Despite the absence of regular starting quarterback Devin Leary, NC State has stayed afloat, reaching 7 wins for the 8th time in coach Dave Doeren’s 10-year tenure.

Freshman MJ Morris has been excellent in relief of Leary, tossing 6 touchdowns and no interceptions in the Wolfpack’s past 2 contests, home wins against Virginia Tech and then-No. 20 Wake Forest. But without the stellar play from its ACC-leading defense, Morris’ stellar play likely would have occurred in consecutive losses.

The Wolfpack ranks 1st in the ACC in scoring defense, rush defense and 3rd-down defense, and sits 3rd in total defense and 6th in pass defense. Just last weekend, NC State held Wake Forest, with its high-octane offensive attack led by efficient quarterback Sam Hartman and game-breaking receiver AT Perry, to just 21 points (tying the Demon Deacons’ lowest scoring output over the past 2 seasons) and picked off Hartman 3 times.

Two players, junior linebacker Drake Thomas and sophomore cornerback Aydan White, had their fingerprints all over Saturday’s victory. Thomas racked up 9 total tackles (4 solo), along with a pair of sacks, while White picked off Hartman on a diving interception early in the 4th quarter, with Wake Forest approaching midfield trailing 27-14. Without those 2, and their crucial contributions, NC State might be sitting 6-3 and Wake Forest 7-2, not the other way around.

Those 2 performances were a continuation of standout seasons for Thomas and White, as they lead the Wolfpack in total tackles (67) and interceptions (4), respectively.

For Thomas, this was expected. He also led the Wolfpack in tackles a season ago and was named a 1st-team All-ACC member after his 100-tackle, 6-sack campaign. That followed up 58 total tackles during the 2020 season, and 34 total tackles as a freshman, along with 5.5 combined sacks during his 1st 2 years in Raleigh. Thomas has been an established staple of the Wolfpack defense for some time.

But for White, this season has featured his first taste of consistent starts, and he certainly has taken advantage.

As a freshman, White showed flashes, receiving ACC Rookie of the Week honors for his performance against then-No. 21 Liberty. During that contest, the Christ School alum notched a 4th-quarter interception that set up the scoring drive that put the Wolfpack ahead for good during a 15-14 victory. For the season, White accounted for only 6 total tackles, a single pass defended and that aforementioned pick.

As a sophomore, White started 2 games — at Boston College and at Miami — and he racked up 11 total tackles for the season (9 solo) and his 2nd career interception during a 34-27 victory over Louisiana Tech. It was progress, but then White missed the spring after surgery for a partially torn labrum last December.

Missing out on spring ball meant missing out on valuable reps, and a chance to show the defensive staff he was ready to make the leap in Year 3. But once the season started, it has been all systems go for White.

Through the 9 games, White leads the ACC in interceptions (4) and is tied for 4th in passes defended (11). During the 27-14 home win Sept. 17 against Texas Tech, White reacted perfectly to Red Raiders quarterback Donovan Smith’s overthrow, snagging the pick and racing down the sideline 84 yards and into the end zone. The Wolfpack had turned a potential Texas Tech scoring drive into a 20-0 NC State lead.

For good measure, White picked off Behren Morton, who entered at quarterback during the 4th quarter. It was a career-defining day, and a statement that White was a key piece in the secondary.

White’s growth, while slower than that of Thomas, has resulted in a similar outcome: a major role in NC State’s stout defense.

“I feel like it’s part of growing up in college football. I think every player goes through that couple of games or a season where they really need to adjust to the game,” White told USA Today Network last week. “Last year was a real eye-opener for me. I started my 1st game against Miami last year and I know I didn’t play well. Those are the games I’ve tried to look back on and get better.”

As the Wolfpack enters the home stretch, its defense will continue to set the tone. And it will need to, because while NC State is a 19.5-point favorite Saturday against Boston College, Louisville and North Carolina (with dynamic signal-callers Malik Cunningham and Drake Maye, respectively) will be major tests remaining.

But thanks to Thomas and White the Wolfpack will be ready.