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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. 62: N.C. State

Hey, wake up! The clock on the wall says it's time, y'all. For N.C. State football.

No matter how you cut it, 5-7 isn’t going to, well, cut it. Not after N.C. State’s blistering final month of the 2008 season, not after many touted the Wolfpack as a realistic contender for the A.C.C. crown. Frustrating, right? Last season was supposed to serve as N.C. State’s coming-out party under Tom O’Brien, the former B.C. coach who has yet to post a winning record in Raleigh. Instead, one cannot help but begin to wonder when, perhaps if, O’Brien will get the Wolfpack into the top half of the conference.

Atlantic Coast, Atlantic

Raleigh, N.C.


Returning starters
11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 36

2009 record
(5-7, 2-6)

Last year’s

No. 79

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Western Carolina
  • Sept. 11
    at U.C.F.
  • Sept. 18
  • Sept. 25
    at Georgia Tech
  • Oct. 2
    Virginia Tech
  • Oct. 9
    Boston College
  • Oct. 16
    at E.C.U.
  • Oct. 28
    Florida St.
  • Nov. 6
    at Clemson
  • Nov. 13
    Wake Forest
  • Nov. 20
    at U.N.C.
  • Nov. 27
    at Maryland

Last year’s prediction

It’s hard not to get caught up in N.C. State’s momentum heading into the season. It’s undeniable: Wilson’s play lit a fire under this team, and perhaps no other program in the A.C.C. brings as much potential into 2009 as the Wolfpack. Yes, I believe N.C. State will be improved, but I don’t think this team is ready – yet – to take the Atlantic division. Still, I believe N.C. State very capable of winning eight games: I predict a final record of 8-4, 5-3 in the A.C.C.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Unlike in 2008, when a 2-6 start left N.C. State scrambling to reach bowl eligibility, the Wolfpack were 3-1 through September but cooled off significantly over the final two months of the season. This is a team that could go from beating Pittsburgh one week to losing six of its next seven (to teams like Wake Forest and Duke, among others); one that could allow 59 points in its first four games, but never less than 27 points in any game the rest of the way. As I said, frustrating. The team remains talented, however, and last season could be used as motivation for the Wolfpack in 2010.

High point A 38-31 win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 26. Beyond standing as the most impressive victory of the season, it also moved N.C. State to 3-1 as it entered A.C.C. play. Though the season quickly turned, the Wolfpack recovered to top in-state rival U.N.C. by a single point in the final game of the year.

Low point The midseason implosion of a defense few thought would be such a weakness. N.C. State allowed 176 points over its first four conference games (44 per game), a stretch that saw Duke drop 49 points and Boston College 52. All told, the Wolfpack allowed at least 30 points in seven of their eight A.C.C. games.

Tidbit O’Brien is the third N.C. State coach to begin his career in Raleigh with three losing seasons, joining Tom Reed (1983-85) and Earle Edwards (1954-56). O’Brien’s predecessor, the unforgettable Chuck D’Amato, went 26-12 over his first three years, including an 11-3 mark in 2002. (Phillip Rivers helped.) Reed, who went 3-8 in each of those three seasons, was not invited back in 1986. Edwards, however, rebounded to post eight non-losing seasons in the next 12 years, and owns the program record for career wins (77).

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 RB Toney Baker (Denver), RB Andre Brown (New York Giants), WR Brian Cook (Detroit), WR Jerricho Cotchery (New York Jets), CB A.J. Davis (Houston), C Leroy Harris (Tennessee), K Steven Hauschka (Atlanta), TE Anthony Hill (Houston), DT Antoine Holmes (Washington), WR Torry Holt (New England), CB Marcus Hudson (Carolina), OT Scott Kooistra (Cleveland), C Ted Larsen (New England), LB Manny Lawson (San Francisco), OT Sean Locklear (Seattle), DT John McCargo (Buffalo), OT Jeraill McCuller (Philadelphia), S DaJuan Morgan (Kansas City), DT DeMario Pressley (New Orleans), QB Philip Rivers (San Diego), LB Stephen Tulloch (Tennessee), DT Tank Tyler (Carolina), CB Brian Williams (Atlanta), DE Mario Williams (Houston), S Adrian Wilson (Arizona), DE Willie Young (Detroit),

Arbitrary top five list

Works by brothers Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff
1. “This Boy’s Life,” 1989.
2. “The Duke of Deception,” 1979.
3. “The Barracks Thief,” 1984.
4. “Old School,” 2003.
5. “In Pharaoh’s Army,” 1994.


