Camp O'Brien: Tight End a Concern?

RALEIGH, N.C. -- NC State lost a big-time player when it was announced that star tight end Anthony Hill would miss the season with a torn ACL.

Anthony Hill, who earlier in the summer was named to the preseason ‘watch' list for the John Mackey Award, was a second-team All-ACC selection in 2006 after leading the Wolfpack in receptions with 45.

NC State tight ends coach Jim Bridge knows that it is a big loss, but the team has to move on and can't focus on who won't be able to play.

"The first thing is you have to be concerned for Anthony and his health and make sure that he is taken care of first," said Bridge. "Once you know Anthony is in the appropriate hands of the best doctors possible for him and his future, you realize that the good news is we still get to play with 11 guys. We don't have to play with 10. I feel confident that the guys we have will step to the plate and respond to the challenge."

With that being said, losing Hill is a major loss. He is one of the top tight ends in the country and a sure-fire NFL prospect. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Hill is a dominating blocker and a reliable receiver. How good of a blocker is Hill? In 2005, he set a new NC State record for tight ends with eight knockdown blocks in NC State's victory at Florida State.

"The sky is the limit for him."
He ranked fifth in the league with 3.75 receptions per game a year ago and was NC State's most experienced returning player on offense – tallying 1,038 snaps for his career. He has played in 27 career contests and started 20.

NC State's offense will certainly benefit from him returning in 2008 as a fifth-year senior after redshirting this fall.

"The sky is the limit for him," said Bridge. "I think he needs to rehab and prepare himself to have a great year next year. That's the key.

"I think he's an exceptional tight end, and I think he has a chance to be on eof the best in the country. He's strong, he's physical, he plays fast, and he's got a quick body. Regardless of whether or not he had knee surgery, Anthony Hill has a tremendous future. He's that good."

What most may not realize is just how important the tight end position is to offensive coordinator Dana Bible's pro-style offense.

NC State will use the tight end all over the field, in two-tight end sets, flexed out as a wide receiver, or even as a fullback/h-back lined up in the backfield.

"Our tight ends will play all of the above," said Bridge. "We have even had formations, on first and ten, where we have had four tight ends in the game. Our tight end is the most complete position on our offense.

"We always say, besides our quarterback, that the most critical position for us to be good at is at tight end. They will be obviously block like offensive linemen, they will be fullbacks for us, they will be wide receivers... they will be everything. We will line them up tight, wide, split, in the backfield, on the line of scrimmage... it's kind of a jack-of-all-trades position for us. I believe that is why players who have had success in this offense have proven they can be pro players as well."

"Marcus is a guy that
understands offensive football."

Now the Wolfpack will look to a group of talented, but inexperienced players to fill Hill's important role in the offense.

The starter is expected to be Marcus Stone, a redshirt senior who moved to tight end late last season after spending his entire career at quarterback. He tallied four catches in 25 snaps at tight end in 2006, and he followed that with a stellar spring that saw him pull down three touchdowns in spring scrimmages.

"Being a quarterback, Marcus is a guy that understands offensive football," stated Bridge. "So a transition for Marcus to any position is going to be a little easier than maybe the average footabll player.

"His transition was good. Now it comes down to his ability to adapt to the position. The biggest thing we've got to make sure Marcus can do is really mix it up. If Marcus can mix it up he'll have a very, very good senior year."

Stone will need to add some weight to be able to "mix it up," and reports indicate he has done that this summer. After playing as a quarterback around 225-230 pounds, Stone is now listed at 6-foot-2 and 239 pounds, although he claims to be closer to 250 pounds entering fall practice.

"He is bigger and stronger," said Bridge. "Obviously when you play a position on the line of scrimmage you have to be a physical football player. One thing about Marcus is he's a very tough kid. He's taken his share of abuse both physically and emotionally, and that only makes Marcus a very strong individual."

Although Stone has received the most hype entering the fall because of his offensive capabilities, redshirt sophomore Matt Kushner is the Pack's most experienced returning tight end. The 6-foot-4, 256-pounder saw action in all 12 games in 2006, including starts against Akron and Clemson. He played 104 snaps, but didn't catch a pass as the tough Kushner, an offensive lineman in high school and a converted defensive end, is known more of for his blocking ability.

"I think Kush has a chance to have a real good career here," Bridge stated. "He is a very, very tough individual. We need to develop consistency with him, but he's a very tough kid. I think he's got a bright future."

Because Rashad Phillips is still sidelined due to injuries sustained from a car accident, the Pack will likely lean on two incoming players for depth at the position. Freshman George Bryan and junior college transfer R.J. Armstrong will also be competing for playing time.

"George has got a big body,
which bodes well to what we're
going to do at that position."

Bryan had an outstanding prep career at Wilmington (NC) New Hanover, and at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds he physically could contribute despite being a true freshman.

"George has got a big body, which bodes well to what we're going to do at that position," Bridge stated. "George played a wide receiver-type of tight end in high school. He seems to be well-rounded enough to fit in with what we're trying to do at that position. I'm excited to be his coach. I'm excited about his future."

Armstrong enrolled after spending two years at Butler Community College. A late-addition to the Pack's 2007 recruiting class, he was signed in hopes of giving the Wolfpack another option at a position of need.

"We've got an immediate need for help at the tight end position," said Bridge. "It's a targeted position from a recruiting standpoint, and it is such an important part of our offense. We don't feel we have the appropriate tight end depth on this roster.

"R.J. was available, and we found R.J. to be a very suitable competitor... a very suitable prospect for what we want and need out of the position."

Due to the lack of depth, NC State is making it a priority to sign tights ends in the 2008 class. The Wolfpack has a commitment from Charlotte (NC) Independence standout Mario Carter, and continues to pursue Fayetteville (NC) Terry Sanford star Dwayne Allen, a consensus four-star prospect. Bridge cannot comment on specific recruits, but he is able to express what they look for when searching for tight ends on the recruiting trail.

"We're looking for the right fit for our football team and our locker room," said Bridge. "After we believe that individual is the right fit and the right student, then we look at his ability to be a line of scrimmage tight end and the ability to be a guy who can stretch the field vertically.

"Basically what we're looking for when we recruit is a future pro, and we've had great success with that in this offense at Boston College in year's past. It seems like most of the tight ends that have played this position have gone on to have pro careers because of how we use the tight end and how important the tight end is to our offense. For lack of other ways to describe it, we're looking for a pro."

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