Who will emerge at quarterback?
James Henderson: At the end of the day, I think Mike Glennon will be NC State's starting quarterback in 2008.
Justin Burke and Harrison Beck appear to be out of the equation. In my opinion, starting Daniel Evans has no upside unless he is clearly better than Glennon or Russell Wilson. If Evans was clearly better, I don't think there would be much of a quarterback competition right now, given he was the incumbent coming into fall practice. I feel Evans would be perfect as a backup. He's got some experience. If one of the young guys is injured, he's familiar with the playbook and can come right in and try to make some plays. He has had some success in that role in the past.
That narrows it down to Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon... two freshmen. I believe at this point, if all things are equal, NC State's staff has to make a choice as to who they believe their future starter is at the position. If it is Wilson, then start him, let Evans back him up, and redshirt Glennon. If it is Mike Glennon, then start Glennon now and not worry about a redshirt. There is probably no reason to play Wilson for a year only to have another quarterback controversy next season if you think Glennon is ultimately the guy. If Glennon is as good as some people think, he's not going to be around as a redshirt senior anyways.
Take your lumps now and prepare for the future. NC State is being picked dead last in the Atlantic Division by nearly everyone. The Wolfpack could return 17 or 18 starters in 2009, so playing your future quarterback now makes a lot of sense so he can gain quality experience.
Look at North Carolina. Last season, the Heels could have easily started senior Joe Dailey but went with a freshman. Now instead of having quarterback be a major question mark for another year, UNC has an experienced guy in T.J. Yates who will be ready to go after playing in 2007.
I think NC State will do the same this year. It will be Wilson or Glennon, and I believe Glennon will emerge at quarterback. Either way, look for the Pack to go with a freshman.
Steve Williams: This is a really tough question because I don't know that the NC State coaching staff has this answered just yet. You have Daniel Evans who boasts the most experience. Harrison Beck has the strongest arm. Justin Burke had a solid showing in the spring. Russell Wilson is the most athletic. And then you have high school all-american Mike Glennon.
When State takes the field on August 28, I think Wilson will be the guy. He doesn't have game experience but he's been in the program for a year and has time learning Dana Bible's offense. Wilson's escapability could be an asset as the offensive line comes together and he is a rushing threat. When all is said and done, Wilson probably gives you the best combination of arm strength, leadership, knowledge of the offense and athleticism.
With all of that said, I still wouldn't rule Mike Glennon out of the equation. He is clearly the most physically gifted QB with a skill-set that meshes perfectly with NC State's pro-style attack. What he doesn't have is experience and negative plays can be a killer for a true freshman's confidence. However, should Wilson struggle during the season, it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see Glennon on the field.
Austin Johnson: Personally, I think Russell Wilson be the guy when it's all said and done this fall. He's got the athleticism and escapability that can turn a busted play into a net positive. While Evans and Beck have the experience, I just think Wilson gives you an upside that none of the other guys possess. Burke is still sort of an unknown at this point, and despite a good spring I don't believe he's going to jump out ahead of the other guys on this list.
As for super-freshman Mike Glennon, I just don't think there's a ton to gain by throwing him into the fire. But it's possible he shows up at camp this year, blows the other guys out of the water and displays that certain indefinable ‘it' factor to earn the job.
Will the offensive line play be better in 2008?
James: If the line can stay healthy, I do think their play will be better in 2008. NC State returns five players who have started multiple ACC games in seniors Curtis Crouch and Meares Green, juniors Julius Williams and Jeraill McCuller, and sophomore Jake Vermiglio. O'Brien moved Ted Larsen and John Bedics from defensive tackle to center and left guard respectively, and both players appear to be adjusting well as they are listed as the starters on the updated depth chart. The duo bring a definite upgrade athletically and also add a nastiness and much-needed depth.
Depth is a concern with the group. Behind the five returners, NC State doesn't have really anybody with much experience. Although the four-man freshman class is highly regarded, the quartet probably should redshirt for the future.
