Pack Pride takes a look at eight key topics that will spark a lot of discussion in and around Raleigh as spring ball 2011 approaches.
Diamonds Aren't Forever: Will Russell Wilson Return?
There's been plenty of speculation, but few facts, when it comes to quarterback Russell Wilson's baseball deal with the Colorado Rockies. When Wilson elected to return to NC State this fall, the general consensus was that it would be for his final season in the Red and White.
As the year progressed and the Wolfpack made itself a factor in the ACC, that sentiment shifted perceptibly, to the point where some now feel Wilson could, in fact, elect to come back for his senior campaign. With a major-league baseball career beckoning, a degree long in hand and an impending marriage, it would still be a surprise if Wilson does run with the Pack in 2011, but if he senses that State is in position to take an even bigger step next fall, it could happen. Either way, however, it's highly unlikely that Wilson would be around for spring practices.
Which brings us to the patient and seemingly ever-present Mike Glennon. Privately, the NC State staff was bracing for the eventuality that Wilson stuck with baseball this past year, and in that case, they were confident that Glennon would do a more than capable job in taking the reins. But how much longer is Glennon willing to wait?
Most programs would love to be in the position of grooming a promising youngster for three years behind an all-conference-caliber quarterback, and that's the model that tremendous programs have used for years. However, Glennon got fewer repetitions than expected in 2010, so there is the looming concern that he is still something of an unknown commodity in terms of game action even as a redshirt junior.
The idea that the situation could be similar if Wilson returns in 2011 and Glennon sticks around for his final season in 2012 with very little playing time at that point has to be a major issue for the Wolfpack braintrust.
How Will the Almost-Inevitable, Unexpected Attrition Be Handled?
Every offseason, impact players leave programs for a variety of reasons, and NC State is no different. From academics to homesickness, from early entry to the NFL to off-field trouble, no coach can account for everything. Since that's the case, the question shifts away from if anyone will depart unexpectedly to who will surprisingly leave?
In terms of potential early NFL departures, rising redshirt junior George Bryan has been tabbed as one of the top tight end prospects in the land by draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. While Bryan seems to love college life and recognize that there are strides to be made in his game, less-accomplished players have bolted for pro dreams plenty of times in the past.
Overall, however, State has a foundation of young players who should be able to better withstand offseason attrition than previous versions of the Pack under coach Tom O'Brien.
How Does State Replace Nate Irving?
Irving's return from a life-endangering car accident has been well-documented, as has the redshirt senior's incredible bounce-back season.
Playing at a new spot after more than a year away from the game, Irving was a terror all season long, making plays all over the field from his middle linebacker position. As State's emotional and physical leader on the defensive side of the ball, it will be almost as difficult to replace his intangibles as it will be his on-field productivity.
The Pack's outside linebackers, redshirt sophomore Terrell Manning and redshirt junior Audie Cole, are poised to assume at least some of Irving's emotional impact. Manning has the appearance of a natural leader, while Cole will have back-to-back seasons of unquestioned strong play under his belt to elevate his status among his teammates.
In terms of replacing Irving in the lineup, Sterling Lucas would appear to be next in line to step into Irving's role as a senior, and it will be nice for the Wolfpack to have an upperclassmen with a lot of repetitions taking over. The job of replacing Irving on the field will start in spring ball, where Lucas will have the first chance to prove his worth as the Pack's heir apparent at middle linebacker.
Who Will Arrive as the Go-To Guys at Receiver?
While the Pack has done a solid job of grooming the next generation of wideouts, the bottom line is that there are few programs who could withstand the loss of three long-term contributors at wide receiver without skipping a beat.
Deep threat Owen Spencer, red-zone demon Jarvis Williams and utility man Darrell Davis are all exhausting their eligibility following the 2010 campaign, throwing the door wide open for the Wolfpack youngsters to make their mark in 2011.
Among the guys jostling for position in spring ball will be rising senior T.J. Graham, rising redshirt senior Jay Smith, rising redshirt junior Steven Howard and rising redshirt sophomore Quintin Payton. Throw in some capable youngsters like Tobais Palmer (listed as an athlete) and Brian Underwood, who both redshirted in 2010, and the Pack certainly has some intriguing options to sort through. Then you have to take into consideration players such as tailbacks Brandon Barnes and Anthony Creecy, who both missed the 2010 season, but could eventually end up at wide receiver or another position.
Spencer and Williams have made up arguably the ACC's top wide receiver duo for the past two seasons. Replacing them, in addition to Davis, will be no small feat—but the assignment begins in spring camp for the next generation.
Who Will Carry the Torches on Special Teams?
Seniors Josh Czajkowski and Jeff Ruiz have had disappointing final campaigns in the Red and White by most measures. Czajkowski's trademark placekicking reliability fell off in 2010, with some key misfires at crucial moments for State, though he showed marked improvement on his kickoffs. On the punting side of things, Ruiz was replaced by walk-on Andy Leffler relatively early in the season, though Ruiz returned to NC State when the Pack was in a pinch and will always be looked on fondly for that by most Wolfpack fans.
