Week #1: Previewing Wake Forest
Week #2: Previewing Georgia Tech
Week #3: Previewing Texas A&M
Week #4: Previewing Florida State
Week #5: Previewing Virginia
Week #6: Previewing Utah State
Week #7: Previewing Maryland
N.C. State at Clemson
Clemson fell to N.C. State in 2003 on a Thursday evening game in Raleigh by the score of 17-15. It was arguably Clemson's most frustrating loss of the season because the Tiger defense held Philip Rivers and the potent State offense in check. But it was the State defense, which eventually finished 7th in the ACC in yards per game, that stepped up and shut the Tiger offense down in the red zone.
This will be the 8th game of the year for the Tigers who are off to a 5-2 start on the 2004 season.
As I predicted in the previous articles in this series, Clemson will enter the game 2-2 in the ACC race. I predict that N.C. State will enter the game 3-4 (2-3 in the ACC) with wins over Richmond, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina. State will have losses to Ohio State, Wake Forest, Maryland, and Miami making this match up with Clemson in Death Valley crucial for the Wolfpack bowl hopes.
Chuck Amato is in his 5th year at State with a record of 34-17. While State has yet to finish in the top 2 of the ACC, they are the only ACC team (minus newly added Miami) that has been able to win in Tallahassee. In fact, State has beaten FSU more times than any other ACC school, a tribute to Amato and his staff.
On offense, N.C. State returns 7 players from last year's team that averaged 453.2 yards a game (1st in the ACC and 13th in the nation). Of course, the most glaring loss for the Wolfpack is that of quarterback Philip Rivers. The media's love affair with Rivers was overcooked for sure, but there was also plenty of substance to the 4-year starter who broke just about every Wolfpack and ACC passing record in existence. Rivers was not only a good quarterback, he was a solid field general and he single handedly won more games for State than any player in their football history.
Junior QB Jay Davis is a coach's son, just like Rivers, and he'll compete with redshirt freshman Marcus Stone this fall for the starting quarterback position.
Because of Rivers' Heisman Campaign, Davis saw limited action in his two years as a back up, completing 9 passes in 10 attempts. Davis stands in at 6-feet-2 and 205 pounds, so he does not have the physical presence to stand in the pocket that Rivers had. How State will adapt offensively if Davis is the winner of the sweepstakes is still yet to be seen.
Meanwhile Stone (6-4, 226), is more in the mold of Rivers and appears to have all the physical tools to be an outstanding signal caller. How ready he is to take over the mental aspect of running the Wolfpack offense is yet to be seen, but expect him to get a hard look in August and throughout the course of the season. Not many teams have a 3rd stringer like Chris Moore (6-5, 212), but the Wolfpack certainly have depth at the signal caller position. The question is…do they have a Rivers?
Junior running back T.A. McLendon may be the most gifted running back in the ACC, but he has been injury prone throughout his career. I don't have enough space in this article to list all of McLendon's health issues the past two years, but trust me in that he has hurt just about every bone and ligament in his body. McLendon is a player that State would love to run 20 times a game and simply let him control the offensive side of the ball, which he most certainly is capable of. But players like McLendon don't wake up one day and stop getting injured, so it is hard to imagine T.A. making it through 2004 as a featured back in this offense. Backup Josh Brown, also banged up in 2003, is faster than McLendon which creates a nice compliment. Assuming both of these backs stay healthy, State will have two of the best running backs in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The reality of it is that neither may be healthy when State comes to Clemson in late October.
|Junior T.A. McLendon has as much pure talent as any running back in the country. Nevertheless, the question remains, can he stay healthy?|
The offensive line should also be a strength of the team by midseason. State will have to replace Sean Locklear at left tackle, and the Wolfpack are counting on Chris Colmer to recover from his a rare disease (Parsonage-Turner syndrome) to fill that spot. Left guard Leroy Harris was a first team freshman All American by The Sporting News in 2003, and he will be flanked by the dependable senior Ricky Fowler. Senior center Jed Paulsen is the quarterback of the offensive line, providing experience at the most important position up front. Overall, the Wolfpack are experienced and talented up front and should be one of the best lines in the conference, which is good news when you are breaking in a new quarterback.
