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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. 48: N.C. State

Yeah, Tom O’Brien said it, but I didn’t think he meant it. I’m talking about February, March and April, when O’Brien told anyone who would listen that his team was moving on without all-A.C.C. quarterback Russell Wilson, then a member of the Colorado Rockies minor league organization, not the Wisconsin Badgers. I didn’t really believe it for one simple reason: no coach – or so I thought – would bid adieu to a quarterback as gifted and experienced as Wilson; a coach could get steaming mad that, once again, his star wasn’t around for spring ball, but no coach would so firmly shut the door on his return. Well, Tom O’Brien would, and did, and in doing so placed himself firmly under the microscope should his team struggle as a result.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Atlantic

Location
Raleigh, N.C.

Nickname
Wolfpack

Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 62

2010 record
(9-4, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 26

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Liberty
  • Sept. 10
    at Wake Forest
  • Sept. 17
    South Alabama
  • Sept. 22
    at Cincinnati
  • Oct. 1
    Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 8
    Central Michigan
  • Oct. 22
    at Virginia
  • Oct. 29
    at F.S.U.
  • Nov. 5
    U.N.C.
  • Nov. 12
    at Boston College
  • Nov. 19
    Clemson
  • Nov. 26
    Maryland

Last year’s prediction

Is there any reason to expect an improvement? Yes, there is. If he’s fully recovered — and he may not be — Irving will provide this group with a significant boost. He’ll highlight an improved back seven, though the Wolfpack will rely upon production from some relatively unproven contributors. If — and it’s a large if — N.C. State can return to even its 2007 form on defense, the offense is good enough to lead this team to eight wins. It’s just a matter of time, in my opinion, before Tom O’Brien wins in Raleigh; he’s too good a coach to expect otherwise. I think we’ll see a better Wolfpack team in 2010, a team that will return to bowl play for the first time since 2005, but I have N.C. State finishing fourth in the Atlantic division. For a program fallen on hard times, a bowl trip would be just fine.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Those N.C. State fans patient enough to wait through three seasons of mediocrity under Tom O’Brien were rewarded with the program’s finest regular season since 2002, a nine-win finish that saw the Wolfpack shake off the post-Phillip Rivers doldrums. As with the 2002-3 teams that combined for 19 wins, N.C. State was led by a polished, veteran quarterback whose steady hand yielded an A.C.C.-best 281.7 passing yards per game. This season’s biggest development, however, was the improvement on the defensive side of the ball: N.C. State cut more than nine points per game from last year’s scoring defense, allowing only 21.3 points per game. The best news, however, is this intangible idea that N.C. State has turned a corner under O’Brien; now that the foundation has been laid, it’s easy to picture a consistently strong program over the next handful of seasons. Will the climb continue without that same veteran quarterback?

High point A 28-24 win over Florida State on Oct. 28. If the Wolfpack had defeated Maryland in the regular season finale, the victory over F.S.U. would have given them the head-to-head tiebreaker for the Atlantic division title. Also impressive: a 23-7 win over West Virginia during bowl play. Here’s guessing it’ll be a long time before the Mountaineers score only seven points in a game again.

Low point The 38-31 loss to Maryland looms large, as does a 14-13 loss to Clemson three weeks earlier. Yes, a win over Maryland would have won the Atlantic; a win over a very average Clemson team, on the other hand, would have won the Atlantic in advance of the season finale.

Tidbit There are two state capitals named after individuals who died by execution. One is Raleigh: Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned soon after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, and was executed in 1619 – saying to his executioner, “Strike, man, strike!” Raleigh was not a weak man. The other was Saint Paul, as in Saint Paul, Minnesota, who was executed during the reign of Nero around 60 A.D. Both were beheaded, in fact. This is a good trivia question to ask the family at the dinner table. Here’s another: Which state capitals include the state itself in its name? No cheating, please.

Tidbit (experience edition)  This is not an inexperienced coaching staff. Combined, O’Brien’s nine assistants bring 235 years of experience into 2011, paced by special teams coach Jerry Petercuskie’s 37 seasons along the sidelines. Defensive coordinator Mike Archer is a 36-year veteran; offensive coordinator Dana Bible 34 years; tight ends coach Don Horton and linebackers coach Jon Tenuta 31 years; offensive line coach Jim Bridge 21 years; defensive line coach Keith Willis 17 years; running backs coach Everette Sands 16 years; and defensive backs coach Mike Reed 13 years. I assume that Reed, the young guy, brings snacks and coffee to every meeting.

