Patchwork Line A Bright Spot For State

To put the plight of NC State's offensive line in perspective, consider that redshirt junior tight end John Ritcher took some snaps at center last week.

After all, Ritcher's father, Jim, was a two-time All-American and won the Outland Trophy in 1979 as a member of the Wolfpack, then went on to a lengthy pro career. So what could be hurt by Ritcher snapping a few times to his roommate, quarterback Jay Davis?

"I snapped to Jay a couple of times, but I think all those genes went to my Dad," said Ritcher, chuckling. "I can't snap the ball very well.

"It was more of a joke than anything, because they always kid around with me about moving to center. So I did try it, but Jed [Paulsen] looked at me and goes, ‘You look like an idiot.' So it didn't work out."

The story elicited laughs from the gathered media, but the situation isn't as humorous along the Pack's offensive front. With Paulsen sidelined following ankle surgery, redshirt freshman Luke Lathan started his first college game at Clemson and became the third player to start at center this year; redshirt sophomore Jon Holt also made his first start against the Tigers, becoming the third different player to start at right tackle; and redshirt sophomore James Newby has started at both left guard and right tackles and is currently working at four different positions. Left tackle Chris Colmer and right guard John McKeon have been the only players to start every game at the same spot on the offensive line this season for the Wolfpack, and both have been dinged up at various times.

Still, the offensive front has continued to find ways to make holes and protect the quarterback. Despite the three new starters, the Pack racked up 381 offensive yards at Clemson, even with the absence of top tailback T.A. McLendon and No. 1 wide receiver Richard Washington for most of the contest.

"Don't blame [injuries] for anything," said coach Chuck Amato. "With nine seconds to go in the game, we had a chance to win it – with everything. Those kids fought their brains out inside."

The State offensive line was considered one of the squad's strongest units entering the 2004 campaign. Paulsen was entering his third year as a starter and a candidate for the Rimington Trophy; guard Leroy Harris was coming off a stellar rookie season that saw him earn Freshman All-America honors; right tackle Derek Morris, one of the most promising young players on the team, had a year of experience and conditioning under his belt; Colmer, a former second-team All-ACC selection, was returning after have to sit out the 2003 season with a rare nerve condition; and McKeon and returning starter Ricky Fowler would be battling for the right guard spot, always a good problem to have. Even the depth was thought to be evolving successfully.

However, injuries hit early and often. Backup center Kalani Heppe broke his foot. Reserve tackle/guard Merci Falaise had to have surgery to repair meniscus in his knee on Sept. 28. Colmer started having trouble with his shoulder, while Morris endured nagging leg injuries. Then Paulsen was lost after undergoing ankle surgery on October 12. The Pack responded by shifting Harris to center, but then he suffered a severe shoulder injury against Miami.

"There are injuries every year and losses that you need to overcome, but I've never seen it happen to one group or position like it has this year, as far as the offensive line goes," Ritcher said. "It's just an opportunity for guys to step up and play. Luke Lathan, I thought, did a good job in his first start.

"It's unfortunate that we lost these guys, but there's nothing you can do about it. You have to go on and play the next play.

"But the way we are on our offensive line, we may have to hold a tryout here in a little while."

Offensive line coach Mike Barry should be lauded for the way he has continued to put together effective lines. Against Clemson, the Tigers blitzed repeatedly on the final two-minute drill, but the front picked up every one, giving Davis time and opportunity to throw. With McLendon out, the running game could have gone in the tank, but State responded with 126 rushing yards, including 90 by backup Darrell Blackman. Davis had to throw 45 times, but he was sacked just twice, and the line helped him extend his streak of 200-yard passing games to five straight, best in the ACC.

Colmer posted seven knockdowns, three intimidations and two "Raleigh Railroads" in 83 snaps against the Tigers; Newby had two knockdowns and three Raleigh Railroads; Lathan snapped flawlessly and notched a Raleigh Railroad; McKeon recorded two knockdowns and one Raleigh Railroad; and Holt had two knockdowns and four Raleigh Railroads.

The front had occasional missed assignments and a couple of costly penalties, but generally responded with a winning performance. So Ritcher can put his dreams of playing center on hold for now, even though he weights more than his legendary father ever did.

"He told me that when he graduated college, he was about 240, and I'm about 255 right now," Ritcher said. "So I'm a little bigger than he was, but he definitely made up for it in his quickness and strength. I'm still trying to catch up to him in that."

On a day when many things went wrong in Death Valley, two first-time starters on a makeshift offensive line caught on quickly for the Wolfpack – a true positive for a program in dire need of good news.

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