Six games into the Wolfpack's 13-game season, Sterling Hicks and Dovonte Edwards have emerged as much-needed complements to Brian Peterson and Jericho Cotchery. Part the stellar group of four wide receivers in 2001's recruiting class, both wideouts have stepped up this season and contributed to a more balanced and dangerous passing attack.
Entering last season, NC State welcomed Hicks, Edwards, Fred Span and Chris Murray to its receiving corps. Each arrived full of accolades and enough talent to potentially become the next Torry Holt or Koren Robinson.
The 6-0, 174 lb. Edwards starred at Chapel Hill High, and was the lone recruit among the group not from Florida. He quickly distinguished himself on football field, however. By the time the 2001 season began, Edwards had moved ahead of the other three on the depth chart, and went on to become a key contributer in some of the Pack's biggest games.
Coach Amato and receivers coach Doc Holliday plucked the 6-2, 184 lb. Hicks out of Ely High School in Pompano Beach, FL, despite competition from Miami, Florida, Michigan and many powerhouses. Perhaps the most heralded of the incoming receiving quartet, Hicks struggled somewhat early on, but soon showed signs of meeting the hype that surrounded him. As 2001 progressed, Hicks steadily received more playing time, and finished the season leading the team with an average of 16.6 yards per catch.
This season, Hicks and Edwards have each already caught 17 and 11 passes respectively, compared to just 12 and 11 catches for all of last season. With Willie Wright or Ray Robinson no longer available for Philip Rivers to look to, Hicks and Edwards have found more passes thrown their way, and the ability of each to make plays has put enough pressure on opposing secondaries to allow Cotchery and Peterson to stretch the field for long gains. Cotchery leads the team in receptions so far with 20, several of which have been of the field-stretching variety, including 49-yd and 72-yd grabs against Texas Tech, and a 50-yd score against New Mexico. Peterson leads the team with five touchdown receptions, including scores against Navy of 64 and 88 yards. With the ball distribution more even across the ends, Cotchery and Peterson have increased their average yards per catch by an astonishing ten yards each, raising the team's average yards per catch from 10.9 last season to 15.7 this year.
After coming on strong late last year, Edwards started 2002 hobbled by a knee injury and Hicks found himself with a few more snaps. Hicks responded to the opportunity, and led the Pack with five receptions against New Mexico. Though he squandered some great scoring opportunities with a few badly dropped passes, Rivers stuck with Hicks, because he just kept getting open. His ability to make extremly sharp and quick cuts has enabled him to split seams in zone coverage or easily shake the opponent's third defensive back. It has seemed that most of his catches have been between the hash marks, but yet with no defender within five yards of him. His seven catches against Texas Tech again led the team, and helped draw enough attention to spring Cotchery free for 145 receiving yards on the day.
Like Hicks, Edwards has had little difficulty beating an opponent's reserve cornerbacks or finding gaps in coverage. One of the fastest players on the team, Edwards has used his superior speed and leg strength to beat defenses, on more than one occasion turning a five yard crossing route into a 15-yard first down. He is beginning to return to last year's form, and has steadily made a couple grabs each game since missing the opener. Perhaps known best for being tackled by Carter-Finley's goalpost after a score against UNC last year, Edwards raised fans' expectations after catching eight passes against Pitt in the Tangerine Bowl last season. That performance provided a glimpse of the team's depth at wideout, something that would play a much more significant role this season.
After losing the team's receptions leader in Robinson and its touchdowns catches leader in Wright, the complexion of the passing game would have to change for 2002. The success of that change would hinge on which members of the Packs' talented receiving corps could rise to the occasion, and so far Hicks and Edwards have done so with ease. Aiding in this transition has been a solid ground game. The offensive line has given Rivers plenty of time, holding defenses to only five sacks this year, and T.A. McClendon has helped introduce a powerful running game to keep defenses honest. As a result, the offense has transformed itself into a game-breaking quick-strike threat, quite different from the first down-oriented passing game fans grew accustomed to last year.