Notebook: Pack Ready for Opener

NC State opens the season tonight against Tennessee in Atlanta. The Wolfpack hopes to make a statement against one of the top programs in the country.

State is kicking off the 2012 campaign on Friday night, August 31, against Tennessee at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The game will be played as the first of two that weekend in the facility and is designated as the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game.

The Pack hasn't opened the season at a neutral site since the 1992 Kickoff Classic, when it defeated No. 15 Iowa in East Rutherford, N.J. The Pack will also be opening its season with an SEC opponent for the third time in the last five seasons. NC State traveled to South Carolina in 2008, and then hosted the Gamecocks in 2009.

For the first time since 1997, the Pack will play its first two games away from Raleigh. Eight days after facing the Vols in Atlanta, O'Brien and company will travel to Connecticut on September 8 to face the Huskies.

It's appropriate that the winner of the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game between NC State and Tennessee will win "The Old Leather Helmet." The three previous times the Wolfpack and Volunteers met on the gridiron, that's what both teams were wearing.

NC State, then known as North Carolina A&M, played its first intercollegiate game against Tennessee College in November of 1893. The game was tied, 0-0, at halftime, but the Farmers (as the Wolfpack was known then) pulled out a 12-6 triumph.

The squads also met in 1911 at NC State's Riddick Stadium, with the Pack claiming a 16-0 shutout and then again on Sept. 29, 1939, when the Vols, considered the top team in the country at the time, shut out the Pack, 13-0, in Raleigh.

The Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game won't mark the first time that Wolfpack head coach Tom O'Brien and Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley both stood on the same football field during heated competition. It will, however, mark the first time the two have stood on opposing sidelines.

Dooley played wide receiver at Virginia from 1987-90, while O'Brien was serving as the offensive line coach. Dooley began his career as a walk-on, but ended up earning a scholarship.

"He was a great kid," said O'Brien. "He deserved to earn a scholarship and he did it on a team that was really talented. He was probably the smartest guy on offense when he played and he did a great job telling everybody else where to go."

In the last two years, NC State has posted a record of 17-9 - the third-best overall mark in the ACC during that time span. The Wolfpack is also one of only 12 teams nationally that has won a bowl game each of the past two seasons.

If preseason ‘watch' lists and polls are any indication, and if the team is able to avoid the catastrophic injuries of previous seasons, the Pack will be able to build on that momentum in 2012. Sports Illustrated has NC State ranked 25th in its preseason rankings, the defensive secondary is ranked by many publications as one of the best in the nation, and several players are on the preseason watch lists for various national awards.

In 2012, Wolfpack head coach Tom O'Brien has a luxury that he hasn't been afforded in previous campaigns with the Wolfpack: senior starters. On the depth chart for the season opener, 11 spots on offense and defense are penciled in with the names of seniors who have starting experience in the past.

That number is almost double the most senior starting experience O'Brien has had during his first five years with the Wolfpack. The number is particularly high on offense, where seven of the 11 starting spots are slated to be filled by seniors with previous starting experience.

Three Pack players rank among the most experienced returning players in the ACC in terms of career starts: safety Brandan Bishop (5th), OG R.J. Mattes (t9th) and safety Earl Wolff (t9th). For the 2008 season, there were only two projected starters who were seniors with starting experience. In 2009, there were seven.

What's the opposite of a target? Whatever it is, expect Wolfpack junior cornerback David Amerson to have a big version of it on his chest this season. After picking off a nation-leading, ACC record-setting 13 passes in 2011, there might not be too many balls thrown his way in 2012.

Amerson's sophomore interception total was the second-best mark in FBS history and even after winning the Jack Tatum Award and being one of three finalists for the Thorpe Award, he still had enough balls thrown in his vicinity to pick off two passes in the Belk Bowl win over Louisville.

Amerson, who was a first-team Walter Camp All-American, tied the ACC single-season INT record with his 11th pick against Clemson on November 19. He set the school mark against North Carolina on November 5, breaking the record that had been set just a few years before he was born: Art Rooney (of the Pittsburgh Steeler Rooneys) held the record with eight in 1937 and again in 1938!

He returned two picks for scores, also a BCS best, and led the national ranks in INT return yards with 205.

Mike Glennon's entry into the job of starting collegiate quarterback was not a quiet one. A year ago, nobody mentioned his name without also mentioning his predecessor Russell Wilson, who had moved on to Wisconsin.

Despite the controversy and talk swirling around him, Glennon was unflappable in his first year starting under center. Now a fifth-year senior, he silenced all critics by throwing 31 touchdown passes, gaining over 3000 passing yards and completing .625 of his throws in 2011. In fact, only three quarterbacks in ACC history have thrown for more TDs in a season.

