'll just go out there and play anytime my number is called and try to help us win."
The Pack are in a unique situation, however. Head coach Tom O'Brien said it best after a recent practice when he stated that the lines, on both sides of the ball, "couldn't have survived without junior college kids."
Although the Pack featured four experienced seniors on the defensive front last season, Lemon still made a significant impact. He finished his Raleigh debut campaign with appearances in all twelve games, one start, 24 tackles, 12 quarterback hurries, five pass breakups, four tackles for loss, one sack, one forced fumble and the aforementioned interception.
As the Pack enters 2010, the projected starters at either end are those junior college transfers that O'Brien recently praised: Lemon and fellow fifth-year senior David Akinniyi, a victim of the now-defunct Northeastern football program. Lemon and Aikinniyi's similarities go beyond simply being the same age and lining up at the same position.
"He came in as an older guy and you just kind of have to get to know everybody and figure out the system on the fly, so we can relate in that regard," Lemon said of his new teammate. "We just have to try to make the best of our situations."
Although Lemon does not like to view himself differently than any of his teammates, he admits he feels different this year. His college career has been a whirlwind of schemes, playing in a different defensive formation under various coaches at every stop. However, he is experiencing a new feeling of comfort and consistency this fall.
"I'm feeling more settled in, I kind of know my way around now," he said. "I'm very happy, there's a sense of just being comfortable going into my second year with it. I'm more familiar, I know where I should be and I know where my teammates should be.
"It's always easier to play and you feel more free to fly around when you know what you're doing. I think I just know what I'm doing more so it's a very fun time right now."
In all of the different schemes he has played, though, he says that he likes NC State's defense under coordinator Mike Archer the best. With the addition of linebackers coach Jon Tenuta, opponents should see even more pressure from the Pack contingent, and Lemon can't wait to see the results he and his teammates can produce.
"I like this defense right here the best," he said. "We have the chance to fly around a little bit and make plays. I think the defensive line is doing great. We take coaching very well and Coach [Keith] Willis is a great coach. Everything that he tells us, we listen to, take to heart and put into action on the field. It's making us very successful."
Lemon said he isn't concerned about his position on the depth chart, as long as he is helping the team to the best of his ability. Although some players might be focused on producing individual numbers and shooting up NFL draft boards in their final season, Lemon is not allowing that to distract him.
"Really, I have just one main goal and that is just to win," Lemon said. "You could have 50 sacks but if you're still losing, it doesn't make you feel too good. As long as we win, I'll be good to go.
"I'm very excited for the season. This is the last go-round so it's a very special time. I'm just ready to get out there, we've been banging heads against our own teammates for the longest time now so it will be great to just playing against someone else and to see what we can do on the field."
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