NC State will be looking to replace three-year starter George Bryan at tight end, but the Wolfpack has a lot of depth at the position. Contributors Mario Carter and Anthony Talbert both return, but the Wolfpack will also have available junior Asa Watson and freshman Benson Browne, both who redshirted last fall.
"Benson Browne is really talented at tight end," said O'Brien. "He can run, and he can really catch the ball. With Asa, we have a nutritionist to help with the weight gain situation, but regardless, he is a special talent.
"He is a hybrid at that tight end position. The good thing is Mario Carter and Anthony Talbert received a lot of reps, worked their way into games, and we coached them all year, but you look at it and we lose George but add Asa. Given his unique skillset, that might be a pretty good trade."
State will also be looking for players to emerge at wide receiver, as the Wolfpack must replace three seniors, T.J. Graham, Jay Smith, and Steven Howard, who played a lot of football. Redshirt freshmen Hakeem Flowers and Maurice Morgan have terrific shots at cracking the two-deep during spring practice.
"We actually coached Hakeem probably the last six games of the year," said O'Brien. "He spent time working with our regulars because we knew we were going to lose receivers next year, and we wanted him in the mix.
"He and Maurice Morgan... Morgan is really talented. He is a big guy that can run. He just hast to figure it out because throughout high school he played so many different positions. He is going to get settled down in that role. I think both Flowers and Morgan will have an impact on this football team next year. They are both big, strong, and fast, Maurice even more so than Hakeem."
Overall, O'Brien seemed please with what he saw from his true freshmen in the fall and during the bowl workouts.
"There are a lot of good young guys with talent in that class," he stated. "I think Joe Thuney is going to be a really good center. He is a lot like Matt Tennant, who we had at Boston College. He's going to be like Matt... he just needs to put his weight on.
"Hakim Jones, we had at the outside linebacker position, but he may even switch to safety because he has a lot of range and ability. We had Tyrrell Burriss on the depth chart but were able to get through the year with redshirting him, and he is another guy who has impressed.
"Juston Burris also had a good year. He stepped up and did a lot of the things we asked of him."
Depth issues forced a few of the true freshmen to play right away, and O'Brien says they will be counting on them even more in 2012.
"A couple of those young guys like [Michael] Peek and [Brandon] Pittman, who played some [last] year, we gave them a lot more individual work during bowl practices," O'Brien stated. "We're going to have to count on them next year.
"Then you have a kid like T.Y. McGill, who has played some. The experience has helped him so much, he and Thomas Teal. Once we get [Carlos] Gray in there with them... they look like the guys we had at Boston College."
O'Brien is also hoping to build better depth in the program through recruiting, a process he says has improved dramatically since the coaches first arrived on campus five years ago. The Pack has been able to get a much more quality kind of athlete than it had been getting early in their coaching tenure.
"We are getting longer and taller athletes than we were able to early," O'Brien said. "And certainly the more you win, the more you go to bowls, the more visible you become the better those types of players are. Right now we are recruiting character kids, not better character kids, but probably better athletes than we signed that first class five years ago. So as we replenish the class we are getting better players than the guys that are leaving – and that's the goal every year.
"We like to take kids that can run, move their feet, are very athletic, and in our opinion, have great character. They are not into their ego, they don't have to play a certain position. Look at Audie Cole, he was a quarterback in high school and played some safety...we convince these kids that we'll find a spot where you can have success. That's been our strength with a lot of those kids."
Probably the hardest aspect of recruiting is properly evaluating a prospect's character and work ethic. Star rankings and recruit hype is often judged based on how naturally talented or athletic a player is... how fast is he? How big is he? How strong is he? But often times how much a recruit impacts in college is determined by their character and work ethic. Are they going to stay eligible? Will they stay out of trouble? Will he work hard enough to earn playing time?
According to O'Brien, there is no exact way to evaluate character, but it often comes down to trust.
"I think the coaches have to make the individual decision there," he said. "It comes down to the family situation and trusting their head coaches. But, you've got to talk to other people besides just football people. You have to talk to guidance counselors and teachers in the school. Is the kid a self-starter? Is he self-motivated? Has he been in any trouble? Does he have an ego?
"You factor in their athletics and academics. Ultimately, if he is an ego guy, then he doesn't fit well into what we do."