If you're looking for a darkhorse contender for the ACC title, this is your team.
Last fall, North Carolina State won its final two regular-season games to become bowl eligible, then beat Louisville in the Belk Bowl to finish 8-5. That gave NCSU 17 victories in the past two seasons, its best two-year stretch since 2002-03, when Philip Rivers was the quarterback.
The Wolfpack return 14 full-time starters, including QB Mike Glennon and CB David Amerson, who led the nation with 13 interceptions last season.
Coach Tom O'Brien, who is heading into his sixth season in Raleigh, was under fire after his third season; the Wolfpack had suffered through three consecutive seven-loss seasons. That talk is gone. This is a program on the rise in the ACC.
Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in ACC (tied for 4th in ACC Atlantic)
Coach: Tom O'Brien (33-30, 6th season at NC State; 108-75, 16th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (7) – G Zach Allen, G Duran Christophe, QB Mike Glennon, T R.J. Mattes, WR Tobais Palmer, RB James Washington, C Camden Wentz. Defense (7) – CB David Amerson, FS Brandan Bishop, T/E Darryl Cato-Bishop, E Art Norman, E Brian Slay, CB C.J. Wilson, SS Earl Wolff. Special teams (2) – P Will Baumann, K Niklas Sade.
Fast fact: The Wolfpack have won at least eight games in back-to-back seasons for just the fourth time in 39 seasons.
O'Brien took considerable grief last year when he basically told Russell Wilson he was done at North Carolina State; Wilson, of course, transferred to Wisconsin and led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl.
O'Brien and Wilson never seemed to totally see eye-to-eye, and at the time, O'Brien was worried that if Wilson did remain with the program for his senior season, Glennon would leave and NCSU would be starting over at quarterback this fall.
The Wolfpack certainly aren't starting over. Glennon, a senior, threw for 3,054 yards and 31 TDs last season, and is one of the more underrated quarterbacks nationally. He had seven games with at least three TD passes and was red-hot down the stretch, throwing for 809 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions in the final three games.
His cause would be helped by a stronger rushing attack. The Wolfpack were 109th nationally in rush offense (104.9 ypg) and were held to fewer than 100 yards five times; in addition, NCSU rushed for just 10 touchdowns and three of those came in the opener against FCS member Liberty. There is ample reason to believe the rushing attack will be more productive this season.
The top two rushers return, including starting TB James Washington (897 yards, seven TDs). Tony Creecy ran for 382 yards last season, and Mustafa Greene – who missed last season with a foot injury after leading the team in rushing in 2010 – is healthy and in the hunt for the starting job. All three are good receivers; Washington had 42 receptions last season.
The backs' receiving ability could become more important this season; NCSU lost three of its top four receivers, including deep threat T.J. Graham and star TE George Bryan. Senior Tobais Palmer, who was second in receptions last season, is the only wide receiver on the roster who had more than 16 catches last season. There are high hopes for speedy sophomore Bryan Underwood, and juniors Quintin Payton and Rashard Smith as well as two or three redshirt freshmen will get opportunities to become important parts of the rotation.
The line should be a strength. Four starters return in Gs Zach Allen and Duran Christophe, T R.J. Mattes and C Cam Wentz; Mattes and Wentz should vie for all-league honors. Also worth watching is junior T Rob Crisp, a former five-star recruit who was the No. 13 player nationally in the 2010 signing class. He has made three starts in the past two seasons and is expected to be the starter on the right side this fall. Christophe could lose his starting spot to senior Andrew Wallace, who started in 2010 but played sparingly in two games last season because of a knee injury.
The biggest question on the team is at linebacker, as all three starters are gone. The line and secondary, which returns all four starters, aren't a concern.
What should be an excellent secondary is headed by Amerson, whose 13 interceptions were more than 65 teams. Amerson is both big (6 feet 3/194 pounds) and fast, and he had multiple picks in four games last season. The other starting corner is senior C.J. Wilson; he has three interceptions and seven pass breakups in the past two seasons.
