July 10, 2002 RALEIGH It's not likely, if the rumblings around the N.C. State offices are correct, that Wolfpack football coach Chuck Amato will have his most experienced running back available this fall.
Amato admitted in late June that he's concerned about senior Cotra Jackson's academic status, as Jackson completes his first session of summer school classes. The coach can't talk specifics, but there are many who believe that Jackson won't be eligible when the Wolfpack plays its first of 13 football games on Aug. 24.
And you know what? That's probably not as devastating as it might sound. Jackson is a nice player but a career backup, one who switched back and forth between fullback and tailback over the last four years. He netted exactly 105 rushing yards last season and 172 receiving yards on 23 catches, playing behind Ray Robinson. In other words, he's not exactly the second coming of Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson.
But incoming freshman T.A. McLendon might be. At least those are the comparisons Amato has been making in the offseason. To be fair, Amato invoked Walker's and Jackson's names by saying that the former Heisman Trophy winners came from small schools and still were able to have All-America careers in college.
"Herschel Walker played in a very small league and it didn't affect him. Bo Jackson played in a very small league and it didn't affect him," Amato said. "We are hoping it won't affect T.A."
Those obviously weren't names the coach just pulled out of the air for no reason. McLendon (6-2, 220) set national scoring and rushing records during this prep career at tiny Albemarle High School, ending his career with seven touchdowns in the North Carolina Class 1A Championship game. But many wonder if he can succeed playing against real competition. Amato has no doubts.
"But if T.A. is not ready," the coach said, "we are not going to throw him out there and let him lose confidence."
Those who have met McLendon, who arrived in Raleigh in late June and worked out on occasion with his future teammates in the latter part of the first session of summer school, insist that confidence won't be a problem for the self-assured tailback. He already is preparing himself to step into the tailback spot if Jackson isn't eligible.
"He has all the tools," Amato said. "He is probably a bigger, faster Ray Robinson."
If Jackson is ineligible and McLendon isn't ready, things could get really interesting and not in a good way. The Wolfpack is rock-solid at the most important position on the field (QB), has a deep and developing defense, and is considered a strong candidate for a top-three ACC finish, but major questions at tailback to go with those on the offensive line do not make for a strong foundation. Unfortunately, Amato has few options.
Sophomore Josh Brown (5-10, 185), eligible this season after sitting out last year as a partial qualifier, was a record-setting tailback and the state's Gatorade player of the year as a senior at Shelby (N.C.) Crest two years ago, but he's not regarded as an every-down back. He's not exceptionally fast nor particularly powerful, which is why he wasn't pursued heavily on the recruiting trail, but perhaps he could surprise. He was able to practice with the team last season, so he knows the system well, and he was named the most improved running back in spring drills.
Senior Carlos Doggett (5-10, 232) is the only other scholarship tailback on the roster. A superstar runner at Greensboro (N.C.) Page, where he gained 2,470 yards and earned first-team all-state honors as a senior in 1997, he received mixed reviews from recruiters because many projected him as a fullback. Those fears ultimately proved true, and the Pack actually moved Doggett to fullback in the spring of 1999 before injuries to other players forced a return to tailback that fall. He enters his fifth season on campus with more injuries (foot, ankle, etc.) and academic problems (missed spring) than playing time.
Juco transfer Tramain Hall (5-10, 180), the former Florida prep star, could have been the answer this year but won't be. He'll arrive on campus soon, and from all reports he's physically and mentally ready to go. He's been described as an elite, Marshall Faulk-type athlete with exceptional quickness. Unfortunately, the Wolfpack horribly botched his eligibility status coming out of high school (see ACC Sports Journal No. 12) by admitting him to school before he had met basic NCAA requirements. The resulting fall-out left Hall ineligible for the Pack until next season.
There is one final option: moving someone else, probably a defensive back, from another position to tailback. But that's not an experiment the NCSU staff would like to try.
"We need to find out about T.A. in a hurry," Amato said. "We need to see what he can do."
Rivers Anticipating Big Things
Philip Rivers doesn't have a cell phone or a beeper, but N.C. State strength and conditioning coach Todd Stroud knows how to get in touch with him at all times.
Rivers spent part of his summer awaiting the birth of his daughter, Halle, who was expected to arrive on or about July 8. But he also was in charge of scheduling seven-on-seven workouts with his teammates three times a week, plus a daily conditioning schedule that kept him away from most land-line phones throughout the week.
Rivers, the most experienced returning quarterback in the ACC this year, clearly will be the Wolfpack's best and most vocal leader. His team has a strong chance to reach double-digit victories for the first time in the history of the program, and he knows it.
All that, along with the fact that Rivers is married with a baby on the way, no doubt will get him compared to former Fresno State quarterback David Carr, who came from nowhere to become the first player taken in last year's NFL draft. Rivers doesn't mind at all.
"I have already heard that a little bit, and that's all right," he said. "Things turned out pretty well for him."
Don't Forget Hodge's Friends
With all of the talk in the local papers about Julius Hodge's manic workout effort, some people might forget that there were four other members of last year's freshman class who hope to make significant improvement as well.
N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said they are all getting better. There's center Jordan Collins, spending late-night time in the gym with Hodge. There's forward Levi Watkins, finishing up the rehabilitation on his knee so he can get medically cleared to play before school starts, a remarkable accomplishment considering he suffered his season-ending knee injury on Dec. 30 against Maryland.
"He has not wasted any time," Sendek said. "He approached his rehab with as much focus and determination as anybody I have ever seen in my life. He has really changed his body. If he took his shirt off last year and did the same thing today, it would be almost like he went into a phone booth and became Underdog. He looks completely different."
Watkins also worked on his basketball skills, from stationary ball-handling to improving his shooting mechanics. Basically, all of the things he could do without putting much stress on his knee.
"He couldn't do everything, but he could do most things," Sendek said. "It's reflective of the kind of winner he is. He did everything he could do and focused on those things."
Perhaps the biggest improvement has been made in Josh Powell's physique. Since the end of the season, Powell has been working in the weight room, something he never did before he stepped on campus last year, according to strength and conditioning coach Charles Stephenson. Since March, Powell has added 15 pounds to his lean frame.
Last year, Powell weighed around 210 pounds, which wasn't a problem during the early part of the year but was the biggest reason he became invisible deep into the ACC season. He was the lightest big man in the conference, easily getting shoved around by big men Lonny Baxter, Carlos Boozer, etc. It was clear that he was overmatched as a freshman, even though he (without question undeservingly) made the ACC all-rookie team over teammate Ilian Evtimov. But his goal in the offseason has been to improve enough so he can fare better against ACC big men.
"His body is really undergoing a great transformation right now," Sendek said. "Part of that is natural maturation. (But) he is certainly augmenting that natural development with great work in the weight room. We still have several more months before we get back at it full-time, so there are still plenty of opportunities to grow along that line."
As for Evtimov, who developed into one of the team's most consistent and versatile players after Watkins' injury, he left in late June to join the French National Team for the summer. He will play in three European tournaments and return to school in mid-August.