Analysis: Seven Key Issues For Pack Football

After a disappointing 5-6 season, Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato faces some crucial questions this offseason. Pack Pride takes a look at some of the important issue surrounding State football heading into 2005.

With the 2004 season officially in the books for the Wolfpack football team, fans are quickly shifting their attention to the undefeated, top-15-ranked NC State hoops squad. However, there will be many interesting issues to follow this offseason for coach Chuck Amato's program, and the Pack Pride staff has come up with seven keys to watch keenly this winter and spring.

1. Does offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Noel Mazzone come back?
There is rampant speculation that Mazzone will be coaching elsewhere in 2005, but Amato has maintained that he wants to keep his staff intact for continuity purposes and Mazzone's camp is saying that he won't leave of his own accord. So either Mazzone will be found on the Pack sideline again next year or someone isn't being completely truthful.

There were issues this year with red-zone play-calling and down-and-distance predictability, but those tendencies were thrust to the forefront mostly after three State offensive line starters went down due to injury. At times this season – namely, the second half against Wake Forest, at UNC and vs. Miami – the Pack offense actually appeared to be humming, although the relative strengths of those particular defenses can be debated. What can't be ignored is that NC State did not adjust the offense to atone for injuries late in the season, leading to abysmal offensive showings down the stretch. Is that enough for Mazzone to lose his job? Will Amato have to bring in his fourth offensive coordinator to start his sixth season as head coach? It depends on who you believe, but rest assured that something must and will be done about the lack of communication and cohesion among State's offensive braintrust.

2. Will there be any other coaching changes?
One of the developments under Amato used as ammunition on the recruiting trails by opposing coaches has been the near-constant turnover of the coaching staff. Amato has gained a reputation as a taskmaster with a tendency to micro-manage, which has alienated some assistants over the years. However, stalwarts such as assistant head coach Doc Holliday, running backs coach Dick Portee, quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Curt Cignetti, safeties coach Manny Diaz, and ex-director of strength and conditioning and current defensive line coach Todd Stroud have been with Amato since the beginning, and all have strong reputations in coaching circles. To be fair, many of the assistants who have moved on from NC State have gone to jobs a notch or two up the coaching ladder, namely when offensive coordinator Marty Galbraith and quarterbacks coach Mike Canales went to the NFL. Others, such as defensive coordinator Buddy Green and secondary coach Chris Demarest, left under what appeared to be shakier circumstances.

At times this season, the State sideline appeared to be a study in confusion, namely when plays needed to be sent in offensively or end-of-half or –game situations arose. That development leads many to feel that a shakeup will occur somewhere on the offensive staff, with Mazzone representing the most obvious target.

3. Who is going to be the quarterback?
Ah, yes. A year-old query that wasn't resolved in any way in the 2004 season. Redshirt junior Jay Davis showed flashes of game-changing ability, but was often hesitant in the pocket and prone to shaky decision-making. Redshirt freshman Marcus Stone obviously hasn't earned the staff's trust in the passing game, but his mobility and athletic ability made him an intriguing change-of-pace for much of the campaign. The staff likes Daniel Evans, who redshirted this year as a rookie, but will he be able to put on the requisite muscle and achieve a firm enough grasp of the offense to challenge in spring ball and fall camp? It doesn't seem likely that Michael Greco, a run-first signal-caller out of Florida, will be a factor right off the bat in 2005. The same goes for the other players on NC State's recruiting list, including Kentucky gunslinger Chris Todd.

So this becomes a question of who can make the most strides over the offseason, and the answer goes hand-in-hand with what happens with the offensive staff. If yet another offensive coordinator comes in, how does that change the offense and where each QB stands in it? There is a perception that Davis was a Canales guy, and the reality is that Mazzone didn't have a hand in recruiting either Davis or Stone. As the incumbent, Davis would appear to have a leg up going into the offseason, but one has to feel as if the race will be thrown wide open once again in spring drills.

4. What happens with the T.A. McLendon dilemma?
The only other buzz that is challenging Mazzone's status is that concerning McLendon. The junior tailback suffered through another injury- and fumble-plagued season, and the current speculation indicates that McLendon may have played his last down in the Red and White. The week-to-week questions about his availability couldn't have helped the progress of rookies Darrell Blackman and Bobby Washington, and his penchant for fumbling has apparently eroded the trust of the coaching staff, with one assistant caught on tape by ESPN noting that McLendon coughs the ball up in every big game.