Tidbit (draft edition) Former N.C. State linebacker Nate Irving was taken in the third round of April’s N.F.L. draft, marking the 15th consecutive year that the program has had at least one player selected in the draft. The last time N.C. State was shutout was in 1996; prior to that, N.C. State had a player taken in each draft from 1978-95. The decade of the 2000s were especially fruitful for the Wolfpack: 27 players were taken in the draft, six in 2006, when three defensive linemen went in the first round.

Former players in the N.F.L.

20 RB Andre Brown (Washington), WR Brian Cook (Detroit), WR Jerricho Cotchery (New York Jets), C Leroy Harris (Tennessee), K Steven Hauschka (Denver), TE Anthony Hill (Houston), S Marcus Hudson (Carolina), LB Nate Irving (Denver), C Ted Larsen (Tampa Bay), LB Manny Lawson (San Francisco), OT Sean Locklear (Seattle), DT John McCargo (Buffalo), DT DeMario Pressley (Indianapolis), QB Philip Rivers (San Diego), LB Stephen Tulloch (Tennessee), DT Tank Tyler (Chicago), CB Brian Williams (Atlanta), DE Mario Williams (Houston), S Adrian Wilson (Arizona), DE Willie Young (Detroit).

Arbitrary top five list

N.C.A.A. men’s basketball national title games since 1975
1. 1983: N.C. State 54, Houston 52.
2. 1985: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64.
3. 1987: Indiana 74, Syracuse 73.
4. 2008: Kansas 75, Memphis 68.
5. 1989: Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79.

Coaching

Tom O’Brien (Navy ‘71), 25-25 after four seasons with the Wolfpack. N.C. State finally broke through under the former Boston College coach, winning nine games — the program’s first winning season under his watch — after a very disappointing 2009 season. The nine-win finish 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. 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 victories). 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 recent success, it’s clear that the support and attention the N.C. State program receives makes it a career upgrade for O’Brien. The marriage was rocky early, but O’Brien justified the program’s faith by turning things around a year ago. 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 2011 and beyond.

Players to watch

Mike Glennon must deal with the unenviable comparisons to his predecessor, as Wilson’s figure continues to loom large over this offense — the quarterback position in particular, of course. It wouldn’t be a great position for most quarterbacks to step into; not so for Glennon, however, who has patiently awaited his turn behind Wilson over the last three years, actually coming close to winning the starting job as a true freshman in 2008. Wilson took the job and ran with it, pushing Glennon into a secondary role, one he filled as one of the nation’s best backup quarterbacks.

It’s going to be tough for Glennon to duplicate Wilson’s totals, but N.C. State should be excited about his potential in this offense. For starters, Glennon has been itching for this opportunity since stepping on campus: he took a backup role, but he didn’t like it. Secondly, there’s no doubting his ability: Glennon has the makings of a very good passing quarterback. Thirdly, now that he’s entering his fourth year on campus, Glennon knows this system as well as anyone. He’s certainly under a spotlight — see the right sidebar — but Glennon has all the tools to succeed. Having said that, N.C. State would rather have Wilson, I would think. But that’s more a reflection on the departed starter’s ability, not any of Glennon’s perceived weaknesses.

Along with Wilson, N.C. State is missing a few other pieces of the passing game in departed receivers Owen Spencer, Jarvis Williams and Darrell Davis, a trio that combined to make 138 catches for 1,952 yards and 12 scores a year ago. You can very well make the argument that N.C. State’s receiver position is a greater concern than the transition to Glennon under center. It’s positively vital that senior T.J. Graham (25 catches for 318 yards) step into the void as the team’s lead receiver: he has the speed and athletic ability, but Graham needs to put his complete game together. Fellow receivers Jay Smith and Steven Howard are experienced seniors who should also step into larger roles. Could former JUCO transfer Tobias Palmer make an impact after taking a redshirt last fall? One thing is sure: tight end George Bryan (35 for 369), a genuine all-American candidate, will be one of Glennon’s favorite targets. While he’s a very good one, N.C. State needs a receiver to step up and compliment Graham.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: N.C. State wants to beef up its ground game. Hey, the Wolfpack aren’t the only team looking to get more production running the football; they’re just one of many teams that continues to express an overwhelming desire for more offensive balance yet, each fall, seems to come up short on the ground. Much depends on the play of the offensive line, which I’ll touch on below, as it seems that N.C. State has found a definite all-conference caliber back in sophomore Mustafa Greene. Despite starting only one game, Greene led N.C. State with 597 yards rushing last fall. He started strong, scoring at least once in each of his first four games before trailing off a bit down the stretch, but Greene acquitted himself well as a rookie contributor. He’ll get more touches in 2011 and has 1,000-yard potential, hinging on the play up front. The Wolfpack could also call on James Washington, who added 27 receptions to go with his 215 yards rushing, as well as Brandon Barnes, who is back in action after missing last season with an ankle injury.