Tom O’Brien (Navy ‘71), 16-21 after three seasons with the Wolfpack. Last season must be considered a disappointment for O’Brien, who many believed had the Wolfpack poised for a strong season after a hot finish in 2008. N.C. State struggled, however, leaving O’Brien five games under .500 through three seasons. If the Wolfpack were merely supposed to turn it around in 2009, anything worse than a seven-win finish in 2010 will surely put O’Brien firmly upon the hot seat. However, as he illustrated during his successful stint at Boston College, the university would be wise to give O’Brien time. 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. Unfortunately, that support and attention may also lead to a shorter leash. It would not be wise to doubt O’Brien, but it’s up to him to get the Wolfpack into the top third of the Atlantic division, if not fighting for the division title outright.

Players to watch

There’s no doubting Russell Wilson’s talent: he’s a superb college quarterback, and has been terrific since being inserted into the starting lineup as a freshman. As a rookie, if you remember, Wilson threw for 17 touchdowns against a single interception, playing wonderfully during N.C. State’s run to bowl play. He was equally successful a year ago, throwing for 3,027 yards and 33 scores while improving his pocket presence and confidence under center. While Wilson certainly ranks among the top quarterbacks in the A.C.C., his backup, Mike Glennon, is no slouch: Glennon, a sophomore, could start for most teams in the country. Most of Glennon’s action, however, comes when Wilson misses spring practice while playing with the N.C. State baseball team. Glennon will continue to see some time, in certain situations and packages, but this is Wilson’s team. The Wolfpack are in wonderful shape at quarterback.

Talk about options: deep at quarterback, deep at wide receiver. The senior duo of Jarvis Williams (45 receptions for 547 yards and 11 touchdowns) and Owen Spencer (30 receptions for 765 yards, 6 scores) ranks among the most capable in the conference. Those 11 touchdown grabs by Williams, by the way, ranked as the third-most in school history; Spencer, if you’re afraid to do the math, set a new A.C.C. record with his 25.5 yards per reception average. Senior Darrell Davis (25 for 380) adds depth, as does junior T.J. Graham, who missed five games last fall due to injury. It doesn’t stop there: junior George Bryan’s 40 catches led all A.C.C. tight ends. The Wolfpack like to spread the ball around, so no one pass-catcher is going to post a 80-grab, 1,200-yard season. Don’t allow the lack of marquee numbers to fool you into thinking this group is not among the best in the conference.

It will be strange not seeing one of either Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene toting the ball for the Wolfpack, as the departed pair accounted for the vast majority of N.C. State’s carries a year ago. The running back job will fall to junior Curtis Underwood, who took a redshirt season last fall after serving in a reserve role as a freshman and sophomore. He brings 200 yards into his junior campaign, 116 yards of which came as a sophomore. The Wolfpack could also turn a pair of sophomores, James Washington and Brandon Barnes. This duo combined for 155 yards and 3 touchdowns last fall in limited action. A player like Underwood — who brings fresh legs into the year — might surprise, but expect at least a slight decline in production from the N.C. State backfield.

The offensive line is a concern: three starters must be replaced, while one returning starter — sophomore right guard R.J. Mattes — missed the spring while recovering from a late-season knee injury. The star of the line is senior left tackle Jake Vermiglio, who enters his third season in the starting lineup. The Wolfpack could bookend the line with Mattes, though he might lack the athleticism in his first year back from an A.C.L. tear to man the strong side. N.C. State could instead insert sophomore Andrew Wallace at right tackle, though Wallace could also remain at left guard, where he joined the rotation late last season. Let’s say Wallace does move the strong side: that will allow junior Henry Lawson to step into a starting role at guard after spending much of his first two seasons on special teams. Losing center Ted Larson hurts, but the N.C. State coaching staff is very high on sophomore Camden Wentz — enough so that the team burned his redshirt last fall in order to gain experience in the middle of the line.

