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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 36: N.C. State

As with relief pitchers, it’s hard to gauge how one year’s success will translate to the following season. Take a team’s ability to create turnovers, for example. Sixteen teams forced at least 30 turnovers in 2010; only five duplicated that feat a year later. And some, like Boston College, Army and Ohio State, suffered precipitous drops in turnovers gained. Then again, N.C. State forced 29 turnovers in 2010 before ratcheting that total up to 39 last fall, so it wasn’t as if the defense’s penchant for takeaways was a one-year wonder — it was no flash in the pan, based on how the defense has played over the last two seasons. And there’s reason to think that trend will continue in 2012, seeing that the Wolfpack return both all-American cornerback David Amerson and free safety Brandan Bishop. Do it again and this opportunism becomes a trend. Once is a fluke; twice is a sign; three times is a trend. And imagine if N.C. State can combine a strong passing game, an opportunistic, bend-but-don’t-break defense and solid special teams play with an actual running game? If that occurs, you can see the Wolfpack fulfilling their promise as an A.C.C. contender in 2012.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Atlantic

Location
Raleigh, N.C.

Nickname
Wolfpack

Returning starters
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 40

2011 record
(8-5, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 48

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 31
    vs. Tennessee (in Atlanta)
  • Sept. 8
    at UConn
  • Sept. 15
    South Alabama
  • Sept. 22
    The Citadel
  • Sept. 29
    at Miami (Fla.)
  • Oct. 6
    Florida St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Maryland
  • Oct. 27
    at U.N.C.
  • Nov. 3
    Virginia
  • Nov. 10
    Wake Forest
  • Nov. 17
    at Clemson
  • Nov. 24
    Boston College

Last year’s prediction

N.C. State’s not going anywhere: the Wolfpack will again factor into the A.C.C. mix, winning at least seven games and competing with Clemson for the second spot in the Atlantic division. I should say that N.C. State won’t be quite as good as it was last fall, when it was right in the mix for a national ranking. Alright, so why? Because of a few concerns. One is at quarterback. I think Glennon has the makings of a very good college quarterback, but it’s only natural to expect some drop-off as the team transitions away from Wilson. Defensively, we must see better play from the secondary. This is a very solid team, one that should advance to bowl play without too much trouble, but I’m hesitant to put the Wolfpack in the mix for a nationally-ranked finish. One thing I know for sure: N.C. State is not falling back to 5-7, where it stumbled to in 2009 after its first step forward under O’Brien. This is a good, well-coached team.

2011 recap

In a nutshell It would have been easy, and predictable, for N.C. State to fold up shop before the year even began. Russell Wilson was gone, replaced by Mike Glennon, and negativity — most aimed at Tom O’Brien — ruled the day. That the Wolfpack persevered, to a degree, was a great sign for O’Brien and the program. You’d like to see more consistency, however. N.C. State beat Virginia, 28-14, and followed that up with a 34-0 loss in Tallahassee to Florida State. A week after shutting out U.N.C. and a week before stomping on Clemson, the Wolfpack lost at Boston College. The Wolfpack closed strong, but any hopes at an A.C.C. title hinges on the program’s ability to put together a three-month season; just playing well in November won’t win the Atlantic division.

High point In terms of the best win, nothing comes close to a 37-13 victory over Clemson on Nov. 19. As West Virginia proved later on, it was possible to go to town on the Clemson defense. The memory most will take from the year, however, was the fourth quarter against Maryland.

Low point Get blown out by Cincinnati and Florida State, both on the road, or lay an egg on the road against Boston College? Each were painful in their own way.

Tidbit While it’s not a safe bet to rely on turnovers to get stops on defense, last year’s proved how N.C. State is one of the nation’s better teams when it wins the turnover battle. It’s simple: N.C. State wins when it forces two or more turnovers and loses when it forces one or none. Last fall, the Wolfpack were 7-0 when forcing two or more turnovers; 6-0 when ahead in turnover margin; 2-3 when even in turnover margin; 0-2 when behind in turnover margin; and 0-5 when forcing only one turnover.

