NC State has never faced Liberty on the gridiron and Tom O'Brien has never faced the Flames during his tenure as a head coach. Liberty has won four straight Big South titles, the first program in the history of that league to do so. The Wolfpack posts an 83-31-4 overall mark in season openers.
STUDY IN CONTRASTS
The 2011 version of the Wolfpack is a study in contrasts heading into the season opener with Liberty. Although 14 starters return for the squad that finished last season ranked in the top 25 and tallied nine wins, head coach Tom O'Brien must replace players in key positions like quarterback, punter, placekicker and both starting wideout spots.
A new offense has not been implemented, but with a new quarterback and wide receivers, different components of that offense will undoubtedly be on display.
On the flip side, however, the Wolfpack boasts more experience at key positions than in previous years. The offensive line has seven returnees who have started games in the past (counting Andrew Wallace, who won't return from injury until midseason). The defensive secondary has gone from a unit with virtually no experience two seasons ago to one of the most seasoned groups on the team, with 65 starts between the potential starters.
WE LIKE MIKE
It will be easy to spot the starting quarterback on the red team when the Wolfpack takes the field for the season opener versus Liberty. At 6'6 (he claims he's really 6'7), signal caller Mike Glennon stands tall against the competition and is actually tied as the second-tallest QB in the nation heading into 2011.
The redshirt junior (who is already an NC State graduate with a business administration degree with two years of eligibility remaining) is only a hair taller than when he arrived on campus, but has definitely bulked up his large frame (he wears a size 14 shoe), gaining 30 pounds.
NC State is one of 22 FBS teams to have a quarterback making his first career start as the season opens. Glennon has played in 10 games during his two years behind All-ACC signal caller Russell Wilson, but has been in for just 100 career snaps. Despite his lack of experience, he was named to the preseason ‘watch' list for the Maxwell Award. He was ranked the No. 3 quarterback in the nation by ESPN coming out of high school and was the Gatorade and AP Player of the Year in Virginia. His older brother, Sean, played quarterback at Virginia Tech from 2004- 08.
MOVING TO THE MIDDLE
Linebacker Nate Irving was the Wolfpack's biggest playmaker on defense last season, tallying 20.5 tackles for loss while playing middle linebacker for the first time in his career. Tying with Irving for the team-lead in total tackles (97), however, was strong-side linebacker Audie Cole, whose 10.5 tackles for loss ranked third on the squad.
Irving is now playing for the Denver Broncos and Cole is doing what Irving did a year ago - manning the middle linebacker spot. The fifth-year senior moved to the middle for spring drills and took to his new position with ease. That opened up his former weak-side spot for sophomore D.J. Green, who saw limited action at safety last year. With Terrell Manning returning as a starter on the weak side, the linebacking corps should be one of the strongest units on the team this year, despite losing such an impact player.
One reason that the linebacking corps promises to be big for the Pack in 2011 is because the linebackers are ... BIG! Since arriving on campus four years ago, Cole has packed on 50 pounds. Manning has gained 36 in three years and in just a year, Green is 17 pounds heavier.
Tight end George Bryan isn't one of the flashiest players in the ACC. He isn't even one of the flashiest players on his own team. But what he lacks in flash, he more than makes up for in production, as he has been one of the Wolfpack's biggest playmakers at tight end each of the past two years.
A preseason second-team All-America pick by Lindy's and a third-team choice by Rivals, Bryan is on the early ‘watch' list for the Mackey Award for the third straight year. For the third straight year, he's also hoping to earn first-team All-ACC honors and is the first tight end in school history to have won two such awards.
Bryan, who was selected as a team captain by his teammates prior to preseason camp, enters his senior campaign tied for ninth in school history with 13 career touchdown receptions, the highest mark among returning players. He currently ranks 17th in school history with 93 career receptions and with just six more grabs will have more career catches than any tight end in school history.
GREEN SPECIAL TEAMS
Tom O'Brien has been in coaching for a long time - 36 years to be exact. But this season, his team has something that he's never come across in almost four decades in the profession: true freshmen starters at placekicker, punter and long snapper.
Josh Czakowski, who started at placekicker each of the past three years, finished his career ranked in the top four in school history in career field goals made, field goals attempted and set the school record for PATs. His replacement for 2011, freshman Niklas Sade was listed as one of the top prep kickers in the nation last season.