Welcome back, Nate Irving. You were missed in 2009, to be sure. Irving was an honorable mention all-A.C.C. pick in 2008 despite missing a third of the season due to injuries; even with the missed time, Irving showed just how large an impact he can have on this defense when in the starting lineup. He finished the 2008 season with 84 tackles, third on the team, and set a new program record with four interceptions from his linebacker spot. Irving’s recovery has been steady — as you’d expect from the myriad of injuries he suffered during his late-June car crash — and it might take the senior time to shake off any rust. His one-year absence, however, did allow a handful of returning contributors to earn valuable experience. While Irving will move to the middle, junior Audie Cole, last year’s leading tackler (85), will remain on the strong side. Junior Dwayne Maddox and sophomore Terrell Manning split time on the weak side last fall, and look for that trend to continue in 2010. Maddox held the starting role heading into the summer, but even if Maddox lands the full-time starting role, Manning will continue to see time in certain packages.

The N.C. State secondary is young: the two-deep is littered with freshmen and sophomores, with only one junior — cornerback Jordan Monk — in the mix for a sizable role. That’s not necessarily a good thing, obviously. The situation is not as dire as one could be lead to believe, however, as the Wolfpack return size, speed, athleticism and — believe it or not — experience. Yes, experience. N.C. State brings back four sophomores with starting experience, hoping that last year’s struggles will yield an improved performance in 2010.

There’s reason to think that will be the case. At cornerback, sophomores C.J. Wilson and Rashard Smith combined to make nine starts as rookies; at safety, fellow second-year players Brandan Bishop and Earl Wolff combined to make 12 starts. While this group struggled in 2009 — they were freshmen, after all — the secondary will be far better with an additional year of experience. Wolff was a solid last line of defense at safety, making 51 tackles, third among all N.C. State defensive backs, despite making only four starts. While I do think the secondary will be better, it’s worth noting that it struggled during the spring — of course, most defensive backs will look foolish against N.C. State’s talented receiver corps.

I’m somewhat concerned about the situation at end, but I like what N.C. State brings to the table on the interior of its defensive line. Though starters Leroy Burgess and Alan-Michael Cash must be replaced — Cash was especially productive in 2009 — the Wolfpack don’t lack depth at tackle. Senior Natanu Mageo and junior J.R. Sweezy will step into the starting lineup after serving in reserve roles a season ago. Mageo, a former JUCO transfer, made a sack and an interception in his debut season in Raleigh; Sweezy was an even more valuable member of the rotation, making 17 tackles (5 for loss) and 3 sacks in 12 games, including a start against Gardner-Webb. The Wolfpack look to rotate at least four interior linemen into the mix, so look for junior Marcus Kuhn and sophomore Brian Slay to earn plenty of action. Kuhn, a part-time starter in 2008, redshirted last season; Slay made six tackles in limited duties as a rookie. N.C. State will rebuild on the fly along the defensive line, particularly at end, which I”ll touch on below. But I’m intrigued by the potential the Wolfpack have on the inside of the line.

Position battles to watch

Defensive end As noted, the N.C. State defensive line will feature four new starters in 2010. While the interior of the line features enough depth to avoid any letdown from last season — in fact, I expect a slight improvement — the Wolfpack have some questions to address at end. One player is ready to make the move into the starting lineup: senior end Audi Augustin has been an important reserve for each of the last three seasons, playing in 36 games over that span. He was used primarily as a pass rusher last fall, finishing fourth on the team with 11 quarterback pressures, but must become a three-down lineman in his final season. Look for a healthy competition between seniors Michael Lemon and David Akinniyi and junior Jeff Rieskamp at the opposite end. Lemon has to be considered the favorite, however, based on his stellar play in 2009. Despite joining the team late, only participating in the final two weeks of fall practice, the former Georgia lineman finished his debut campaign with 24 tackles (4 for loss), 1.5 sacks and an interception. Akinniyi is an interesting story: he enrolled at N.C. State after spending three years at Northeastern University, which recently disbanded its football program.