Tidbit (top teams edition) N.C. State is 7-5 against ranked teams since O’Brien took over in 2007. The Wolfpack have topped at least one ranked team in each year, notching a perfect 2-0 mark in 2010. In 2007, N.C. State beat No. 18 Virginia and lost to No. 14 Clemson; in 2008, beat No. 15 East Carolina and No. 25 North Carolina but lost to No. 13 South Florida; in 2009, beat No. 23 North Carolina and lost to No. 24 Clemson and No. 16 Virginia Tech; two years ago, beat both no. 16 Florida State and No. 22 West Virginia, the latter during play; and last fall, swamped No. 7 Clemson and lost to No. 21 Georgia Tech. Overall, including a few seasons at Boston College, O’Brien is 14-10 against ranked opponents over the last nine years.

Former players in the N.F.L.

23 RB Andre Brown (New York Giants), LB Audie Cole (Minnesota), WR Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh), FB Taylor Gentry (Kansas City), WR T.J. Graham (Buffalo), OG Leroy Harris (Tennessee), K Steve Hauschka (Seattle), LB Nate Irving (Denver), DT Markus Kuhn (New York Giants), C Ted Larsen (Tampa Bay), LB Manny Lawson (Cincinnati), OG Sean Locklear (New York Giants), LB Terrell Manning (Green Bay), DT John McCargo (Chicago), DT DeMario Pressley (Chicago), QB Philip Rivers (San Diego), WR Owen Spencer (Cleveland), OG J.R. Sweezy (Seattle), LB Stephen Tulloch (Detroit), OG Jake Vermiglio (Buffalo), LB Mario Williams (Buffalo), S Adrian Wilson (Arizona), DE Willie Young (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

Novels with Vietnam as central topic
1. “Tree of Smoke,” by Denis Johnson.
2. ”The Quiet American,” by Graham Greene.
3. “Dirty Work,” by Larry Brown.
4. ”Matterhorn,” by Karl Marlantes.
5. ”The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien.

Coaching

Tom O’Brien (Navy ‘71), 33-30 after five seasons with the Wolfpack. N.C. State has reached a tipping point under the former Boston College coach, winning nine games — the program’s first winning season under his watch — in 2010 and another eight games last fall after a very disappointing bowl-free finish in 2009. The nine-win finish in 2010 not only placed the Wolfpack back on the A.C.C. map but also rejuvenated O’Brien’s standing among the conference’s best coaches; his stature had taken a bit of hit following his 16-21 start to his stint at N.C. State. Last fall marked his finest coaching job yet with the program: N.C. State put its foot down with Russell Wilson, the would-be senior who transferred to Wisconsin, but the Wolfpack notched another strong finish despite lacking significant star power on offense. O’Brien moved south to Raleigh after 10 years with the Eagles (1997-2006), where he departed holding the school record for career wins (75). He took over a stumbling program racked by a gambling scandal under his predecessor Dan Henning, and after suffering through a pair of 4-7 seasons led the Eagles to eight straight winning seasons and an N.C.A.A.-best eight consecutive bowl victories. It was an odd departure from Chestnut Hill, as neither O’Brien nor the administration seemed to make much of an effort to come together after news of his impending departure became evident. However, despite Boston College’s success under his watch, it was clear that the support and attention the N.C. State program receives makes it a career upgrade for O’Brien – and as an aside, check out how the Eagles have fared since turning the reins over for Frank Spaziani. The marriage was rocky early, but O’Brien justified the program’s faith by turning things around over the last two seasons. While many thought he’d have the Wolfpack back near the top of the A.C.C. sooner, wisely consider the following: better late than never. And I don’t think this team is going to step back at all in 2012 and beyond.