At punter, true freshman Wil Baumann will man the post that was filled by two players last season, while true freshman Scott Thompson will handle the long snapping duties.
Although none of the three has ever seen action in a collegiate contest, they have all had impressive fall camps. Baumann averaged over 40 yards per punt in three scrimmages, while Sade hit 9 of his 11 field-goal attempts, including a 53-yarder. NC State is one of only two schools who are slated to start true freshmen at bot the punter and placekicker positions in 2011.
NO RUSHING BACK
When the 2011 campaign kicks off, the leading rusher from last season, Mustafa Greene, will be wearing a boot on his foot and sitting in the stands. The secondleading rusher, Russell Wilson, will be playing for another team. The third-leading rusher, Dean Haynes, should be suited up and ready to go, but will be playing on the other side of the ball at safety.
NC State's top returning rusher, at least for the early part of the season, will be junior halfback James Washington, who played in eight contests last season, rushing for 215 yards. Washington is one of only three returning players who gained yardage rushing the ball last season who return for 2011 (Curtis Underwood gained 63 yards and Mike Glennon gained 3). Washington averaged 54 yards over the last three games last season, starting the last four contests.
WIDEOUT WIDE OPEN
Throughout Tom O'Brien's tenure as a head coach, players from a variety of positions have populated the receiving stats. In 2010, the five team leaders in receiving yards were two wideouts, two halfbacks and a tight end.
Spreading the ball around will be beneficial to the Pack in 2011, as the top three wide receivers from last season have all completed their eligibility. The most experienced returnee at that spot is T.J. Graham, who has 10 career starts and 25 career catches to his credit, but just one start last year. Senior Jay Smith started a pair of contests last season and pulled in 10 catches, while senior Steven Howard has never earned a starting nod and had a dozen grabs a year ago.
Entering the 2010 campaign, returning wide receivers had tallied a combined 243 career catches and combined for 62 career starts. Pack wideouts returning for 2011 started a combined three contests last season (12 overall) and pulled in just 104 career catches.
O'BRIEN ON ELITE LIST
The win over West Virginia in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl was momentous for State football on several levels. First, the victory over the No. 23 Mountaineers gave the Pack nine wins for the season, which tied as the second-highest victory total in school history. Second, it moved the squad into the final AP poll. Third, it gave head coach Tom O'Brien his 100th career victory and moved him into 20th place among the winningest active coaches in the BCS ranks.
O'Brien enters his 15th season as a head coach with a record of 100-70. Ten of his 14 teams have advanced to postseason bowls.
Senior T.J. Graham has definitely made a name for himself at NC State with his heroics as a returner. He holds the single game (202), single season (1,028) and career (2,167) records for kickoff return yards. That career mark ranks fifth in ACC history. His 433 career punt return yards rank ninth on the career list for NC State and he ranks 12th in school history with 1,405 career all-purpose yards.
This year, Graham hopes that he also makes his mark on offense as well, as he could become a full-time starter at wide receiver for the first time in his career. Last season he caught 25 passes for 316 yards, tops among all returning wide receivers.
BACKFIELD IS BACK
Two years ago, the Wolfpack's defensive secondary might have been the youngest in the country. All four of the positions were manned by true or redshirt freshmen for the majority of the season, with Brandan Bishop, C.J. Wilson and Earl Wolff all getting their first cracks at playing time.
Heading into 2011, those three players are still around and are in their third seasons as starters. Add David Amerson, who started nine games at cornerback last season, and you've got 65 career starts between the projected starters in the defensive secondary.
PACK-ING THEM IN
Last season, 58,083 faithful fans packed into Carter-Finley Stadium for the Virginia Tech game - the third-highest attendance total in school history and the highest in 25 years. Because of unprecedented student demand for tickets, Director of Athletics Debbie Yow had 500 bleacher seats installed for added seats.
But big crowds during Tom O'Brien's tenure at NC State have become a tradition. Twelve of the top 25 attendance figures in the 45-year history of Carter-Finley Stadium have come since he took over the program prior to the 2007 campaign.
Although there were only six home games in 2010 for the Wolfpack faithful to attend, those fans came out in full force. Average attendance this season was 56,876, a new school record.