Overall, I think the top seven is a very solid group capable of being much-improved over last season. However, they must stay injury-free, and that has been a problem thus far during O'Brien's tenure.
Steve: If the Wolfpack is going to win six games and become bowl eligible then it better be. And the bottom line is, I think it will be better. In fact, this position group may be poised for the biggest improvement of any headed into the 2008 season.
Coach Don Horton is revered as one of the top offensive line coaches in the nation but still doesn't get the recognition he deserves for his history of producing NFL-caliber linemen. With a full year under his belt to evaluate his personnel, I believe Horton is going to put a much better product on the field this season.
Last season the Pack was woeful in the running game, ranking 110 in the nation at 89 yards rushing per game. If you want to point a finger at the origin of many of State's troubles on offense, the running game is an easy target. The line's play in pass protection wasn't great as they gave up 28 sacks but it also could've been worse.
Headed into the 2008 season the Pack is going to field at least five linemen that earned significant playing time last season. Junior OT Julian Williams was in for 554 snaps and started nine games. Junior OT Jerrail McCuller had 336 snaps last year and started the final four games of the year at right tackle. Sophomore Jake Vermiglio had three starts at offensive tackle and is now listed at guard. Senior OG Curtis Crouch tallied 611 snaps in 2007 while senior Meares Green was in for 727 plays and has the versatility to play OG/C/OT.
Add in defensive line converts Ted Larsen and John Bedics and the Pack boasts a minimum of seven players that could break into the rotation. When all is said and done this season I think we'll look back and see a rushing average and sacks allowed number that are much improved over 2007.
Austin: Yes, assuming relatively good health for the line, it will be better. Just being under the same offensive line coach, in the same system, for two straight years will make a great deal of difference for the offensive line. And they need to be, because the Pack needs to rely on a grind-it-out running game to take some of the pressure off its quarterback (whoever that may be).
The Pack also has the luxury of bringing back a lot of experience from last season's squad, with Julian Williams, Curtis Crouch, Meares Green, Jerrail McCuller and Jake Vermiglio all bringing starting experience to the team. I don't know that the line becomes a position of strength starting this season, but given O'Brien's track record I think the team is headed that direction.
Are any of the Wolfpack running backs capable of a breakout season?
James: All three upperclassmen are capable of having All-ACC seasons, but the questions around the line, quarterback play, and the depth at the position might prevent that from happening. Because NC State has a trio of above-average backs in Jamelle Eugene, Andre Brown, and Toney Baker (not to mention sophomore Curtis Underwood who is turning heads in fall camp), the Wolfpack will likely split carries during the season. That would prevent one back from posting the type of numbers needed to earn any all-conference honors.
Eugene proved last year that he was capable of being an above-average back when Brown and Baker went down, as he carried the Wolfpack's offense down the stretch by totaling 20+ carries in each of the Pack's four last-season wins.
Brown and Baker have flashed glimpses throughout their careers, but Baker is on the shelf for a while as he's rehabbing his knee. Brown will be a factor and he is arguably State's most explosive back. Keep an eye on Underwood as well.
With all that being said, even if none of the backs have a "breakout" year, the Pack should be in good shape at the position. It will all boil down to if there are holes for them to run through and a stable quarterback situation that will prevent opposing defenses from loading up in the box.
Steve: I would say any of the three top returners, Andre Brown, Jamelle Eugene and Toney Baker are capable. Interestingly, each of the trio brings a slightly different rushing style. However, for me I think Baker is poised for a big season. Obviously, that feeling is predicated on him returning completely from the knee injury that ended his season prematurely last year.
But from a talent standpoint, Baker is still one of the most talented, pure running backs I've ever scouted. You throw in his tireless work ethic and great personality and all the ingredients are there for a big year. If the offensive line can do their part to open creases then Baker could be a huge beneficiary.