Tidbit (coaching edition) O’Brien made two changes to his offensive coaching staff. Last fall, offensive coordinator Dana Bible also coached the Wolfpack’s quarterbacks and receivers; in 2012, Bible will continue to work with the quarterbacks while Troy Walters, who spent the last two seasons at Texas A&M, takes over with the wide receivers. Another change: N.C. State will no longer delegate running backs and tight ends to two separate coaches – Everette Sands and Don Horton, respectively – but rather have former Air Force assistant Des Kitchings handle both duties. And this move was one that O’Brien, who always craves coaching continuity, made out of necessity, to a degree. Sands, who only spent one season with Wolfpack, left to take the same position at South Carolina, while Horton retired from coaching. Despite the fact that Walters is a fairly young coach, N.C. State’s coaching holds a combined 246 years of coaching experience — 36 from O’Brien.

Players to watch

To say that Mike Glennon performed commendably in 2011, when he was a late-in-the-game replacement for Wisconsin-bound Russell Wilson, reeks of misguided understatement. Yes, Glennon played well under a very bright microscope. Yes, every move he made for much of last season was compared – often unfavorably, on a national level – to the record-breaking season Wilson was putting together in Madison. But that’s wrong: Glennon didn’t just play well – he was terrific. And he was terrific even when most expected him to fail, or at least fail to match the level of play Wilson showcased over his three seasons as N.C. State’s starting quarterback.

Well, consider this. Glennon tossed 31 touchdowns, the third-most in A.C.C. history. He completed 62.5 percent of his attempts, a higher rate – pretty significantly higher, in fact – than Wilson ever posted with the Wolfpack. He threw for 3,054 yards, the fifth-most in school history; completed 283 passes, the third-most; he threw for five touchdowns in the comeback win over Maryland, tying a school record; his efficiency rating of 136.4 was the fifth-best in program history. He was everything Wilson was – Glennon was, yes, terrific.

And he’s just getting warmed up. Over N.C. State’s last four games, Glennon completed 104 of 157 attempts for 1,043 yards and 11 touchdowns. He heads into his senior season on the highest of high notes, looking to continue his torrid play as the heart and soul of the Wolfpack’s offense. So what does Glennon do for an encore, now that he’s quieted all of his critics? He needs to slow down: Glennon looked rushed at times, especially against teams with stronger defensive fronts – Florida State, Cincinnati and Virginia. He needs to continue taking what’s given to him rather than forcing the tempo. Glennon does not need much work, as you can imagine. He’s going to have a monster senior season.

N.C. State returns four starters off of last year’s front – and 112 career starts – but don’t look for all four to remain in the starting lineup. Heading into fall camp, the Wolfpack seem prepared to move senior R.J. Mattes inside from left tackle to left guard, freeing up the blind side to junior Rob Crisp, who made one start at right tackle a year ago. What this would do, if the current two-deep holds, is move junior Duran Christophe into a backup role; Christophe started all 13 games of last season at left guard. So why not simply keep Mattes at left tackle and move Crisp into the top spot on the strong side?

I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. One reason may be that N.C. State really wants to beef up the interior of its line to help bolster a perennially disappointing running game – which would make great sense. Mattes would be joined inside by senior center Camden Weitz and senior right guard Zach Allen, with Christophe the first interior lineman off the bench. The new right tackle, replacing Mikel Overgaard, is senior Andrew Wallace, the team’s starting left guard in 2010. Wallace, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, adds some more toughness up front. Inexperience is not an issue.

It’s an annual rite: N.C. State will emphasize a stronger running game over the summer and then achieve little on the ground come September. Why should this year be any different? One reason for optimism is the healthy return of sophomore Mustafa Greene, the team’s leading rusher in 2010, who is nearing full strength after missing all of last season with a foot injury. If he’s ready to go, Greene can help take some pressure off of senior James Washington (897 yards) and sophomore Tony Creecy (382 yards).

An experienced line will also help, though it should be noted that this same line – for the most part – has done nothing of consequence in the running game over the last three years. One thing to keep in mind: N.C. State doesn’t run the ball well, but it’s probably safe to include the short passing game as an extension of the running game, in a way. Washington (42 catches for 315 yards) and Greene (30 receptions in 2010) are very nice underneath options for Glennon to work with on passing downs, so the backs do make an impact beyond merely running the football. Nevertheless, N.C. State is a reliable running game away from beating a team like Florida State; the Seminoles’ defense is so good as to render any one-dimensional offense completely and utterly useless.

