LOOKING BACK ON 2010
NC State finally got over the hump last season, sporting their first winning record in head coach Tom O’Brien’s fourth season at the helm. With Russell Wilson at the helm, the Wolfpack showed the same kind of passing game that had been the team’s one bright spot over the past few losing seasons.
The turnaround for the team came not on offense but on defense, where defensive coordinator Mike Archer’s charges allowed nearly thirty fewer rushing yards and ten fewer points a game from the 2009 unit. While their defensive passing statistics are skewed, it is in large part because teams were forced to throw so much more often due to getting less production from their running game.
It all came together to yield the team’s first bowl victory — and winning season — since O’Brien’s predecessor Chuck Amato had guided the Wolfpack to a 7-5 season in 2005 that culminated in a 14-0 victory over South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. This time around NC State beat up on West Virginia, winning 23-7 to finish in the final polls for the first time since 2002.
Of course, there is still room for improvement. A place in the ACC Championship Game was ceded on the final week of the season, when NC State couldn’t hold a 14-0 lead against Maryland and suffered a 38-31 road defeat that handed the Atlantic Division to Florida State.
The big offseason story has been the departure of former starting QB Wilson to Wisconsin, but he is ably succeeded by Mike Glennon under center. The real reason that NC State will be right in the thick of things in the ACC, in contention once more to reach their first ACC title game in the two-division era, is because of their eight returning starters on defense…
The biggest question mark for the Wolfpack heading into the 2011 season is how Mike Glennon will step up and fill the void left by Russell Wilson’s departure from the team. It was an inevitability that one or the other would leave — both were effectively in their free-agent bonus year as they had both completed their undergraduate degrees — and with Glennon still enjoying two years of eligibility it made sense that O’Brien would gamble on two more years with a known commodity at QB than just one. But if Glennon cannot produce the same kind of passing stats that Wilson did, the plan might just backfire.
The backfield comes with its own question marks, as the team did nothing in 2010 to improve on the 120 or so yards a game that they produced each of the two previous seasons. Dean Haynes, returned to the defensive backfield after his shift to tailback backfired last season, was overtaken quickly by Mustafa Greene as the primary rushing option. The true freshman led the team with nearly 600 yards on a 4.5 yards-per-carry average as a change of pace off the bench. Projected to start, he should be able to provide the workhorse that O’Brien has lacked out of the backfield to balance the passing attack. He will look for holes behind senior FB Taylor Gentry, who returns for a final year plowing into opposing defenders.
The receiving corps lost both of its top two receivers in addition to the quarterback who tossed them their passes, as both Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams ended their senior seasons with the win against the Mountaineers. In their place as starters step two senior first-time starters, Jay Smith and T.J. Graham, who will hope to develop synergy quickly with Glennon. Graham takes over #1 duties, coming off a backup season where he still scored four touchdowns on 25 receptions with a 12.6-yard average. Smith will be the second option on the other side of the offense, hoping to use his speed (4.45 coming out of high school) to separate from cornerbacks and get downfield. The most reliable man in the passing game, though, might just be TE George Bryan, who returns for his fourth year in the Wolfpack offense and could vault into the top-ten all time in the school’s receiving records with a similar season to his sophomore and junior campaigns.
The offensive line returns three of the five guys who served as the primary starters last season. Of course, the two guys who left were fill-ins for injured players. Both of those guys return this season, healthy once more and ready to retake their positions in the starting offense. Both Duran Christophe and Mikel Overgaard suffered various injuries last year and lost their starting gigs to Andrew Wallace and Jake Vermiglio respectively. Vermiglio has graduated, and Wallace suffered a knee blowout in the bowl victory to end 2010. So Christophe and Overgaard return to their starting posts alongside the three guys returned from last year — R.J. Mattes, Camden Wentz and Zach Allen. The unit will hopefully tighten up its pass protection for Glennon after allowing a full three sacks a game in 2010 (good for 109th among the 120 FBS teams) and will give Greene room to run.
Until last year there was little good you could say about the defenses Archer was putting on the field. But last season saw a resurgence that keyed around the defensive line. Getting lots of pressure in the trenches, the Wolfpack fielded the 18th-best rushing defense in the country; finished with over three sacks a game, good for fourth-best in the country; and were sixth in tackles for loss. Three of its most productive linemen from 2010 have left, though, and it will be crucial that senior leaders Jeff Rieskamp and J.R. Sweezy lead the way.
At the second level of the front seven, Audie Cole has been moved from outside to take over the middle linebacker position. Early results look promising from spring practices that he will be the anchor of the corps. On either side of him, Terrell Manning (10.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks in 2010) and sophomore starter D.J. Green will seal the edges in the run defense and provide pressure off the edges against the pass.
The secondary returns all four starters… to a unit that was much improved in both opponent’s pass efficiency and yardage gained. The defense collectively needs to improve on the low total of nine interceptions they nabbed last season, but another year of seasoning should only serve to benefit the unit even more. David Amerson and C.J. Wilson have the skills to lock down on receivers, and safeties Brandon Bishop and Earl Wolff are a pair of juniors who know their roles well in the middle of the secondary. They will look to keep improving both individually and as a unit in 2011.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANALYSIS
The Wolfpack lose one of the best kickers in the nation, as Josh Czajkowski graduated after a charmed 2010 campaign. Neither of the two men battling for the open job seized the position outright in spring practice, but here’s guessing Hofstra transfer J. Ellis Flint (who had to sit out in 2010 after his transfer) beats out sophomore Chris Hawthorne for the starting position to begin the year.
Last year NC State put Andy Leffler to work at punter just 31 times; the veteran responded with a 38.7-yard average that would’ve been good for just 83rd best in the nation had he booted enough to qualify with the 3.6 punts/game minimum. He has the leg to improve on that average.
The return game is a bright spot for the Wolfpack, with T.J. Graham back to shoulder both duties. He was 40th in the nation last year in kick-return average, and provides speed to skew the field-position battle in the offense’s favor.
The schedule lines up to give NC State a legitimate chance at its first ten-win season since Philip Rivers was the star quarterback of the 2002 team. The offense, even despite the departure of Russell Wilson, has the returning firepower to boast another explosive passing year as well as increased rushing production.
The defense, though, will be the linchpin that determines just how much success the squad enjoys in 2011. An ACC Championship Game berth will once more be in play for the team, though the road to an Atlantic Division crown will have to go through Tallahassee. Here’s guessing that the Seminoles manage to get revenge for last year’s 28-24 loss to the Wolfpack, leaving O’Brien’s team still enjoying more success than they have in years yet still falling short of the big prizes…