On defense, N.C. State returns 8 players from a very young defense in 2003 that gave up 421 yards a game last year (7th in the ACC, 89th in the nation). Amato brought in former Clemson defensive coordinator Reggie Herring to try and shore up the problems and speed up the maturation process of this young defense. On the defensive line, State must replace tackle Alan Halloway with a true freshman. The good news is that freshman is none other than 5-star prospect DeMario Pressley. Pressley will have a great mentor in trying to learn how to play his first year from a former first year starter at end in Mario Williams. Williams proved in 2003 that he will be a top notch end for the Wolfpack as he gains more and more experience. Tackle John McCargo, also a freshman last year, was 2nd on the team in tackles for a loss with 14. Manny Lawson moved from linebacker to end, giving the Wolfpack two great speed rushers on the corners. If there is a concern at the defensive line, it will be depth. The Wolfpack, while playing a ton of young people last year, still are terribly youthful up front. Of the 14 defensive lineman on the 3 deep, there are no seniors and only 4 juniors. How quickly that depth develops will have a lasting impression on whether this front can avoid giving up big chunks of yardage on the ground like last year. If that depth develops, State will have arguably the most athletic and talented group of defensive lineman in the league.
All three starting linebackers from 2003 return, headlined by Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay (49 tackles in 2003) and Pat Thomas (59 tackles). Oliver Hoyte will battle Pat Lowery for the middle linebacker job, giving the Pack great depth up the middle. These linebackers are the prototypical Amato linebackers; fast and tough as nails.
The secondary is also loaded with returning players as three of the four starters are back. This group struggled last year, but with 3 seniors now roaming the defensive backfield, improvement is possible. Strong safety Andre Maddox led the team in tackles and is by far the most talented player in the secondary for State. Free safety Tony Graham also has a knack for getting to the football as he produced 54 tackles in 2003. Lamont Reid is a solid, if unspectacular cover corner and he is being pushed by A.J. Davis for the starting job. The Wolfpack will be breaking in a new face at the other corner as Dovonte Edwards and freshman Jimmie Sutton battle it out. Because State was so young up front last year, it is hard to get a good reading on how bad the secondary really was last year. There is talent and decent depth, but Herring does have a history of underachieving secondaries dating back to his days at Clemson.
On special teams, John Deraney apparently will do the kickoffs, field goals, and punts in 2004. He was outstanding kicking the ball off in 2003, but his accuracy as a field goal kicker has yet to be proven.
Summary And Prediction
N.C. State, much like Virginia, was not able to capitalize on having a premier quarterback running the show. State, while admittedly beating Clemson the last two years, never challenged for an ACC Championship with Rivers at the helm.
Offensively, there are certainly some question marks at quarterback heading into the season. By week 8, however, somebody will have most likely stepped up and all should be well.
Of course, having a healthy T.A. McClendon in week 8 would make State a dangerous football team, but how realistic is it to believe that he will stay injury free in 2004? My guess is that his low tolerance for pain will and/or bad luck will once again have him at least hobbled for part of the season. Unlike last year when State could still move the ball without a dominant running game, this season appears to be much different. If the Wolfpack fails to consistently establish the run, don't expect anything even close to the type of numbers State seen in 2003.
Defensively, State could not get any worse than last year…could they? Most likely not, as many of the freshman that the Wolfpack played last year will have a year of maturity under their belts. That being said, Reggie Herring certainly was not a world-beater while at Clemson. His attacking and blitzing defenses often exposed average secondaries who had their confidence and nerves shot by midseason. Has Herring learned from his mistakes at Clemson? Does he have a secondary that can stand up to his risky schemes? There is an old saying that you can't teach an old dog new tricks…and Herring is not a spring chicken. Amato will almost assuredly look back in a few years at the hiring of Herring as a bad move for his program.
Being in Death Valley should also help Clemson in this contest. The Tigers are better on offense, better on defense, and possibly equal in the kicking game. That prescription will typically garner a win, and I think the two-game losing streak to the Wolfpack will come to an end.
The Tigers have finally found some momentum in the 2004 season as N.C. State falls to Clemson the day before Halloween.
Clemson 27 N.C. State 16
Also see: An Offseason Look: N.C. State