We didn’t quite see a night-and-day improvement from this defense: more like a early evening-and-day improvement, if that makes sense. The defense was clearly improved, however, both in the bottom line – scoring – and in terms of play-to-play success, beefing up against both the run and the pass, but still struggled through bouts with inconsistency. Good defenses do what N.C. State did last fall; great defenses don’t go from shutting down one opponent to allowing a Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech or North Carolina to have their way. It starts by doing a better job against the pass.

The secondary was better, but still did not do an adequate job forcing turnovers. With a solid front seven in place, the Wolfpack need to lock down its starting cornerbacks, as while there are options the roles still seem undefined. Jarvis Byrd, a sophomore, is back in action after missing last fall with a knee injury. A three-game starter as a rookie, Byrd should be a key contributor if he can recover his 2009 form. He’s one of four cornerbacks with starting experience, joining sophomore David Amerson (50 tackles), a nine-game starter last fall; full-time starter C.J. Wilson, a junior; and senior Justin Byers. While the starting jobs may still be in the process of being sorted out, at least N.C. State can feel confident in the depth at the position: it’s nice to go four deep at cornerback. I do think N.C. State can get better play than it received from last year’s starters, however. New blood may not be a bad thing.

Everything is locked into place at safety. Juniors Brandan Bishop (64 tackles, 4 interceptions) and Earl Wolff (91 tackles, 2.5 sacks) are a formidable starting pairing, one that should be even better with an added year of experience – particularly Wolff, who impressed as a rookie starter in 2010. Moving former running back Dean Haynes over to safety does two things for N.C. State: one, it allows Haynes himself to play a more substantial role, perhaps; and two, it creates added depth at the position. But Bishop and Wolff won’t be unseated, though Haynes could still play an important role as a reserve.

The Wolfpack will move all-A.C.C. linebacker Audie Cole (97 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 5 sacks) into the middle in an effort to replace Nate Irving. Cole will be the leader of this defense, in his experience, his voice and his production, and should again be one of the conference’s best. And he’ll see his stature rise now that Irving, one of the great stories in college football last fall, has moved onto the next level. N.C. State has another good one on the weak side in junior Terrell Manning (76 tackles, 11 for loss). Cole’s move does open up a hole on the strong side, one that will be filled at first by converted safety D.J. Green. I think former Syracuse transfer E.J. Carter should be an option here, but he’s currently not in the mix, according to the most recent depth chart.

One area where the N.C. State defensive line must improve is in getting to the quarterback: the linebackers help out in the pass rush, but getting more consistent pressure from the front four will take substantial pressure off the linebacker corps and the secondary. One area where the N.C. State defensive line already excels is against the run: 14th nationally in this category last fall, N.C. State suffered a lapse against Virginia Tech but, in the big picture, was one the A.C.C.’s best.

This is due in large part to senior tackle J.R. Sweezy (46 tackles, 13 for loss, 6 sacks). After starting at linebacker before moving down to end, Sweezy has found a real home in the middle of the line, combining size and athletic ability to be perhaps the conference’s most disruptive interior lineman. He’s one of two returning starters up front, joining end Jeff Rieskamp (27 tackles, 2 sacks) – he’s one lineman who will be counted on  to get to the quarterback. Brian Slay should start alongside Sweezy inside, while the Wolfpack could go with either sophomore Darryl Cato-Bishop or JUCO transfer McKay Frandsden opposite Rieskamp.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line This unit has consistently disappointed, waylaying O’Brien’s hopes of duplicating the potent running game that defined Boston College’s offense during his stint in Chestnut Hill. The Wolfpack have had talented running backs, skill players capable of cracking the 1,000-yard mark; what the program hasn’t had is solid play up front, which is why the offense has been marked by a distinct lack of balance. As for this year’s group, the Wolfpack must move forward not just without left tackle Jake Vermiglio, lost to graduation, but without starting left guard Andrew Wallace, out until at least October after a late-season knee injury. That’s a big loss: N.C. State will place an even greater focus on the run in 2011, and Wallace’s presence will be sorely missed. Vermiglio will be replaced by junior R.J. Mattes, a 10-game starter at right tackle a year ago and, perhaps, N.C. State’s most consistent offensive lineman. Cameron Wentz returns at center – he’s an all-A.C.C. candidate, like Mattes – and Zach Allen at right guard, giving the Wolfpack at least a solid foundation upon which to build this starting front. But there are holes at left guard and right tackle, though Wallace’s projected return would take care of guard come the heart of A.C.C. play. Until then, N.C. State will turn the job over to sophomore Duran Christophe, who started in Wallace’s stead in the bowl win over West Virginia. But that move does task the team’s depth up front, although the experience he gains will come in handy once Wallace is back in the fold. Is ballyhooed sophomore Robert Crisp ready to assume a starting role? He started the season opener on the blind side as a freshman but rarely saw the fall from that point on; while he’s the future, Crisp needs to have improved before moving into the starting lineup. If he is ready, however, N.C. State could put him at left tackle and move Mattes back to the right side. That’ll happen eventually, as Crisp has all the makings of a big-time player.

