Looking For A Break

This feature story is from the January 2010 issue of the Pack Pride Magazine and focuses on NC State's 2009 football team. To learn more about our publication and how to subscribe, click on the link inside ...

This feature story is from the January 2010 issue of the Pack Pride Magazine that is currently shipping to subscribers. CLICK HERE to learn more about the publication!

Looking For A Break

A Seemingly Never-Ending Series Of Injuries Has Led To A Lack of Experience, Consistency, Continuity, Competition And Depth For A Depleted Wolfpack

Pack Pride Magazine
January 2010
WORDS: Scott Vogelsberg
PHOTOS: Jason Cole, Jeff Reeves

As Veterans Day dawned and the birthday of the Marine Corps was celebrated in November, one former Marine was working tirelessly to get his troops on track. NC State coach Tom O'Brien had his Pack sitting with an admittedly disappointing 4-5 record, lamenting a season stymied—once again—by injuries and attrition.

The coach was searching for any and all answers, refusing to stop until he found the solution. And like the Marine he was and always will be, O'Brien was even willing to jump on the proverbial grenade if he thought it would help the Wolfpack turn its luck around.

"It's got to end sometime before I die here," he said of the injuries that have struck his program during his three years in Raleigh. "I'll take a hit for the team if it keeps somebody else healthy."

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the repeated injuries is that State was devastated by the injury situation a season ago. Yet, the injury situation has gotten worse and worse since O'Brien arrived, instead of getting better as expected. In O'Brien's first year, 13 starters missed a total of 44 games; last season, 13 starters missed a total of 75 contests. The hope was that the rotten luck would turn as the NC State players got another year of experience in the strength and conditioning program implemented by director Todd Rice.

"We thought it was bad last year," said O'Brien, "and it's three times as bad this year … We thought we had it bad last year when we had four guys out for the season."

So how bad has it gotten for O'Brien and the Pack? Incredibly, State has lost a staggering 12 players to season-ending injuries, creating what has been described by the program's media relations department as an "almost insurmountable obstacle" to success.

"On top of everything else, injuries have been an equal-opportunity offender for the Wolfpack. No position group has gone unscathed."

In more than three decades as a coach, O'Brien has seen just about everything there is to see in the game of football—but even he has never seen the sheer number of debilitating setbacks that have struck the State program. In fact, during the Pack's bye week midway through the year, the coach was asked about the situation before two more players were lost for the campaign.

"I don't know of any college football team that's had a situation where they've had 10 guys out for the year, especially halfway through the year, which is where we are," he said. "Going back and looking at what we did at BC, I don't know if we had 10 guys in five or six years total there."

On top of everything else, injuries have been an equal-opportunity offender for the Wolfpack. No position group has gone unscathed.

At quarterback, true freshman Everett Proctor was lost in fall camp due to a lingering shoulder injury. At running back, redshirt freshman fullback Colby Jackson suffered a setback to a knee injury originally suffered during his senior season of high school, while true freshman halfback James Washington also saw his rookie season end thanks to a knee injury after a promising start.

In the wide receiving corps, T.J. Graham, one of the league's most dangerous kick returners, sustained a stress fracture in his leg, ending his sophomore season prematurely. Among the tight ends, highly touted redshirt freshman Mario Carter—one of the stars of State's Red-White Spring Game—was lost in fall camp to a knee injury. Like Jackson, Carter had also suffered a major knee injury as a high-schooler, prior to his senior year.

Along the offensive line, redshirt freshman guard R.J. Mattes was emerging as one of the bright spots of this year before he sustained a major knee injury midway through the campaign, ending his season and casting his 2010 availability in doubt. True freshman Denzelle Good was shut down in fall camp due to a shoulder injury. As a result, NC State had to trot out four different starting offensive lines in the first nine games.

On the other side of the ball, the situation was even more dire. Through nine games, six different defensive starters had missed a total of 27 games for the Pack, including three lost for the season. O'Brien and defensive coordinator Mike Archer had to shuffle the deck constantly, with eight different starting lineups in the first nine contests.

"T.J. Graham, one of the league's most dangerous kick returners, sustained a stress fracture in his leg, ending his sophomore season prematurely."

