After struggling to a 2-4 start to open the 2005 season, NC State head coach Chuck Amato faced a huge quandary. There was little doubt that the Wolfpack needed to shake things up after anemic offensive performances against Georgia Tech, Clemson and Wake Forest. During that stretch the Pack averaged a paltry 15 points per game and the team seemed to be spiraling towards a near-certain losing season.
With the possibility of a second consecutive losing season staring him down, Amato made the tough decision to take the offensive keys away from senior Jay Davis and put them in the pocket of sophomore Marcus Stone.
With Stone the marching orders were simple- just don't screw it up. The Wolfpack offense was simplified. Instead of a complex passing attack, State relied more on two blossoming freshmen running backs in Andre Brown and Toney Baker. Most importantly, however, was to let one of the nation's top defenses make plays and put the team in a position to win. In essence, Stone became the captain of a offensive ship that sailed on auto-pilot. And that plan worked to near perfection.
Over the next six games, NC State would go 5-1. The Wolfpack would average just 18 points per game during that stretch but it was clear from the beginning of the Southern Miss game that the Pack players had bought off on the strategy and they executed it flawlessly. The Wolfpack would cut it's turnovers in half, from 16 to eight. Penalty yardage was cut from 72 yards per game to just 52. While the Pack amassed a total negative time of possession deficit of nearly 26 minutes during the first six games, that was reversed to a plus 17 minutes, excluding the Middle Tennessee State contest. Although the switch to Stone had little to do with x's and o's, the move changed the Wolfpack psyche and Amato had pulled off the most impressive shell game during his tenure in Raleigh. When all was said and done, NC State looked a lot more like Ohio State than Florida State and the strategy paid off ultimately with a bowl win in Charlotte.
When spring practice starts up this week, for the first time in his career, Stone will be 'The Man.' He won't look up to Philip Rivers and won't look beside him at Jay Davis. The offense will be his and the biggest question may simply be how he responds to the pressure. One thing is for certain, however. Physically, there are no questions surrounding the Pack's junior quarterback.
At 6-4, 230 pounds Stone has big-time size and above average mobility given that bulk. He has a tremendously strong arm and can make every throw in drills.
Where Stone starts to struggle is with the nuances of the game- reading defenses, making quick decisions on the move and his mechanics when the pocket begins to break down or his primary option is covered. Enter NC State offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. The Pack's offensive coordinator has coached some of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks- from Steve Young to Rich Gannon. That the potential is there for Trestman to turn Stone into a solid quarterback is without question and a full spring to work on fundamentals should be just what the doctor ordered to get the ball rolling towards the 2006 season.
However, what worked in 2005 will not necessarily carry the Pack next season. One of the key cogs in the late season run last year was the ability to fall back on one of the nation's stingiest defenses. With no fewer than a half dozen major players gone from that squad, even the most optimistic Wolfpack fan would be crazy to expect State to put up similar defensive numbers in 2006. And with teams sure to focus first on stopping a promising NC State rushing attack, all eyes will fall squarely on Stone when Appalachian State comes calling next September.
To be successful next season, it's very likely the Wolfpack offense will have to progress from ‘just don't screw it up' to ‘it's time to make plays.' The Pack gave up just 13 points per game over it's last six contests in 2005. Realistically, that can't be counted on in ‘06. With that in mind, this spring will be critical for Stone to mature both on the field and to establish himself as a leader. Like it or not, NC State will count on Stone to make plays next year and he'll have to if the Pack is to make a run at another bowl. He will have to spearhead an attack that can keep teams off balance with a passing game that compliments a sound running game. Stone will have to progress beyond simply not throwing a pick in crucial situations to making a critical completion on third and long to keep a drive alive. The good news is Trestman is one of the game's best teachers and the time he spends with Stone should pay big dividends between now and next fall. If the Pack is to be successful, those lessons will have to start today.