Austin: Well this is an easy one. Baker, Brown and Eugene have all shown breakout ability at points in their careers. If the offensive line play improves (see above), then all of them are capable of putting up some gaudy numbers. I actually think Eugene remains the No. 1 guy all season however – if for no other reason than he's the only one who's shown an ability to stay healthy all season long.
Can NC State reverse the turnover problems that have plagued them in recent years?
James: Yes they can, but they must receive better quarterback and offensive line play for this to happen. Inconsistency at both positions has played a major role in the Wolfpack's recent turnover problems. With better line play, a quarterback has more time to go through his progressions and find the open receiver. However, even at times with good line play, the quarterbacks have made some bad decisions and attempted poor passes that led to turnovers.
NC State can reverse those problems, and I think they'll need to do so by developing a strong rushing game that will take some pressure off the quarterback. Having Anthony Hill back will help in the passing attack and on the ground, as he is a devastating blocker at the tight end position. Line him up beside possibly McCuller and Crouch, and NC State will have a lot of beef on the right side of the line. Look for the Pack to try and pound the ball this year with their tailbacks. Doing so will probably keep the offense in short-yardage situations and out of obvious passing downs, relieve some pressure on the quarterbacks, and keep the game close where attempting risky passes won't be necessary.
Also, the backs and receivers must do a good job of holding on to the football. Eugene did a great job of securing the ball last year and that's another reason he could end up the starter at tailback.
Steve: If you want to identify one area that has killed the Wolfpack over the past few years, it's been turnovers- specifically interceptions. The Pack gave up 23 picks last year and finished at No. 116 in the nation in turnover margin. In fact, only three schools were worse. When you consider this, it's amazing that the Pack eventually won five games.
It would be easy to blame the quarterback but that's only one facet behind State's turnover problem. The Pack fell victim to second and longs way too often which put them in predictable passing situations. They also played from behind in several games which made play calling more predictable. Equally important was State's inability to run the football which was the impetus behind nearly all of the Wolfpack's offensive woes.
The easy answer to this question is yes although admittedly it's hard to go anywhere but up when only three teams committed more turnovers. However, based on the belief that the NC State offensive line will be more productive in the run game, I think the Pack will make a huge jump up in turnover margin with the goal obviously to get on the plus side.
Austin: Some people much smarter than me have proven that fumble recoveries are a completely random event. In other words, being able to recover a ball once it touches the grass isn't really a skill – its luck. In that respect, the Pack has been remarkably unlucky the last few years, recovering well under half of its fumbles. In other words, the Pack is bound to do a better job in the fumble department this year. As for the interceptions, if the offensive line improves like I expect it to, then the quarterbacks will have more time to throw and should make better decisions, so less picks as well.
Are there any freshmen that could help out immediately?
James: I think a few freshmen could play in 2008. I expect all of the offensive linemen to redshirt, but look for Mike Glennon to potentially see the field at quarterback. Also, wide receiver T.J. Graham could play because of his ability to make plays in the return game. He has world-class speed and when he gets a crease you can go ahead and put six points on the board.
Other freshmen who could be factors include linebakers Sterling Lucas and William Beasley, and one of the young defensive backs (Earl Wolff, Akeem Cunningham, and C.J. Wilson), but those are all on the defensive side of the ball. A couple of these guys could play on special teams or at their positions to provide depth.
Offensively, I feel Glennon and Graham have the best chance to play in 2008.
Steve: Quite frankly, I think there's a decent chance that all the offensive freshmen will redshirt. As mentioned earlier, I believe Glennon could potentially see the field this year but outside of him, I think there's a decent chance that all the other freshmen redshirt.
Austin: Again, I don't know a ton about the fresh faces on the roster, but there isn't a glaring hole where you see an opportunity for a true freshman to steal playing time. Not seeing any freshman on the field on offense this season would be a good thing, because that means the team is staying pretty healthy.