"Nothing is cast in stone until kickoff against Central Florida."
However, any good coach uses competition as motivation, and O'Brien appears to have targeted the cornerback position as a group that needs a fire lit beneath them. The depth chart featured redshirt junior Jeremy Gray and junior J.C. Neal as the starters, with redshirt senior Jimmie Sutton III – who has a 10-game starting streak, the third-longest such streak on the squad – tumbling all the way to third-string. When asked whether Sutton's demotion reflected on-field performance or off-field considerations, O'Brien said, "I don't want to discuss that."
The most logical reason for the changes atop the cornerback depth chart is NC State's shift from man-to-man coverage to more zone principles. Gray (6-2, 186 pounds) and Neal (6-0, 191) are bigger than corner candidates Sutton (5-11, 181), redshirt senior Phillip Holloman (5-11, 194) and junior Levin Neal (5-11, 191). O'Brien said that Gray and Neal are "good-sized kids" and emphasized the importance of strength and tackling in the run support that is crucial to successful zone coverage. He pinpointed run support as an aspect of defense that State's cornerbacks have to adjust to since they haven't been asked to do it as much in previous Wolfpack defenses.
There weren't many surprises on the rest of the depth chart, with some expected changes reflected along the offensive line. As expected, redshirt senior left guard Kalani Heppe, redshirt senior center Luke Lathan and junior right guard Curtis Crouch comprise the core of the offensive front, but a couple of youngsters will get their first shot at pinning down the tackle spots. Redshirt sophomore Jerraill McCuller is listed ahead of redshirt senior Garrett Kline at right tackle, while redshirt sophomore Julian Williams has the edge on redshirt junior Meares Green in protecting the quarterback's blind spot at left tackle.
O'Brien said that Williams turned some heads in spring drills, and he's counting on the youngster to do the same when fall camp arrives.
"He had a nice spring, and he looks like the kind of player who can handle that position," said O'Brien. "Obviously, that's a key spot, and you need one of your better athletes there. Hopefully, he can be that guy for us."
So who's blind spot will Williams be protecting? The latest depth chart yielded no hints, as redshirt junior Daniel Evans, redshirt sophomore Harrison Beck and redshirt freshman Justin Burke were listed as co-starters at the signal-caller position. O'Brien said that the quarterbacks need to put in the "physical work" this summer, while also improving their "knowledge bank" by getting into the film room to review spring practice tape and Boston College film from last year. He noted that watching tape of the Boston College-NC State game from 2006 will help them "to understand what Coach Bible is trying to get them to do." The coach lauded the intelligence of all the signal-callers and said that the competition will benefit from the fact that they all passionately yearn to start.
"It's important to them all," said O'Brien, "and that's key."
At tailback, juniors Toney Baker and Andre Brown are also shown as co-starters. While both players will be pushed by redshirt sophomore Jamelle Eugene, O'Brien put all his ball-carriers on notice that coughing up the ball will not be tolerated.
"There's no excuse for fumbling the football," O'Brien said, "and we don't accept any excuse for fumbling the football."
The Pack has been dogged by losing the turnover battle in recent years, and O'Brien highlighted the importance of ball security. He followed the advice of mentor and former Virginia coach George Welsh by installing a defensive drill geared toward enhancing the fundamentals of both protecting and stripping the football.
"Coach Welsh always said, ‘If you want to accomplish something, make a drill for it,'" said O'Brien.
Elsewhere, the only other minor revelations were redshirt senior Littleton Wright ahead of redshirt sophomore Willie Young at left end and redshirt sophomore Alan Michael-Cash over redshirt junior John Bedics at defensive tackle.
As O'Brien pointed out, any depth chart released in mid-June is about as useful as a kicker's facemask. However, you can trust that players in the Pack secondary and along the offensive line have received messages that they'll need to consider closely as they prepare for the 2007 season.
*** When asked about any plans for shifting from a base 4-3 formation to a 3-4 alignment on defense, O'Brien offered a unique perspective on how the recruiting trail can affect such decisions.
"We have to see where recruiting takes us," said the coach. "This team is set up to be a 4-3 team … that's the personnel that's here.
"There are a couple of prospects in recruiting that we're looking at as 3-4 linebackers … and [recruiting] will dictate whether we go 4-3 or 3-4 [in the future]."
