"As long as I'm the head coach, our focus in spring will be to get better as individuals," said O'Brien, who picked up his 100th career victory in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl. "Spring practice is still about being a better fundamental football team. Everybody can improve at something, players and coaches. The benefit of having experienced players and more depth is that you can hone in on the things that are really important, but the goal is still the same."
NC State returns a dozen starters on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball for 2011, including eight on defense. Just as importantly, at six positions where a starter was lost, there is at least one letterwinner returning to battle for that job. In addition, there are no walk-ons manning the top two spots at any position on the squad heading into spring drills. That type of depth and experience has been unheard of in O'Brien's first four years at NC State.
"Walk-ons are still a very important part of our program," said O'Brien. "But now we won't have to count on as many of those guys for depth."
Having a full complement of scholarship players gives the coaching the staff the flexibility to experiment with several position moves during the spring. In the past, those moves have been born of necessity due to injury. This season, they are all based on putting the right players in their optimum spots.
The biggest move for spring will be that redshirt sophomore Dean Haynes, who started eight games at halfback last season after moving over from the defensive side of the ball just two weeks before the season opener, will be back in the defensive secondary. Sophomore D.J. Green, who saw action at safety in 2010, will move over to the field linebacker spot and veteran Audie Cole will move to the middle to the spot vacated by Nate Irving. In the defensive secondary, the returning starters at cornerback will flip positions, with C.J. Wilson manning the boundary and David Amerson moving to the field.
"All of these changes should make us a stronger defensive football team," O'Brien added. "We like to bring versatile people in - guys who can play multiple positions. Then as we grow as a football team and they grow as individual players, we can decide what each individual's best position is and how he can best help the team.
Last season we had to move Haynes to running back because there was no other choice and he did a great job for us. But hopefully those days are over and we can continue to put people in positions that they are best suited for."
Although O'Brien is pleased with the overall depth of his team heading into spring drills, he knows that there are some big holes that have to be addressed. "We didn't lose many guys," he said, "but we lost key guys. We have to find a way to replace Russell Wilson and Nate Irving and some other guys who played a lot of snaps for us. But we love to create competition. That's why we have an ‘organizational' chart instead of a depth chart in the spring - because the spring is when people can win jobs. The more competition we have, the better off we'll be as a team."
The hole left by Haynes' move to defense should be filled by the return of a healthy Brandon Barnes, who along with James Washington and Mustafa Greene will man the halfback position. O'Brien says he's also looking forward to seeing what some of his young offensive linemen will do.
"One piece of the puzzle that has to be found is our offensive line," he continued. "Losing Andrew Wallace to injury was a big blow to us, but Duran Christophe had a solid game. We're also glad to have the opportunity to take a good look at [Rob] Crisp, [Tyson] Chandler, [Torian] Box and [Andy] Jomantas this spring."
The Pack also lost its top receivers due to graduation, but returns several players who have solid game experience. T.J. Graham, who is also running track this spring, Jay Smith, Steven Howard and Quintin Payton will fight for playing time. There are also a couple of redshirts who will factor in at wideout: Tobais Palmer and Bryan Underwood. Additionally, Everett Proctor will be at wide receiver instead of defensive back this spring.
"Being a champion football team comes down to individuals being selfless," concluded O'Brien. "They have to want to improve individually. They have to be willing to play wherever the team needs them to. Spring is the time for them to do those things. We're all looking forward to it."
Letterwinners returning: 29 (14 off., 15 def.)
Letterwinners lost: 19 (8 off., 6 def., 5 ST)
Starters returning: 14 (6 off., 8 def.)
Starters lost: 10 (5 off., 3 def/, 2 ST)
Offensive Guard*: Zach Allen (13)
Center: Camden Wentz (13)
Offensive Tackle: R.J. Mattes (6)
Fullback: Taylor Gentry (8)
Halfback: Mustafa Greene (1)
James Washington (4)
Tight End: George Bryan (9)
Defensive End: Jeff Rieskamp (11)
Defensive Tackle: J.R. Sweezy (12)
Linebacker: Audie Cole (13)
Terrell Manning (13)
Cornerback: David Amerson (9)
C.J. Wilson (13)
Safety: Brandan Bishop (12)
Earl Wolff (13)
* Andrew Wallace (12) is out with an injury