McLendon's talent is overwhelming enough that Amato & Co. were willing to sacrifice the occasional fumble and nagging injuries for the way the tailback lifted the entire offense and validated the game plan with his running style. If he elects to leave early for the NFL, which many in the know swear is the case, his legacy will be as the biggest what-might-have-been case study in the history of the NC State program.

5. Does redshirt junior Marcus Hudson – or anyone else -- go pro?
A surprising development in the last few days of the regular season was the rumor that Hudson could also be gone to the NFL. After sitting out the 2003 season and being shifted from cornerback to safety and back this year, his name wasn't one that would immediately have come to mind when considering State players with pro prospects this year. However, Hudson's talent is undeniable and he could be growing weary of the constant positional movement.

At 6-2, 191 pounds, Hudson possesses safety size with corner skills, but has he proven to be a standout at either spot? He'd likely pair with redshirt junior A.J. Davis at the starting cornerback slots next year, when he'd get a chance to more fully showcase his skills. Will he sacrifice that for a shot in the NFL? Hudson is a good kid with a smart head on his shoulders, which lends more than a little doubt to that scenario.

While there are rumblings that transfers could hit State as well – defensive end Maurice Charles and quarterback Chris Moore are among a few names bandied about – the Wolfpack likely won't be hit hard by attrition this offseason.

6. How is recruiting shaping up?
NC State used its bye week to hit the trails and continue its recruiting efforts, and we're in the middle of the all-important times of in-home visits and official-visit weekends. The next two weekends are gaining momentum as crucial recruiting days for the Wolfpack, and despite an off year, State would appear to have exciting opportunities to offer prospects. The entire starting secondary has exhausted its eligibility, which should tantalize corners and safeties. Two senior ‘backers depart, and the chance for constant blitzing at that spot under defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Reggie Herring should put the Pack in fine shape to land some difference-makers at that spot. Not only can State recruit to the nation's No. 1 total defense, but it can also challenge offensive recruits to come to Raleigh and help form a unit that will be counted on to close the production gap between the offense and the defense.

The Pack could take as many as nine offensive linemen, with three already in the fold, making that spot the most important for the staff this year. NC State will also be combing the country for the top linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks as well.

A ton of top in-state recruits have still yet to decide, lending more unpredictability and opportunity to the coming weeks. Toney Baker, Jonathan Hannah, Montario Hardesty, Everette Brown, Curtis Crouch, Julian Williams … these North Carolinians and others could go a long way toward dictating the future fortunes of the Wolfpack and other programs. Pack Pride will continue to be burning up the phone lines and the keyboards to keep up with the pace set by the NC State recruiters, making the next two months the most exciting of the year for recruiting junkies.

7. What will the offensive line look like?
The Wolfpack offensive front was decimated by injury in the latter stages of the regular season, pointing up the difficulties that State – and to be fair, most other schools – have had in building depth along the line. Sixth-year left tackle Chris Colmer and center Jed Paulsen, the heart and soul of the front, have now exhausted their eligibility, along with guard Rickey Fowler, sparking many questions as to who will line up where in 2005.

Is now the time to try Derek Morris at left tackle? The 6-6, 340-pounder has struggled with injuries in his first two seasons, but his size and skillset would appear to fit best at left tackle, especially in Colmer's absence. That would free up James Newby (6-5, 281), John McKeon (6-5, 300) and Jon Holt (6-6, 277) to battle it out for the starting right tackle job, with Merci Falaise (6-5, 305) – who lost this season due to knee surgery – a darkhorse to make waves at the tackle spots. Perhaps the most damaging setback this year was the injury to Leroy Harris (6-3, 295), the Pack's best offensive lineman. His return at left guard will be huge, freeing up the loser of the tackle battles, such as McKeon, or even Luke Lathan (6-4, 290) to line up at right guard. At center, Kalani Heppe (6-4, 270) would figure to be the frontrunner to take over, though Lathan was the coach's choice after injuries to Paulsen and Harris.

What about guard Yomi Ojo? Or any of the defensive linemen that will possibly be moved over to offense? Can line coach Mike Barry get these players up to speed quickly enough to make an impact? Juco tackle Garrett Kline is reported to be a fine prospect who will certainly be a factor in the competition for time at tackle from jumpstreet. Jeraill McCuller and Andy Barbee, State's other two line commits, would appear to need more seasoning before being ready to be thrown into the fray. The Wolfpack should also be an attractive option for other top offensive line recruits looking for the chance to play early.

The frontline talent next year is likely to be strong again on the offensive front, with the younger players thrust into action this season due to injury gaining valuable experience. But once again, State will be looking for a player or two to emerge this offseason to build its depth and couch its chances against inevitable injuries.

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