When asked to name the strengths of this year's team, NC State head coach Tom O'Brien mentioned how crucial it is that the current players know what to expect from the second-year coach and his staff.
"I think the thing we have going for us is we've been together for a year," said O'Brien. "I have the same staff that I started with a year ago, and I think our football team is more in-tune with what we're trying to accomplish on the football field and off the football field.
"Everybody is on the same page... I think that's the biggest thing. Last year it took a good amount of time for us to get to know each other, and I think we're way ahead of where we were a year ago, understanding what we want to get accomplished."
After losing several senior contributors to graduation, depth at all positions remains the big concern for the Wolfpack.
"As far as question marks," said O'Brien. "I think anytime you're in a situation we're in where you lose 18 seniors like we did, there's going to be some concern about depth... building depth in the program where we can withstand 12 games. Those are my major concerns right now, where the depth is coming from."
Quarterback Battle Looms
NC State returns starting quarterback Daniel Evans, but he missed spring practice with a shoulder injury. Evans will battle Justin Burke, Harrison Beck, Russell Wilson, and incoming freshman Mike Glennon for the starting job.
"Daniel was not able to participate in spring practice," O'Brien stated. "He has a lot of experience under his belt, and we have to give him every opportunity to do what he can do and be the quarterback.
"He has a lot
under his belt."
"One of the things that the injury allowed us to do in the spring was take a long, hard look at Russell Wilson who is a pretty talented freshman. He did an excellent job this spring."
"We had a great performance out of Justin Burke in the spring game... the second half of the spring game," added O'Brien. "We will look at Mike Glennon, the freshman coming in, who is certainly a talented individual."
A decision from O'Brien on his starting quarterback will likely not come until the week of the South Carolina opener. Naming the starter is a big decision, and O'Brien feels you shouldn't do so until the choice is obvious.
"As we all recognize up here, it's a very important decision," said O'Brien. "It's a decision you don't want to make until you're certainly ready to make the decision. It's certainly not where you want to be in the second year in a program, but it's where we are and what we have to face.
"We'll do as good a job as we can in preseason practice. I think six weeks from tonight we'll be in Columbia playing."
Coaches Oppose Playoff System
All three Division-IA head coaches seemed strongly against a playoff system in college football.
"Being fortunate to go to many, many bowls as people up here have," said O'Brien. "What's happened now, when you cut the scholarships to 85, by the end of the year after 12 games, you have some severe injury problems.
"In some cases, we wouldn't have been able to play in a first round of a playoff after our 12th game of the year. After you play your 12th game, you're going into exams... it's a great time of the year to get healthy, get back in the books, and make sure that everybody is going to be eligible to go to the bowl game and be able to stay in school.
"Until we get three or four teams undefeated throughout the year, I don't think it's going to be a real issue with a lot of coaches."
A bigger issue for O'Brien seemed to be the fact that college football hasn't granted players five years of eligibility. With the limited scholarships and mounting injuries, being able to play freshmen in spot situations without essentially burning a year of eligibility would be an added advantage.
"Why in the world they won't let football have a fifth year of eligibility where you can plug in some of these young guys to play and help you... I think is a bigger issue for us right now as football coaches then being able to play in a national championship."
Potential Transfer To Starter
Pack fans may not know it until now, but redshirt junior Jamelle Eugene was close to leaving NC State before the start of the 2007 season.
"It's a great story," said O'Brien. "He's a young man who about this time last year came to me and was talking about transferring. He didn't think he was going to have an opportunity to be the tailback. He was looking at Toney Baker and Andre Brown.
|"It's a great story."|
"I said Jamelle, just be patient. It's tough to be patient as a 19, 20-year old kid wanting to be on the football field."
The Pack's third-string tailback before the season opener, Eugene was the starter by midseason and played a huge role in the Wolfpack's late-season turnaround. "He got there awful fast," said O'Brien. "By the third quarter of the first game he was No. 2 and moved up to No. 1 by the sixth game of the year."
Eugene finished the year rushing for nearly 700 yards with three 100-yard outings, including a 159-yard, three-touchdown performance against rival North Carolina.
With Baker and Brown expected to be 100% by fall practice, Eugene remains the starter.
He's going to start out as the starter. He finished the year as the starter, he went through spring practice, and I think he's got a lot better. He'll start, and with Andre and Toney we'll figure out where we go from there."
How Good Can You Be?
Coach O'Brien's final question was short and seemed simple. How good can you be?
"That's an interesting question," replied O'Brien. "I haven't thought of that one yet. I'm just trying to get through the South Carolina game. One thing about the college football season, we have 12 tests to take and our first one comes in six weeks.
"One thing I learned from George Welsh is you better go one week at a time because that's the team you have and that's the team you're going to coach... our goal is to be the best team we can each and every game and at the end of the year we'll add them up. I think that hopefully we'll get back on the right track and have more wins than losses at the end of the year."
"We have to put our football team together," added O'Brien. "Obviously, midway through last year there was a direct turn in our program, and I think from that point everything has been positive and on the up-slope."
O'Brien, who recently spent a week at his summer house in Charleston, South Carolina, knows that it's difficult to say what your record will be before the season is over, even if some media writers seem to think otherwise.
"I was in Charleston... and the local newspaper was going through Clemson and South Carolina's schedule," O'Brien stated. "I know we don't have a chance in those two games after reading their weekly breakdown. They've got their whole season already figured out. It's absurd to try to sit here and say what we're going to be after 12 games."
"We were the bottom of the barrel last year in rushing offense," said O'Brien. "We had great backs, but certainly the offensive line wasn't where we expected it to be. Moving Ted Larsen and John Bedics I think will help our offensive line. It gives us a little more depth and a little more athleticism.
"It's the same thing. If you look at the early tape, we're blowing assignments and going the wrong way. We're not making those same mistakes as a year ago."
O'Brien signed memorabilia
following the event.
"I look forward to it," he said. "I think it's a good game for our program. It's always nice to be the first game on national TV... to see where we were and how far we've come in a year. I think it's exciting for the football team. There's a little more attention being paid to this game because of the opponent and the stage we're on.
"We've always done better when we played a big game first. I think it makes your spring practice, your offseason... everything is much more important. I think it makes preseason camp much more important."
"We lost a lot of guys," said O'Brien. "We didn't stop the run. That's the priority on defense right now, stop the run and then get off the field on third down. We talked last year, the first six games, a third of our plays were bad. Either missed assignments, missed tackles, or missed alignments.
"We cut down on that greatly the second half of the year and through spring practice we should even be better at those things. Now hopefully we'll be aligned right, in the right spot, and it's going to come down to who is the better player."