November 30, 2004
RALEIGH Coach Herb Sendek loaded up the early schedule with softies, so it was no surprise that the Wolfpack beat its first four opponents by an average of 37.2 points, with a 26-point win over Elon the closest game so far.
Still, the early returns couldn't have been better. Virtually everything Sendek hoped to see from his team, he saw in the early stages.
Team-wise, the chemistry looks as if it'll be outstanding, and there has been a focus and resolve that isn't always there during blowouts. Sendek has been quick to praise the team for its togetherness and its ability to share the ball, and sure enough, the combination of senior leadership and freshman enthusiasm looks to be in harmony. The pieces appear to fit every bit as well as it looked like they would on paper.
Individually, all the questions waiting to be answered have been answered in the affirmative so far. Point guard Tony Bethel is proving to be everything he was advertised to be, and should have a huge impact on this team in the backcourt. Forward Ilian Evtimov's recovery from knee surgery appears to be going smoothly, although he's still taking things slowly. Big man Jordan Collins has given indications that, at the least, he'll be good for 20 minutes a night in the middle. All three freshmen have shown they're going to be players. Guard Julius Hodge is carrying his added weight well, and even as a senior and reigning ACC player of the year, he remains one of the most unselfish players in the league.
One question outside observers recently had about State was why Sendek didn't give freshman forward Cedric Simmons more playing time during the blowouts. Simmons averaged only 11.2 minutes in the first four games. With his size (6-10) and defensive abilities, he could be an important player once the ACC season rolls around, and now should be the time to get him experience because he's still very raw.
But Sendek has a quandary. Now also is the time to let Collins get his confidence. Sendek raves about Collins' basketball IQ and his ability to blend into the offense, and if the senior can indeed give the Wolfpack 20 minutes a night of throwing his body around and hitting the open shot, then the burden on the freshman big men will lighten. And Sendek is finding out so far that 6-10 forward Andrew Brackman has more versatility than Simmons and offers more lineup options, so Brackman is commanding more PT than originally envisioned.
The schedule was set to toughen soon after Thanksgiving, although there are four more home games before State finally hits the road. So it'll be interesting to see how Sendek's rotation evolves once the games start getting a little tighter. One game to circle on the upcoming schedule is a Dec. 19 trip to No. 22 Washington, which outplayed State at the RBC Center last year before falling 77-72.
Questions Surround Happy Ending
If nothing else, the N.C. State football team's season-ending 52-14 win over East Carolina lifted spirits and created some enthusiasm going into the offseason. Several State players talked about the blowout win being a springboard for next season, and how they couldn't wait for the start of offseason workouts.
For optimists, there's plenty of reason to think State will rebound next year.
The offense loses only two starters, center Jed Paulsen (hurt throughout the second half of the season) and tackle Chris Colmer. Even if junior T.A. McLendon also departs for the NFL, there is a stable of talented running backs remaining. The line, which was beaten up for most of the year, will be healthy again, and deeper thanks to this season's adversity.
The defense loses linebackers Pat Thomas and Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay, along with the entire starting secondary: Lamont Reid, Troy Graham, Andre Maddox and Dovonte Edwards. But a very good line returns intact, and there is pretty good depth at linebacker and perhaps in the secondary.
For skeptics, you've heard this song and dance before about "next year." State annually leads the league in hype. The reality is, State had two fourth-place and two fifth-place ACC finishes during the Philip Rivers era, and it tied for eighth this season in the first year of the post-Rivers era.
It'll be interesting to see what coach Chuck Amato learned, if anything, from this season's adversity. The popular, public face will be that injuries and other assorted bad luck ruined a once-promising season, and that a fresh start and a year of experience for many players is all that is needed. Yet there are some specific areas where Amato has to make corporate decisions that will have a major impact on 2005.
The most obvious is at quarterback. Jay Davis was terribly erratic as the starter this year, and Marcus Stone once a prized recruit and Rivers' projected heir has yet to live up to his hype. The coaching staff points out that Davis put up big numbers in the middle of the season, when he was playing behind a healthy offensive line, and they're promising that he'll be a much better quarterback as a senior.
Problem is, there are some inherent issues that may not change with time. Davis is limited athletically, his decision-making is suspect, and his execution is inconsistent at best, even when he puts up good numbers. If Amato commits to Davis next year, he'll be forced to take the bad with the good. There may be an even bigger danger in committing to Stone, who has been one-dimensional so far in his career and needs to improve his passing greatly. Meanwhile, for those hoping for a Rivers-like arrival by commitment Mike Greco, beware: Greco is an amazing athlete, but he directed a ground-oriented offense in high school.
Another corporate decision must come with the kickers. Amato talks and talks about the importance of the kicking game, but he used John Deraney exclusively in all three kicking chores this season punting, kickoffs and field goals/PATs without much distinction. Deraney clearly wore down as the season progressed. It probably cost State the Georgia Tech game, when Deraney missed three field goals.
Deraney hinted late in the season that he'd welcome a lighter load next year, but what changes will Amato make? Tyler Lewis was a prep All-American placekicker, but he got off to a slow start this year because of injuries. Ideally, Deraney could punt and kick off next year, with Lewis handling placements. Whatever the case, an upgrade is needed.
Then there's the whole "Discipline" issue. The final numbers on the season were 16 interceptions, 23 fumbles (16 lost) and 101 penalties for 779 yards. That's an average of nine penalties for 71 yards per game. Amato swore he tried everything to reduce the mistakes this year, but whether there's a change in staff or a change in philosophy or whatever, something has to be done.
Despite an outstanding defense, this year's team couldn't overcome the mistakes. State surely doesn't want a repeat of those problems next year.