"NC State has a special, special freshman class that could take the program to another level," said Manuel. "You have [Carlos] Rodon, Brett Austin, who was a first-round pick, and Trea Turner is awesome."
Leading the way is freshman pitcher Carlos Rodon. A local product out of Holly Springs (NC) High School, Rodon was considered a top pro prospect but informed teams that he was looking to go to college, which may have caused him to slide in the draft, along with a minor back issue he had as a senior.
"I believe last spring Carlos had some back spasms when a lot of scouts were in to see him throw and maybe he didn't maintain his velocity as well as he does now," said Manuel. "That could have caused him to slide some in the draft, but that has to go down as one of the best days in NC State baseball history... when Carlos fell down the draft boards. He turned down a lot of money but when you're a 16th-round pick it is easier to make that decision.
"We thought Rodon would be very, very good, but I don't think anyone could see him being this good this quickly. I never saw him live in high school, but our other guys did and they liked him a lot. We heard nothing be positive things about him in the fall... the buzz was all about how dominating he was at State, and that really stands out because they do have a deep lineup with a lot of options."
Rodon has been phenomenal, as he was tabbed ACC Freshman of the Year and ACC Pitcher of the Year on Monday. At 9-0, he boasts an ACC-low 1.59 ERA in addition to his perfect record on the mound. The 6-foot-3, 234-pound left-hander ranks second among league pitchers with 114 strikeouts in 96 innings and leads the ACC in complete games with two. The only freshman listed among the 2012 Dick Howser Trophy semifinalists, Rodon tied a NC State record for first-year players with his nine regular-season wins.
He is also the first freshman in ACC history named either Pitcher of the Year or Player of the Year.
"Carlos is a big, physical, left-hander who can hit 96 on the gun in the first inning and the seventh," said Manuel. "There has been a long line of talented left-handers to come through the college ranks in the last six or seven years and Rodon is as good or better than any of them with the possible exception of David Price.
"I don't want to say that [he is on Price's level yet] because of how productive Price was for three years in the SEC, but Carlos has already established himself in that category with pitchers like Andrew Miller and Matt Purke."
"NC State has a very good baseball history, but I think Carlos Rodon could be the top pro prospect to come through the program," added Manuel. "He is extremely talented and has been outstanding this season... as good as any pitcher in the country."
Freshman catcher Brett Austin may have entered the year with even more hype than Rodon. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder was named the preseason No. 4 freshman in the country by Baseball America and hit .537 with 47 runs scored, 10 doubles, 12 home runs, 38 RBIs and 14 steals as a senior in 2011 at Charlotte (NC) Providence High School.
Austin was selected in the supplemental first round, 54th pick overall, by the San Diego Padres in the 2011 MLB draft but turned down a lot of money to attend NC State.
He has started 52 games this season while hitting .265 with 13 doubles and 28 RBIs.
"Brett Austin, he came in with a lot of pressure being a first-round pick and maybe felt he had to be the leader of the group," said Manuel. "He has a lot of talent. A switch-hitting catcher who is athletic... it's tough playing catcher right away, and he has power potential."
The biggest surprise to Manuel, and perhaps others, has been leadoff hitter Trea Turner. A third baseman with blazing speed, Turner was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but according to Manuel he wasn't heavily recruited and is a product of terrific evaluation by NC State and recruiting coordinator Chris Hart.
All Turner did was start 53 games this season while hitting .340 and setting a school record with 54 stolen bases to earn second-team All-ACC honors.
"[Trea Turner] is so fun to watch and is exactly what a leadoff hitter is supposed to be," said Manuel. "Recruiting coordinator Chris Hart has done a tremendous job. Take for instance Turner... he wasn't heavily recruited, and I believe Pittsburgh was the only team really on him. That is an example of elite talent evaluation by Chris Hart, to go out and get Turner who has been outstanding."
State's class isn't just top heavy as several other freshmen have contributed. Jake Fincher replaced Brett Williams, who suffered a knee injury early in the year, in centerfield and has started 47 games while hitting .302. Logan Ratledge has emerged in the infield and Logan Jernigan, Dillon Frye, and Travis Orwig have been major contributors on the mound.
"What is impressive about this class is the depth," Manuel said. "In most years, Jernigan, Ratledge, and Fincher would be the strength of the class... a trio that could impact and provide quality depth. This year for NC State they are the four, five, and six guys because you do have Rodon, Austin, and Turner. That's impressive.
"I believe this class can be for NC State what the 2004 class turned out being for North Carolina with Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard. It can take NC State from being a good, scrappy program to one of the best... the hunted."