Game(s) to watch

The rivalry with North Carolina may not carry the same cachet as it does on the basketball court, but last year’s season-ending victory allowed N.C. State to end the year on a high note. The Wolfpack get three of the four teams that finished ahead of them in the Atlantic division in 2009 at home. That trio, along with a road date with Clemson, are games to watch.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell While not as talented as the Coastal division, the A.C.C. Atlantic remains as unsettled as the Coastal — which features four top 30 teams — as the conference prepares for fall practice. Without question, N.C. State is capable of taking its division; as is Boston College, Clemson and Florida State, of course. If the Wolfpack are to be taking seriously as an A.C.C. contender, however, they must improve on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in conference play. This defense was absolutely inept against A.C.C. competition last fall, allowing at least 30 points in seven of eight conference affairs en route to a very poor finish. 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 was a star prior to his injury; even if Irving is only at, say, 75 percent, he’s still a premier college defender. 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.

Dream season N.C. State goes 9-3, 6-2 in conference play, and take the Atlantic division. A win in the conference championship game sends the Wolfpack to the B.C.S.

Nightmare season A fifth consecutive losing season, the longest such streak since 1951-56, places O’Brien’s status in doubt heading into the 2011 season.

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. You should also try the newly-rechristened Riddick & Reynolds, formerly known as Yet Another N.C. State Sports Blog. Why the name change, guys?

Up Next

Who is No. 61? Some folks may like to hike the Appalachian Trail, or any other of America’s many distinguished hiking paths. I’d rather experience the trail in our next team’s home state, which takes you to stops like Four Roses, Heaven Hill and more.

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  1. Burnt Orange says:

    Good review. I too really thought they were going to break out last year. They will need to beat either Boston College or Fla. State at home for O’Brien to keep his job. I am thinking 7-5. This school is starting to become a graveyard of pretty good coaches. #61 – interested to see your thinking – believe you have them too high.

  2. Mohammad Sakar says:


  3. Seth says:

    Joker Phillips’ ‘cats are next.

  4. george howley says:

    either louisville or kentucky.I’ll be contrary and project louisville-they have more problems than the wildcats.

  5. Seth says:

    But but but CHARLIE STRONG!

    Nah, you’re probably right.

  6. James C. says:

    Good stuff. We’ve been waiting for that breakthrough year under O’Brien for a while now. The defense has gone from good to OK to HORRID last year. I don’t know if Mike Archer will last much longer as DC now that Jon Tenuta is on staff. I think most State fans (Myself included) would’ve liked to have seen Archer completely booted from the program and Tenuta installed as DC the day he was hired. But O’Brien’s loyalty to Archer could possibly be his ultimate downfall. We shall see.

    Burnt Orange: Why do you say State has become a “graveyard of pretty good coaches?” The last four coaches including O’Brien are he, Chuck Amato, Mike O’Cain and Dick Sheridan. Out of the bunch, Sheridan was the only coach most would hand-pick to build a program around. O’Cain sucked, Amato was nothing without Rivers and an egomaniac, and O’Brien’s tenure can best be graded an incomplete if we’re being generous. Just curious what your thoughts were with that comment.

    As to the name change from YANCSSB to Riddick & Reynolds, I just needed a good excuse for moving from Blogger to WordPress. Seemed like a good time for a name change to something MUCH shorter! :)

  7. Burnt Orange says:

    James C. – was looking back at Paul’s review and realized I had missed your question. It’s a tad late but all four coaches that you mention have overall winning records. At the time of my comment,all but O’Brien had winning records at NS State and had at least one 9 win season at NC State – O’Brien could have a winning record at NCS by the end of this season. The first three ultimately left the program ( albeit Sheridan for health reasons ) never to be a head coach again. that is what I meant by the comment. Congrats on the win against Cincy. NCS looks pretty good though I can’t help but think that the kicking game is going to do you in in some pivotal conference game.

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