Not only will Czajkowski and Ruiz be gone in 2011, but State will also bid adieu to its top longsnappers, and the only ones listed on the roster, in Corey Tedder and Michael Maurer, leaving the Pack undermanned at a position that is woefully underrated in terms of importance.
On the plus side, top return men Graham and tailback James Washington will be back next season, and a couple of placekickers will be eager to battle for top honors this spring in walk-on Chris Hawthorne and Hofstra transfer J. Ellis Flint. In addition, help is coming from the recruiting trails in the form of kicker Niklas Sade, punter Wil Baumann, and longsnapper Scott Thompson. However, that won't help the Pack this spring.
Special teams coordinator Jerry Petercuskie will be eyeing improvements in all aspects of the "third phase" starting this spring, though the Pack got dramatically better in both punt blocks and kick coverage in 2011. On placements, Petercuskie will be looking for longer range and more consistent accuracy, while in punting, he'll be asking Leffler to eliminate the occasional shank. On returns, Graham will need to be more decisive in his actions, while Washington will just need a bit more experience.
By most measures, the Wolfpack special teams took a big step forward in 2010. Taking that next leap will take coordinated work throughout the offseason, and this spring will represent a big opportunity for those youngsters eyeing large roles at the Pack's specialty positions.
Will Youngsters Step Into Big Holes Along Defensive Front?
At defensive end, State will take a hit following the 2010 campaign, losing Michael Lemon, David Akinnyi and Audi Augustin. Next door at tackle, stalwart Natanu Mageo will be exhausting his eligibility as well.
The good news is that Jeff Reiskamp will be back as a redshirt senior in 2011 to lead a young group of defensive ends, while redshirt seniors J.R. Sweezy and Markus Kuhn will return to spearhead the tackle spot. Reiskamp and Sweezy emerged as two of State's most productive defensive linemen in 2010, and will look to continue those efforts in their final campaigns.
Options will be plentiful at end, though experience will be wanting. Darryl Cato-Bishop has been a swing guy as a redshirt freshman, shifting between end and tackle at times, and Rickey Dowdy will be asked to step up as a redshirt sophomore next year.
In addition to those two promising youngsters, the Pack was able to redshirt a pair of newcomers in 2010: Art Norman and Theo Rich. Perhaps the wildcard in the mix will be Sylvester Crawford, who has generated buzz internally as a pass-rushing prospect, but was felled by injury for all of 2010 after redshirting in 2009. A return to full health for Crawford would provide a huge boost to the Wolfpack's situation at defensive end.
Behind Sweezy and Kuhn, Brian Slay has been an early contributor at tackle, and will gain an even larger role in the rotation as a junior in 2011. Big man Thomas Teal redshirted this past year, with the goal of redefining his body in anticipation of a significant role at tackle beginning next spring. Of course, Cato-Bishop will be a big factor at tackle if he projects better there and the end situation looks to be in good shape. Also sophomore A.J. Ferguson should be in the mix.
Don't be surprised to see a junior college addition or two along the defensive front—hopefully a player or players that can matriculate to Raleigh in time to enroll for the spring semester. NC State has had success bringing in jucos at this position group, and this looks to be an area where the Wolfpack could focus on plugging some holes via that route. They have inked junior college defensive end McKay Frandsen, and he is expected to enroll in January but that hasn't been confirmed at this time.
Can State Possibly Swat the Injury Bug Again?
After three years of devastating setbacks on the injury front, coach Tom O'Brien finally got what he'd been hoping for in 2010: a "normal" year as it relates to injuries. The Pack enjoyed a relatively healthy regular season, and the results on the field showed what this program is capable of when it is dealing from a fuller deck.
That being said, State was without what might have been their two starting cornerbacks in sophomores Rashard Smith and Jarvis Byrd, both lost to knee injuries. The Wolfpack also was hurt by an injury to defensive back Jordan Monk, as well as promising speed rusher Sylvester Crawford at defensive end.
Getting these players back at or near full strength and avoiding the string of injuries that dominated the 2007-09 headlines about NC State will go a long way toward allowing the Pack to build on a surprising 2010 season.
Can O'Brien Maintain and Grow the Team-First Attitude?
State coach Tom O'Brien raised more than a few eyebrows around Raleigh in early November when, somewhat surprisingly, he made rather candid comments about his first few teams at NC State, chiding them for a "me-first" attitude. While the wisdom of taking potshots at past players and teams can be debated, what O'Brien was trying to call attention to was an all-in mentality that has been fostered within the Wolfpack.
When spring 2011 rolls around, one of the questions will be what happens when O'Brien's best team at State starts to taste headlines and adulation after a surprising 2010? How will the players respond and how will O'Brien and his staff adjust? Will the Pack be able to stand prosperity?
Spring ball will offer O'Brien one of the first chances to see whether he'll be able to continue to cultivate the team-first culture around his program.