*** Speaking of recruiting, O'Brien said that the high school coaches around the state have been "tremendously receptive" and "fabulous in their response" to his new staff. He revealed that he had divided North Carolina into nine pieces and assigned them to his assistants, mandating that every high school in the state was visited. That mission was accomplished, with O'Brien estimating that he himself had visited 25 to 50 of the schools personally. Along the way, he said that some coaches in North and South Carolina and Virginia remembered O'Brien from his days as an assistant with the Cavaliers and from various coaching clinics – "when I was a lot younger," he said with a chuckle. Perhaps giving some hint as to how important Virginia will eventually become to State's efforts, O'Brien said that he "had the beach" as a Wahoo coach, and that "I spent all my life in Tidewater."
As far as 40-yard-dash speeds go, as expected, O'Brien doesn't put a whole lot of stock in them.
"Every year I do this, the times seem to get a little faster and a little lower," he said.
With so many camps and combines to keep track of, the coach said that the factor that is missing when judging times and measurables is consistency – having the same people do all the timing. O'Brien and his staff never paid much attention to recruiting rankings at Boston College, and that isn't expected to change in Raleigh.
"Star ratings are only good for restaurants," he said with a grin.
*** When dining out, O'Brien is still visiting restaurants in the Boston area. He'll finally move down to Raleigh in mid-July, and many of his assistants are in the same boat. He pointed out making the transition as a key point for the staff this offseason. NC State has camps for the next two weeks, then the coaches will have a vacation period.
During the times he has been in Raleigh, O'Brien said that enthusiasm has been great when he's attended Wolfpack Club meetings. He said his message to boosters has been "we're going to be a good football team and a good football program." He promised them that he would follow the blueprint he implemented at Boston College, echoing a statement he's repeatedly made during his short time as the Pack's head man.
"We're going to be champions in the community, champions in the classroom and champions on the field," he said.
*** When asked about the challenges surrounding a return to Boston College as State's first road game, O'Brien pointed out that, when Welsh left Navy for Virginia and took O'Brien and other assistants, their first game the following year was in Annapolis – against Navy.
"I'm sure it's going to be a strange feeling," he said, before adding with a smile, "but it'll be good to get it over with."
O'Brien added that NC State's schedule is set through the length of his contract, so he has no say in scheduling at this point.
*** Comparing taking over at Boston College vs. taking over at NC State, O'Brien suggested that the opportunity to win early was much better with the Wolfpack.
"We're in better position to undertake this challenge," said O'Brien. "We're in a better situation in terms of personnel and the coaching staff.
O'Brien pointed out that he was able to bring six assistants and two strength coaches with him to Raleigh, compared to starting from scratch with a staff in Boston. He also said that with the suspensions and restrictions imposed in the wake of the gambling scandal at Boston College before he took over, there were "not enough bodies" and they had to turn to walk-ons extensively.
*** In the third week of May, O'Brien took a trip to Portugal to participate in a "golf excursion" with seven of his classmates from the Naval Academy's Class of 1971. The reunion has become a staple, with the friends visiting in Ireland in 2003 and 2005 and slated to meet up in Ireland or Scotland in 2009. The "estrogen-free" trips – in O'Brien's words – became more important when one of the members of the class was killed on 9/11. Charles "Chick" Burlingame was a pilot for American Airlines when the plane he was flying was crashed into the Pentagon. O'Brien, a 17-handicap on the links, said he told athletics director Lee Fowler that the week off in May was a "dealbreaker" during contract negotiations, highlighting the importance he places on the friendship and camaraderie.
*** Place O'Brien in the group of coaches who is happy to see the infamous "clock rules" from last year eliminated. Calling himself a "traditionalist," he said that thought it best to "keep the rules the same" in football.
"I thought it took a little bit away from the game," said O'Brien of last year's rules.
*** O'Brien pointed to the 85-scholarship limit as the reason that parity has arrived in college football, paving the way for the Wake Forests of the world to make amazing runs. He said he had predicted Wake Forest as a surprise team prior to last year because of their senior-laden roster and strong coaching staff.
"The time of dynasties [is] over," said O'Brien. Don't tell Florida.
*** So what is the biggest challenge facing O'Brien and his staff heading into fall camp? Organization.
O'Brien pointed out that there have been only a handful of situations that they have been able to expose the NC State student-athletes to thus far. Declaring that things are easy when everyone's undefeated, the coach is looking forward to testing the character and resolve of his players this fall.
"We're going to hit turbulent waters at some point," said O'Brien. "We have to find out who's going to bail and who's going to stay in the boat … we have to find out who is mentally tough enough to withstand that time."
The biggest source of optimism for O'Brien appears to be the constitution of his assistants and the faith he puts in them.
"I couldn't be happier with the staff I have," he said. "They will be great for NC State."