They will be joined by the ACC's best safety duo (and one of the best in the nation): FS Brandan Bishop and SS Earl Wolff, both seniors. Bishop will be a four-year starter, Wolff a three-year starter. They combined for 212 tackles and eight interceptions last season. Depth looks good at safety, a bit iffy at corner.
The Wolfpack's pass rush was excellent last season; they were tied for the league lead with Florida State (40). Four guys had 5.5, and two return: Es Darryl Cato-Bishop and Art Norman. That duo heads a deep group of linemen. Senior Brian Slay can play tackle and end, and sophomores T.Y. McGill and Thomas Teal are prototype run-stuffing tackles. A.J. Ferguson and JC transfer Deylan Buntyn should provide depth at tackle. Senior McKay Frandsen, who began his career at BYU before moving on to a junior college and then NCSU, is another who should see time at end.
The Wolfpack took a hit when LB Terrell Manning left early for the NFL; they took another hit when junior D.J. Green was suspended for the season by the NCAA for taking a banned supplement. That puts a ton of pressure on senior Sterling Lucas; he was a starter in 2010 but missed last season with a knee injury. JC transfer Robert Caldwell and sophomore Rodman Noel (a former safety) likely will be the other starters, and depth is a huge concern.
K Niklas Sade and P Will Baumann return, though neither stood out last season. Sade was 11-of-16 on field-goal attempts; he was just 2-of-6 on attempts of longer than 40 yards. Baumann averaged only 37.5 yards per punt.
Graham was a good return man and handled punts and kickoffs; Palmer and Smith seem likely to be in the return mix. The punt coverage was excellent last season, but the kickoff coverage needs improvement.
Five of the first eight games are away from home, including the Aug. 31 opener against Tennessee in Atlanta. The good news: The toughest game in that span is against Florida State, and the Seminoles travel to Raleigh.
Three of the final four games are at home; alas, the one road game in that stretch is against Clemson.
Each of the Wolfpack's four non-conference games is winnable, and NCSU misses Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in division crossover games.
The problem at linebacker could become a glaring weakness and special teams are a question, but the Wolfpack also have a lot of positives.
Despite a rebuilt receiving corps, Glennon would seem to be in line for an even better season because there should be a consistent rushing attack, something NCSU didn't have last season. There is good depth and talent along the front four defensively, and the secondary should be one of the dozen or so best nationally.
In addition, O'Brien is a savvy coach with a solid staff. If the Wolfpack win fewer than eight games, it will have been a disappointing season. And it wouldn't be that big a surprise if they win 10.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 51st nationally
The buzz: It was not a star-studded class for the Wolfpack, but it was a solid one that should fill plenty of holes. Most notable was a strong group of defensive linemen. Leading the way is Kendarius Whitehead of Lithonia (Ga.) Martin Luther King; while he needs to add size, he already possesses the pass-rushing abilities the Wolfpack need. Also coming in at defensive end are Tyler Knox of Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Desmond Owino of Raleigh (N.C.) Sanderson. Knox was one of the top prospects from South Carolina, and while Owino definitely is raw, he also is a player to keep an eye on. At defensive tackle, K'Hadree Hooker of Deep Run (N.C.) South Lenoir and Deylan Buntyn of New Mexico Military Institute are a formidable duo who should develop into key contributors. Offensively, the top two additions are RB Shadrach Thornton of Hinesville (N.C.) Liberty County, who rushed for 1,738 yards and 17 touchdowns during his senior year, and OL Bryce Kennedy of Southern Pines (N.C.) Pinecrest, who may be paving the way for Thornton for years to come. – Mike Farrell, Rivals.com
OT Rob Crisp. The time is now for Crisp, a junior. He played as a true freshman and started twice last season, including the Belk Bowl win over Louisville. Now Crisp is expected to move into a full-time starting role on a line that has the potential to have four senior starters lining up with Crisp. Despite playing with more experienced linemen, Crisp could be State's most physically gifted player up front. – Matt Carter, TheWolfpacker.com
For more on North Carolina State throughout the season, check out TheWolfpacker.com
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