Like Oklahoma State, the Wolfpack succeed on defense largely because of their ability to force turnovers. But while you need to view the defense’s totals through that prism – the fact that many drives were cut short due to turnovers – N.C. State’s group played fairly well; while the Wolfpack allowed about an extra field goal per game compared to 2010, the defense made offenses work to move the football. The question: Could N.C. State continue to rank among the top fourth of the A.C.C. in most meaningful defensive categories if the defense forced, say, 20 turnovers instead of 39?

Probably not. But as noted earlier, last year’s opportunism wasn’t a one-year aberration; the Wolfpack have been forcing turnovers at this high rate for two years running, with pretty much the same cast of characters in place in the secondary. While it’s hard to predict, I don’t think that N.C. State’s turnover-happy defense is making interception after interception because opposing quarterbacks are making mistake after mistake; instead, it’s safe to say that this defense, led by coordinator Mike Archer, has adopted a ball-hawking mentality. That won’t change, and neither should the results.

And it starts in the secondary. It’s the same group: senior C.J. Wilson (33 tackles) and junior David Amerson (59 tackles, 13 interceptions) at cornerback and seniors Earl Wolff (105 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Brandan Bishop (89 tackles, 5 interceptions) a safety. Amerson gets the headlines, and rightfully so; he has the sort of radar few cornerbacks possess, which combined with his wonderful size, leaping ability and closing speed makes him one of the nation’s best defenders. But the one constant through the years has been Bishop, who played the best football of his career last fall – though Amerson stormed in and stole his thunder.

Getting a healthy season out of junior Jarvis Byrd will greatly increase depth at cornerback, though Byrd has missed each of the last two years – and most of 2009 – with knee injuries. This is the one area in the secondary that could be a concern: N.C. State could be in trouble if Amerson or Wilson miss extended time. If that happens and Byrd can’t go, the Wolfpack would turn the reins over to redshirt freshmen like Tyrell Burris and Juston Buris, which could really have a devastating impact on this entire defense.

N.C. State has a nice top three at end in senior Brian Slay (23 tackles, 3.5 sacks), junior Darryl Cato-Bishop (22 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and sophomore Art Norman (28 tackles, 5.5 sacks). The latter has already proven himself to be a very dangerous weapon despite his inexperience and lack of prototypical size – though with Slay and Cato-Bishop both bigger ends, at about 285 pounds apiece, Norman’s 240-pound frame does provide a different look for offensive tackles. Additional depth comes from senior McKay Frandsen, the fourth end a year ago, and junior Forrest West.

Two big issues: the interior of the line and linebacker. For the former, N.C. State needs to replace both of last season’s starters in Markus Kuhn and J.R. Sweezy. While the Wolfpack are moving ahead with sophomores Thomas Teel and T.Y. McGill (21 tackles) as the starters – backed up by some very inexperienced tackles, including a promising JUCO transfer in Deylan Buntyn – I can’t help but think that N.C. State should move Slay inside from end. He’s big enough to handle the load; he even opened last season as a starting tackle before moving outside. And with two capable starters available in Slay’s stead at end, couldn’t the Wolfpack use his experience and burst at tackle? I could see the Wolfpack forming a nice pair between Slay and McGill, two smaller interior linemen – smaller meaning only 290 pounds or so – who could get some pressure in the backfield.

One reason why N.C. State can’t afford to go smaller inside is because of the absolute lack of proven options on the second level. It’s not a good situation: N.C. State lost Terrell Manning, Audie Cole, Dwayne Maddox and D.J. Green, the latter a would-be sophomore who was suspended for this coming season after testing positive for a banned substance. Where does this leave the Wolfpack? Searching for answers, crossing their fingers that either some unknown returning contributors or two or three new faces can supply a jolt. As of now, all N.C. State has going for it at linebacker is Jon Tenuta, the position coach.