Game(s) to watch

The first half will go smoothly. N.C.State might — there’s a solid chance, at least — start 7-0, though that would entail wins over Cincinnati and Georgia Tech. Things get tougher down the stretch, so the Wolfpack might need to be 6-1 or 7-0 in order to duplicate last year’s nine-win finish.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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 don’t think this team can hang with Florida State, but few can, A.C.C. or otherwise. I should say – and you can see that by checking out last year’s end-of-season ranking for the Wolfpack – 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: not overwhelming concerns, but worries that make me less confident that the Wolfpack can match last season’s output, let alone improve upon it. 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. In 2011, at least, as Glennon should develop into an all-A.C.C. quarterback once he gains experience. Another offensive issue stems from N.C. State’s desire to again place an emphasis on the run: we’ve heard this refrain before, but the Wolfpack haven’t delivered when it counted. Defensively, we must see better play from the secondary. If would help to have a more potent pass rush, but I don’t think we can say with any certainty that this front four, especially at end, can get to the quarterback with any consistency. It has been said that the secondary, the cornerbacks in particular, took a big step forward during the spring; we’ll have to believe it when we see it in September. 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.

Dream season The Wolfpack start strong, as expected, but really impress down the stretch in wins over Florida State, North Carolina and Clemson. At the end of the regular season, N.C. State stands at 10-2, 7-1 in the A.C.C., and atop the Atlantic division.

Nightmare season A slow start puts O’Brien and the Wolfpack behind an enormous eight ball come October. As a result, N.C. State slides back to 5-7, out of bowl play for the second time in three years.

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.

Word Count

Through 72 teams 216,207.

Up Next

Who is No. 47? One of the satellite campuses for tomorrow’s university is not even located in the institution’s home state, but rather roughly 680 miles away from the school’s primary campus.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Monty says:

    BYU up next, I think….

  2. Rookierookie says:

    BYU, with a satellite campus in Hawaii.

  3. Burnt Orange says:

    I think SMU is up next. Satellite campus in Taos, New Mexico and the distance is about right for the clue.

  4. Sean says:

    It’s not BYU. BYU does have satellite campuses in Hawaii and Idaho – but the campus in Rexburg is only 300 or so miles from Provo and the campus in Hawaii is definitely more than 680.

    Burnt Orange is right – the distance between Taos, New Mexico and Dallas, Texas, is roughly 680 miles.

  5. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    BYU’s has two additional campuses – one in Rexburg, Idaho and another in Laie, Hawaii – but they are respectively 286 and 2947 miles from Provo.

    It’s got to be SMU.

  6. schedule nit says:

    If Wisconsin wins the Big 10, and Wilson gets an invite to the Newton Trophy ceremony, things could get a little testy around NC State campus.

    At some point, some intrepid reporter is going to have to ask O’Brien what on earth he was thinking.

  7. Alex Payne says:

    Pony Up!

  8. john Irons says:

    I wasn’t sure ic you were being sarcastic or not in your question – but the only two current state capitals that fit that description are Oklahoma City and Indianapolis

  9. John Irons says:

    Iowa City was the capital of the State of Iowa from 1846-1857, but all other cities that histroically fit the criteria were capitals of territories or other non-state entities.

  10. James says:

    There’s also an honorable mention for Providence, RI; since that proper name of the state is “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” the name of the state contains the name of the capital!

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