Wolfpack special teams coordinator Manny Diaz obviously feels the same way, and he wants to make sure NC State is ready when Virginia Tech comes to Raleigh.
"The thing about special teams is it is the surest way to lose a football game, so it's a priority, especially when you play Virginia Tech," said Diaz, who is entering his second season as special teams coordinator while also serving as safeties coach for the Wolfpack.
Leading NC State's special teams unit is redshirt junior kicker John Deraney. In his first season as starting kicker for the Wolfpack, Deraney was one of just 10 players nationally who handled all of the kicking duties for their squads. He connected on 13-of-22 field goals while also averaging 41.9 yards per punt. Blessed with a very strong leg, Deraney is also a weapon on kickoffs where almost half of his kicks have been touchbacks during his career.
This year it sounds like NC State is hoping one of the other kickers, Tucker King or Bradley Pierson, can step up and handle a share of the duties to take some pressure off Deraney. However, if one of them are going to do so, they will have to earn it.
"There's no doubt about it," Diaz said. "We are going to be more aggressive in using our depth at kicker, but at the same time only if they want it. We are not going to put a guy in there just for the sake of having a different guy if he can't get the job done.
"We think we do have some guys who can get the job done, but what you don't know is if they can get it done under the lights. On special teams there is no brighter light than playing Virginia Tech."
Deraney will definitely handle the placekicking duties, but the punter position appears to be where the competition is being held.
"In the spring, Pierson and King went head-to-head, and we told them going into the fall that now it is a three-way competition," Diaz said. "If we can get to a point where we can work those guys into a game and see how they do against a rush and with people in the stands, we'll go from there.
"If it was a tie we would probably play that guy. We want to play a guy we can trust. The first thing is they get the ball off in time, and the second thing is they give our coverage a chance. That's what we will be asking out of our punter."
Holder Chris Young and long snapper William Lee also return for the Wolfpack. Both players had solid seasons in 2004.
|Darrell Blackman led the ACC and finished third nationally in punt returns in 2004.|
It's not as easy for Diaz to select a returner because NC State has a strong stable of explosive, offensive players. Senior wide receiver Tramain Hall returned two punts for scores in 2003 and was the Wolfpack's starting punt returner for much of the 2004 season until back spasms limited his role.
All this did was open the door for tailback Darrell Blackman to show what he can do in the return game. The sophomore led the ACC and ranked third nationally in punt returns with a 17.83 average, even though he didn't return a kick until the eighth game of the season. Blackman's biggest play came in the home finale against Florida State, where he returned a punt 87 yards for the Wolfpack's lone score.
NC State ranked 16th nationally in kickoff returns and 43rd nationally in punt returns but also finished the season 114th nationally in turnover margin.
"Our returner's #1 job is to protect the football," said Diaz. "I told our guys in meetings that even if I had to put Derek Morris back their to return kicks, we will protect the football. I am that serious about it.
"We feel like we have talented guys, and I think this year we want to settle on two guys and stick with them. I think we had too much of a revolving door back there on special teams in the past couple of years, and we want to find some consistency and continuity at the positions."
Turn back the clock to NC State's 2002 season, when the Wolfpack finished 11-3 and won the Gator Bowl, and you'll find that corners Lamont Reid and Greg Golden returned kicks the entire year. The end result? The Wolfpack finished second nationally in kickoff returns (24.95 yards per game) to the University of Iowa and won the most games in school history.
"Maybe that wasn't a coincidence," Diaz said. "That was the last time we had the same two guys back there, and we nearly led the country in kickoff returns."
Hall and Blackman will likely receive the bulk of the load at punt returner, but the kickoff returner positions are wide open. Both will be options there too, but so will be Toney Baker, Bobby Washington, Andre Brown, and any of the other playmakers on NC State's team.
"All of our tailbacks have a chance to be back there because we believe they are good return people," said Diaz. "Obviously Darrell and Bobby Washington will be two guys to watch. Our main thing will be finding two guys that we're comfortable with and just let them play there throughout the course of the season."
Head coach Chuck Amato stresses that winning the kicking game is one of the most critical aspects in football. By playing strong special teams, NC State would be setting itself up to have an outstanding season.