Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither
After two years, head coach Tom O’Brien’s 11-14 record doesn’t look especially sterling, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made. A young and battered Pack team reeled off four straight regular season wins to close out the year, and might have won the bowl game had QB Russell Wilson not gotten injured. Plus, O’Brien’s philosophy, playbook, and expectations have had enough time to permeate down to every member of the roster. Strides are definitely being made, which means expectations are also about to get much higher than in recent seasons.
North Carolina State has become a trendy pick to make a lot waves in the ACC this year. And why not? In a wide-open Atlantic Division, Wake Forest and Boston College have proven that you don’t have to be Florida State any longer to compete for championships. Over the last nine regular season games, few teams in the league were playing crisper. The Pack went 5-4, sweeping the Tar Heel State and losing to three bowl-bound teams by a combined 19 points.
Wilson brings a swagger to the offense, and still has three years of eligibility remaining. On defense, the front seven alone could have three players, DE Willie Young, DT Alan-Michael Cash, and LB Nate Irving, in the NFL within two years. Even PK Josh Czajkowski is on the lip of the All-ACC cup. If the offensive line and the defensive backfield, the two glaring sore spots, can somehow overachieve, only another flood of injuries will keep this program from being one of the nation’s bigger surprises.
O’Brien was in this position once before when he was the head coach of Boston College. In 1997 and 1998, the Eagles were 4-7 both seasons. Ho-hum. After those two years, however, the program finished over .500 for eight straight years and won seven bowl games in-a-row. North Carolina State might be ready to start shadowing a similar trajectory.
What to look for on offense: Run blocking. There are a few knocks on this offense, but none bigger than its inability to create space for the backs. Tom O’Brien craves an attack that can run it between the tackles and play-action defenses to death. It’s hard to fool the opponent, however, when it’s constantly putting offensive linemen on their backs. Jamelle Eugene and Brandon Barnes are exciting players, who can bring a crowd to its feet with their shifty moves. Bulldozing Toney Baker appears to be back after a two-year hiatus. It’s up to the line to make sure that these runners get the room they need to give the offense the balance it requires.
What to look for on defense: The play of the secondary. If NC State is to indeed meet growing expectations, it absolutely, positively must step up and play better pass defense. The front seven should do its job, getting more pressure and continuing a trend of better run defense. However, the defensive backfield will be the target of every team until it can prove otherwise. And there should be no excuses for progress in 2009. There’s good, young talent, especially at the corners, and the schedule has just one opponent that ranked in the top 50 last year in passing efficiency.
This team will be much better if… it avoids injuries. For two years running, North Carolina State has been a weekly MASH unit, stifling the staff’s desire to develop any continuity or chemistry within the two-deep. Already strapped for depth, the Wolfpack was forced to use certain kids in 2008 before they were ready. Better health and a better start—the Pack is 3-7 over the last two Septembers—will have a ripple effect throughout the 2009 campaign.
The Schedule: September gets the non-conference season out of the way, and while the season opener against South Carolina will be tough, and Pitt won't be a layup, there are scrimmages against Murray State and Gardner-Webb to tune up. There's a trip to Wake Forest for the ACC opener, but that's the only road game in the first six weeks and it's one of just four away dates overall. On the downside, the three other road games are at Boston College, Florida State, and Virginia Tech. Playing Virginia Tech and North Carolina from the Coastal will be rough, but getting Duke at home makes up for it.
Best Offensive Player: Sophomore QB Russell Wilson. Can you say program-saver? North Carolina State had spent the past few seasons unsuccessfully searching for an heir apparent to Philip Rivers behind center. And then along came Wilson, a most unlikely candidate for the job. While just 5-11 and 208 pounds, he flourished as a rookie, running for yards, coming through in the clutch, and never making mistakes, en route to the All-ACC first team. A cool customer behind center, he brought instant stability and playmaking skills to an offense that had been pining for it.
Best Defensive Player: Senior DE Willie Young. Without a lot of notoriety, even within the ACC, Young has quietly been the Pack’s most consistent pass rusher over the last two seasons, racking up 28.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, and 50 quarterback pressures. Built more like an outside linebacker at 6-4 and 250 pounds, he’s just too quick for most opposing tackles, beating them to the edge and collapsing the pocket. With a fat NFL contract on the horizon, figure on plenty more people paying attention to him in 2009.
Key players to a successful season: The offensive guards. One of the biggest concerns heading into the season surrounds the development of a line that too often got mauled last fall. The Pack has ample skill position talent, but you might not know it if defenses are constantly winding up in the backfield. While there’s cautious optimism at center and the tackles, the guards are a mystery. On the left side, senior Julian Williams is moving inside from tackle, but always seems to be hurt. And on the right side, senior Andy Barbee is moving outside from center. If the offense is to get the most out of its resources, these two journeymen will need to have the best years of their careers.
The season will be a success if ... the Pack keeps the momentum going by winning eight regular season games. At this stage of the process, it’s all about moving forward and building up the talent base. With so many returning starters on both sides of the ball and a schedule that includes visits from Murray State and Gardner-Webb, North Carolina State should have no problem building on last year’s 6-7 mark.
Key game: Sept. 3 vs. South Carolina. Opening night. National TV. Steve Spurrier prowling the opposite sidelines. Yup, this will be an ideal opportunity for Tom O’Brien and his staff to showcase how far along the Pack has come in two seasons. No, the outcome of this game won’t have any bearing on the ACC race, but a high-profile win over an SEC opponent would be just the catapult that the program needs to kick-start the campaign.
2008 Fun Stats:
- Russell Wilson interceptions thrown: 1 in 275 attempts - Rest of Pack QBs: 13 in 117 attempts.
- Red zone TDs: NC State 27-44 (61%) - Opponents 24-50 (48%)
- Punt return average: NC State 8.3 yards - Opponents 5.8 yards
NOTE: Stay tuned this evening for coverage of the Wolfpack's first practice of the fall. Pack Pride will have player interviews, audio, video, photos and a report from the workout.