While the starting lineup won’t be set until later in August, N.C. State heads into fall camp with senior Sterling Lucas in the middle, sophomore Rodman Noel on the strong side and junior Rickey Dowdy on the weak side. This is a trio that combined for zero tackles in 2012 – with Lucas missing the year following a knee injury. If not this group, N.C. State could use some combination of Ryan Cheek – he had five tackles last season – Michael Peek and Brandon Pittman, if not incoming JUCO transfer Robert Caldwell. Last season, N.C. State’s top four linebackers combined for 258 tackles, 39.5 tackles for loss and 13.0 sacks. This position is the biggest question mark on the team.

Look for N.C. State to improve on special teams after starting a freshman punter, kicker and long snapper a season ago. Kicker Niklas Sade and punter Will Baumann played fine, all things considered, but will grow more consistent with added experience. The Wolfpack could stand to get more in the return game, where they ranked 66th nationally on kickoffs but 27th nationally on punts. Similarly, this team ranked among the nation’s best at defending punt returns but was decidedly average on kickoffs.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver The losses are troubling but not crippling. With last season as our evidence, Glennon was able to turn inconsistent, fairly unknown receivers into strong, somewhat steady targets in the passing game; this year’s group is nearly as experienced as last year’s receiver corps heading into the year, so it’s not as if a lack of playing time at the position is going to drop Glennon’s production down a peg. In fact, one might be able to make the case that this receiver corps will be better than last year’s group: the returning group is a year wiser and has spent an entire season with Glennon at quarterback – and it goes unmentioned, but transitioning from one quarterback to another does task a team’s returning receivers.

To me, the biggest loss is at tight end. While not the flashiest option in the passing game, George Bryan was an always-reliable security blanket for both Wilson and Glennon. The Wolfpack have senior Mario Carter, who made nine grabs in a reserve role last fall, but it’s going to be hard for N.C. State to find another target who can demand attention over the middle of the field. What the Wolfpack need at the receiver position is greater consistency: T.J. Graham had a nice final season – in terms of his overall production; he led the team in catches and receiving yards – but he remained far too spotty when it came to catching the football, let alone putting together extended periods of strong play.

With Graham, Bryan and Jay Smith gone, N.C. State will turn its focus over to senior Tobias Palmer (37 receptions for 496 yards and 5 touchdowns), junior Quintin Payton and sophomore Bryan Underwood (16 for 226), the top three on the depth chart heading into fall camp. Behind this group lies junior Rashard Smith and redshirt freshmen Hakeem Flowers and Maurice Morgan. Based on how Graham fared as Glennon’s top target, look for Palmer and Underwood to combine for around 100-plus receptions. Who will N.C. State turn to on the intermediate level? Until – or if – Carter or anther tight end proves himself, Glennon will call on Washington and the running backs to help carry the load.

Game(s) to watch

The importance of the season opener against Tennessee cannot be overestimated. A win isn’t just a marquee one for both N.C. State and the A.C.C., but it would also send the Wolfpack into a very easy stretch with a gallon of confidence – and this confidence will only grow as the Wolfpack take care of Connecticut, South Alabama, The Citadel and Miami. Then comes Florida State, and that game, along with a road date with Clemson, will decide the Atlantic division. But N.C. State’s final record will be decided in those games against the middle of its conference: North Carolina, Virginia and Wake Forest. Sweep that three, take care of the lower rung of the A.C.C. – Maryland, Miami and Boston College – take two of three against the Seminoles, Clemson and Tennessee… well, you’re looking at a national contender. This is a schedule with its challenges, but that’s good: N.C. State needs to get challenged early, with the Volunteers, and can make some noise against those two Atlantic division favorites.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Tom O’Brien’s kingdom for a true, consistent running game – and for some help at defensive tackle and at linebacker. It’s the little things that separate an eight-win team from a conference and national title contender; for N.C. State, it’s the little things that will prevent it from leapfrogging from four A.C.C. wins to the top of the Atlantic division, ahead of Florida State and Clemson. When it comes to the Seminoles, as noted earlier, it’s hard to take the Wolfpack’s chances seriously when this offense tends to be far too one-dimensional – Florida State’s defense feasts on pass-first offenses just as it does against run-heavy teams, and as good as Glennon is, he can’t go it alone. It’s a different story against Clemson, which gets the Wolfpack at home, but the Tigers will be entering their second season running Chad Morris’ dynamic offense; the Tigers should also be motivated to avenge last season’s ugly, disinterested loss.