The most damaging and severe injury occurred during the summer, when redshirt junior linebacker Nate Irving—considered the best player on the team by the State coaching staff—was involved in a horrific one-car accident. Irving suffered a collapsed lung, a separated shoulder, broken rib and compound fracture in his leg, and frankly, he emerged from the wreck very fortunate to be alive.

Irving was an honorable-mention All-ACC selection after an injury-plagued 2008 regular season, and losing him for the year impacted the Wolfpack on a number of levels. Not only was Irving one of the only established playmakers on the squad, but he also served as the unit's emotional and inspirational leader, and his loss sent shock waves through the entire NC State community.

Also at linebacker, true freshman Ryan Cheek was immediately ruled out for the year in fall camp due to a hip injury. Along the defensive line, redshirt sophomore Jeff Rieskamp tried to fight his way through a sports hernia, but was eventually deemed out for the season after not seeing a down of action this year. He had emerged as a key member of the line rotation last year, thanks to a non-stop motor and a high-energy style.

In the secondary, true freshman Rashard Smith wasted no time in establishing himself as a vital contributor right away at cornerback. He eventually grabbed a starting job as a rookie, but suffered a knee injury and was lost for the campaign—even more damaging considering he, like Washington, narrowly missed the cutoff date to be considered for a medical redshirt.

Over at safety, a significant problem spot for State the past couple of years, one-time starter Javon Walker never stopped working to get back on the playing field in the wake of a knee injury originally suffered in 2007. The redshirt junior missed all of the 2008 season, and after repeated setbacks with the knee every time he tried to practice, Walker eventually saw not only his year end, but sadly, his entire career.

The situation in the defensive backfield was worsened and complicated by three offseason defections. Cornerbacks Domonique Ellis—a probably starter—and Akeem Cunningham left the program, as did safety Jimmaul Simmons, an important veteran reserve. The end result of the injuries and attrition has been that State has had to start five different freshmen in the secondary during the course of the campaign.

"Where it has hurt us the most is certainly the secondary," admitted O'Brien. "We had [three] defections coming into the year … guys who left the program who would have figured into where we are.

"That takes away all the consistency and continuity you want to have. It destroys the continuity of what we're trying to get done week in and week out. As a position coach, you're out there coaching a guy, you're working hard to get him better and all of a sudden he's gone and you have to do it again with someone else.

"That is the biggest situation, is the continuity and the consistency in this program for three years … The injuries, again, have just magnified all the problems that we've had. It has tripled them, quadrupled them or whatever."

In addition to the ramifications on continuity and consistency, the staggering number of physical ailments has forced O'Brien to change his approach to building the foundation of the program.

Instead of redshirting as many freshmen as possible, he has had to play seven true freshmen in 2009—the most he has ever played in his coaching career.

"We would still like to keep the redshirts on all the freshmen because that's best for the future, but the future is now," said O'Brien.

Because the foundation of NC State football has not yet been built in O'Brien's third year, the program is in no condition to withstand the volume of injuries that have been sustained. The only solution O'Brien knows is to stay the course and trust that the building blocks he's erecting will be strong enough to life up the Pack over time.

"When you're in the situation we are … we're not an established program," he said. "If we were here 10 years, [12 players out for the season] would still be a big number, but it wouldn't affect us the way it does now because of the lack of depth, lack of experience and everything else that comes with continuity within the program."

The resulting inexperience has hampered on-field performance, with players who might not be ready for primetime forced into action. In all, 32 players have seen their first action this season in the Red and White. That number is especially damaging on defense, where 17 of the 22 players on the two-deep depth chart are in either their first or second year playing under O'Brien.

Considering that level of inexperience, it's not surprising that the Wolfpack has struggled mightily on that side of the ball in 2009. When you have young players who are unsure of their assignments, the result is a unit that plays slower and more hesitant—a recipe for disaster against ACC foes.

"Defense isn't as easy as you think it is," said O'Brien. "Different personnel, different formations … everything changes. There are different calls and there are different forces and coverages and things you have to react to.

"We thought we had it bad last year when we had four guys out for the season."

"Recognition is the key to playing defense. If you are not sure what your responsibility is, what your assignment is, where you are supposed to line up, you can't execute the defense. That's been a major problem for a lot of things that we have done.