From the jump, Glennon seemed comfortable in his role as the starting quarterback. By year's end, he was clicking on all cylinders, completing 66% of his passes for 1,043 yards, throwing 11 TDs to only three interceptions, and posting a 141.35 efficiency rating in the last four games of 2011.

The only thing swirling around Glennon heading into the 2012 campaign is positive publicity. The Sporting News recently ranked him as one of the top quarterbacks in the country for the upcoming season and with his ability, experience and knowledge of the State playbook, he should battle for all-conference honors in 2012. His stints at the Manning Passing Academy and at the Elite 11 Camp during the summer have put him solidly in the sights of the national media and NFL scouts.

Without question, the linebacking corps took the biggest hit of any unit on the Wolfpack squad following the 2011 campaign. Two of the starters from last season, Audie Cole and Terrell Manning, are fighting for position on NFL squads. D.J. Green, who started seven contests before being sidelined by an injury, was declared ineligible in the spring for the entire 2012 season.

The result is that there will be group of not-so-familiar faces at the linebacker spots in 2012. The grand total of snaps from scrimmage in 2011 played by the six players listed on the opening depth chart of 2012 is only 24 snaps. That's an average of four snaps per man. That snap total was a little higher in the preseason before sophomore Michael Peek, who was battling for a starter's job, suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Thank goodness that senior Sterling Lucas was injured at the beginning of the 2011 campaign and ended up red-shirting. A veteran of 36 career contests, 459 career snaps and two starts prior to last season, Lucas is the leader of that depleted unit, even though he hasn't seen action since 2010.

The only two players who saw action from scrimmage at linebacker last season are Ryan Cheek (19 snaps) and Brandon Pittman (5 snaps). The other four either did not play (Lucas, Dowdy, Caldwell) or saw action only on special teams (Noel, Gentry).

In the history of college bowl games, no head coach has ever posted a winning percentage better than NC State head coach Tom O'Brien. During his 15 years as a head coach at Boston College and NC State, O'Brien has won .800 of his bowl games, posting an 8-2 postseason slate.

That stat from includes coaches at major schools from 1869 - 2011.

Wolfpack sophomore linebacker Rodman Noel is a talented young player who has battled for a starters job at strong side linebacker throughout the preseason. Noel may not end up getting the nod in the season opener, but if pedigree is any indication, he will have a long and successful career on the gridiron.

The Pack's Noel is the second of the three sons of Haitian immigrants Yonel and Dorcina Noel. His older brother, Jim, is a senior at Boston College this season, where he is projected to start at strong safety for the third straight season.

While Jim and Rodman have earned their stripes on the gridiron, their younger brother, Nerlens, has gained stardom on the hardwood. One of the most highly-recruited prep basketball players in the country last year, he is currently a freshman for reigning national champion Kentucky.

Just over a year ago, the Wolfpack's starting unit at placekicker, punter and long snapper were all attending their high school proms. This season, the trio of Nik Sade, Wil Baumann and Scott Thompson all have a season of collegiate playing time under their belts.

NC State was the only school in the FBS ranks with a true freshman handling placekicking and punting duties in 2011. All three turned in solid, relatively mistake-free performances, despite their lack of experience last year. Add a spring practice to that full season and the unit should be one of the team's strong points for the upcoming season.

Sade kicked 46 extra points last season - the second-best mark in school history. He connected at a .979 clip on extra points and was 11-16 on field goals. He has made 42 consecutive PATs. Baumann averaged 37.5 yards on 67 punts last season, but forced 31 fair catches and placed 21 inside the opponent's 20 yard-line.

Thompson was a steady performer at long snapper and a top defender on the return teams.

Seems like it wasn't too long ago, three years to be exact, that the secondary was one of the weakest positions on the Wolfpack squad. That year, 2009, a true freshman named Brandan Bishop started five games at the field safety and a red-shirt freshman named Earl Wolff was the starter at boundary safety in four games. Another red-shirt freshman, C.J. Wilson, started four games at the field corner and two true freshmen started at the boundary corner: Rashard Smith and Jarvis Byrd.

With such inexperienced players seeing such significant action at those crucial positions, it was no wonder that the unit was considered the team's achilles heel, allowing the opposition to complete .626 of its passes and pulling down just eight interceptions.

Those numbers were slightly better in 2010, as those freshman starters became sophomore starters. The group improved it's opponent completion percentage to .606 and pulled down nine INTs.

Flash forward to 2011: Bishop, Wolff and Wilson were starters for the third consecutive season and a talented corner named David Amerson joined the quartet in his second year as a starter. The difference? Opponents complete just .575 of their attempts and the group pulls down a school-record 27 INTs.

This year, that group is one of, if not THE, strongest units on the squad due to experience. Returnees in the defensive secondary have started a combined total of 124 games at those four positions.

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