So N.C. State is headed to a third-place finish in the Atlantic, in my opinion. But that doesn’t mean that this team can’t make a run towards nine wins, should it find a bit more balance on offense. What should help is this experienced offensive line, which along with another backfield option in Greene should lead to at least a slightly more productive running game. That will help this offense as a whole, seeing that Glennon is only going to be better as a second-year starter. What about this defense? The Wolfpack can overcome some issues along the front seven if the secondary continues to force turnovers in bunches. But if Amerson, Bishop and company don’t match last season’s total it will reveal some significant personnel issues: N.C. State lacks options at tackle and is more inexperienced than any B.C.S. conference team in the country when it comes to linebacker. Again, the little things make the difference. Thanks to a wonderful quarterback and a dangerous secondary, N.C. State will win eight games in the regular season. But the Seminoles and Tigers rule the roost in the Atlantic division.

Dream season The Wolfpack get off on the right foot with a nationally televised victory over Tennessee. Florida State proves too tough to handle and Wake Forest notches an upset, but N.C. State wins 10 games in the regular season for only the second time in school history.

Nightmare season This would be disappointing: N.C. State starts 0-2 and finishes 3-5 in A.C.C. play to slide back out of bowl play. Yes, that would be extremely disappointing.

In case you were wondering

Where do N.C. State fans congregate? You can find solid chatter and football recruiting coverage at The Wolfpacker or Pack Pride. For a blog’s take, check out State Fans Nation and Backing the Pack. And don’t forget about Riddick & Reynolds. How did those guys spend their summer vacation? By putting together some really great interviews with several past and present N.C. State sports figures. If you’re an N.C. State fan, they’re definitely worth checking out.

N.C. State’s all-name nominee DT K’Hadree Hooker.

Word Count

Through 89 teams 354,187.

Up Next

Who is No. 35? Tomorrow’s program played its first game exactly one month before the birth of a songwriter who would at one point hold the copyright to one of 20th century America’s most recognizable songs. And that’s what it’s all about.

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Comments

  1. David says:

    Louisville played its first football game on 10/11/12. One month later, Larry LaPrise was born. LaPrise is one of several people who claimed to have written The Hokey Pokey, and he shared the copyright for a while.

  2. Cappy says:

    Is it Rutgers? I’m assuming the song is the hokey-pokey

  3. David says:

    1912, of course … I just wanted to write 10/11/12

  4. Woodysc says:

    I’m pretty sure the song is the “Hokey Pokey” and the songwriter (though not of this particular song) is Roy Acuff (“name me a song that everybody knows and I bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose”). Roy was born Sep. 15, 1903.
    So who played their first game on Aug 15, 1903? I do not know. But I bet it was hot.

  5. Bill condon says:

    Wow. I just figured out that you haven’t previewed Tennessee yet. Do you know something the rest of us don’t (I know, dumb question–of course you do)? Can’t wait to see what you think about the Vols. I’m not a UT fan, but I still wonder about such a high estimation of the program.

  6. David says:

    Woody: LaPrise sold his rights to Acuff

    at least that’s what wikipedia says

  7. Burnt Orange says:

    @Bill Condon – no Mississippi State and no La. Tech either.

  8. 31southst says:

    Paul – yes, BC has fallen under Spaz but don’t forget that we reached new heights under Jags. Don’t let Spaz’s ineptitude trick you into thinking more of TOB than he is (a very solid coach who won’t win a conference).

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