"You play faster when you understand what you're doing. It's not a question of flat-out speed; it's a question of playing fast within the scheme of things. The more you understand and the more comfortable you are, the faster you execute. That's generally the problem with young kids."

And with the numbers dwindling rapidly on a seemingly weekly basis, another effect has been the lack of competition in practice. Any coach will tell you that one of the many benefits of depth is that it forces spirited back-and-forth in practice, with intense battles for starting jobs and playing time resulting in the cream rising to the top. Players are forced to either elevate their games or see their snaps decrease.

Take the case of redshirt freshman cornerback C.J. Wilson. The promising youngster played 64 snaps in the season opener against South Carolina, but with some expected struggles early on, saw his snaps drop to just 92 over the next six games. The State staff would have loved nothing more than to slow Wilson's learning curve by allowing him to get some on-the-job training here and there, watching more veteran players on game day and boosting his play in practice.

Instead, a series of injuries and inconsistency at the corner spot led to Wilson's ascension to the starting job at Florida State, where he played 62 snaps. O'Brien admitted that Wilson perhaps wasn't ready to handle the starting reins quite yet—but the squad had no choice.

"He's all we have left," O'Brien said matter-of-factly of Wilson. "That's who we are; we are who we are."

Yet another by-product of the lack of depth created by injury upon injury is that, since quality reserves are nowhere to be found, some players are forced to play many more snaps than they should be. Tired players can be a step late to the ball, can lose focus on reading keys and can lose the fractions of a second that can make such a huge difference between making a play and getting burned.

In addition, because they are needed on so many scrimmage snaps, top-level players that could be difference-makers on special teams simply can't be used in the third phase for fear of burning them out. And the irony is that an exhausted player is more prone to injury—which only adds to the vicious cycle that appears to be inflicting the Wolfpack.

On the plus side, there appear to be two developments that portend a brighter future in Raleigh. First, though young players are certainly taking their lumps as they learn in the bright lights and on the big stage, the trial by fire should pay off in experience next season and beyond. And second, though the criticism has been harsh and expectations haven't been met, O'Brien's players and coaches haven't flinched; they haven't stopped fighting, stopped believing that if you keep doing the right things in the right ways for the right reasons, success will follow.

"There is no quit in these kids," said O'Brien. "They are excited about playing the game. They understand they have been dealt a very bad hand with 12 guys out for the year, but the good thing is the young kids that are getting an opportunity to play are excited about their opportunity and trying to make the most of it.

"17 of the 22 players on the two-deep depth chart are in either their first or second year playing under O'Brien."

"I know that the perception going into the year isn't where we ought to be, but reality bites sometimes. I think one of [the players] said to my wife the other day, ‘It certainly hasn't turned out the way we wanted it.' As I said before, it is all we have. This is it, and we'll make the best of the bad hand that we've been dealt, and we are going to go on."

Maintaining positivity within the program has been an enormous challenge for O'Brien, but he likes the way his players have responded. And some of the learning opportunities that have arisen out of an extraordinarily difficult and obstacle-filled 2009 leads one to consider two more possibilities moving forward for the rest of the regular season and beyond: one is that a wolf is most dangerous when it is wounded. And the second is you get the sense that teams better take their best shots at kicking the Pack when it is down—because they won't be down for long. After all, State's luck has to turn at some point, right?

"We all keep waiting for a break," O'Brien said. "Something good has to happen sometime; we can't keep going south forever. We have to circle the wagons, believe in each other and come out firing in all directions. There isn't anything else to do; no sense feeling sorry for ourselves.

"We're circling the wagons, and we're the only people that understand what the situation really is. Negative comments have never helped anybody do anything of note.

"There's nothing you can do but fight. We're going to continue to fight."

Spoken like a true ex-Marine who believes wholeheartedly in the idea that "adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it." And he's working his hardest to instill the principles underlying that philosophy in a group of players that have been repeatedly tested and are still believing in the hope that brighter—and luckier—days are ahead.

This feature story is from the January 2010 issue of the Pack Pride Magazine that is currently shipping to subscribers. CLICK HERE to learn more about the publication!

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