Hermann Wendorff, Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
August 25, 2003 RALEIGH Mario Williams grew up in Richlands, N.C., a down-east town that is little more than a grocery store and a pair of gas stations on Highway 24. He was courted by most of the top football schools in the nation, but he chose one that hasn't typically appeared on the lists of top prospects. He represents the changing face of N.C. State football. When the 2003 season begins, Williams will be one of the bookends on N.C. State's starting defensive line, lured by Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato to a program that is one of the ACC favorites and is rapidly assuming a place in the national consciousness. I didn't keep up with N.C. State much when I was younger, Williams said. Now they're shocking a lot of people and proving a lot of people wrong. A lot of people are starting to see that N.C. State is a program on the rise. There's a buzz going on around here, and Chuck is a big part of that. N.C. State was ranked anywhere from sixth to 23rd in the various preseason polls, and the ACC media predicted that the Wolfpack would finish second to Florida State. That the margin was slimmer than any enjoyed by the Seminoles during their dominant reign in the league was evidence that the Pack is beginning to convince some people it is for real. Historically speaking, especially on the national scene, this is rare territory for N.C. State football. Since the Associated Press began compiling preseason rankings in 1950, the Wolfpack has appeared in the initial poll only five (out of 54) times, including this year's debut at No. 16. In two (1975, 1993) of the previous four seasons that carried such high expectations, the Pack was not included in the final poll at the end of the year. This Pack seems more likely to follow in the footsteps of those other two N.C. State teams (1973, 1974) that were ranked in the preseason. They represent the golden era of Wolfpack football. The coach was Lou Holtz, arguably the best in school history. The quarterback was Dave Buckey, who still ranks among career leaders in passing yardage and total offense. Running back Stan Fritts and receiver Don Buckey also left their marks on the record books. The '73 and '74 teams ended up No. 16 and No. 11, respectively, with the latter ranking still representing the top AP finish in the history of the program. The gridiron planets may be aligned for an even better run this season, and perhaps even the program's first ACC title since 1979. The names have changed, but Amato, quarterback Philip Rivers, tailback T.A. McLendon, receiver Jerricho Cotchery and a quick, hard-hitting defense form a hard-to-beat combination. N.C. State fans are among the most excitable in the ACC, and there is no more proof needed to illustrate that fact than the parade thrown for the Wolfpack after it finished fourth in the conference and defeated Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl earlier this year. The expectations for N.C. State right now are so high, Amato said, that I want my people to take a urine test. But even the most optimistic of the N.C. State faithful would have trouble painting an exaggerated picture of the Pack's chances as Amato enters his fourth season guiding the football fortunes of his alma mater. It doesn't get any better than national championship contender, and there is every reason to believe N.C. State is exactly that. Why not? Amato said of the possibility of playing in the Sugar Bowl. I think you've got to talk about it, so when it happens, you don't faint. If the Wolfpack is to make such an ambitious leap, Rivers is being portrayed as the man who must be out in front. N.C. State's first preseason Heisman Trophy candidate (the school even created a philiprivers.com website) in recent memory, he is a four-year starter who is poised to break most of the league's passing records. A keen thinker with an unorthodox throwing style, Rivers is wise beyond his years. State's athletic department is promoting him in a low-key fashion that respects his humble and deferential manner, and the attention is not likely to faze the 21-year-old husband and father. (A second child is expected in late January, well after the conclusion of the bowl season.) When Rivers talks of playing in the national championship, it is not idle chatter. If you win them all, you'll play for the national championship, Rivers said. Last year, (that notion) probably wouldn't have been the case. We have everything out there for us. It just comes down to how we handle it and how we go get it.
A daunting schedule includes a Sept. 13 game at defending national champ Ohio State, a date that could bolster or dash the Wolfpack's lofty hopes. N.C. State must be careful not to overlook Wake Forest the week before, and it finishes with games against Virginia, Florida State and Maryland. The Wolfpack returns a 3,000-yard passer in Rivers, a 1,000-yard rusher in McLendon and a 1,000-yard receiver in Cotchery. It is the only ACC team with such potent weapons coming back, and new H-backs Tramain Hall and Richard Washington make the offense even more dangerous and possibly the fastest unit in the conference.
N.C. State's personnel points to a ridiculous amount of scoring, but one variable is the introduction of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, the former Auburn coordinator who was a position coach at Oregon State last year. Mazzone was recommended to Amato by Southern Cal guru Norm Chow, the mastermind of the Wolfpack's multiple offense when he was working for Amato three years ago. With Rivers running the show, little is likely to change with regard to play-calling, although Mazzone said he will do more out of the shotgun. N.C. State can go with two receivers or four, with an empty backfield or a full house. Amato likes to use deceptive shifts and motion to throw off defenses, and the Pack always is well-balanced between running and passing. McLendon led all NCAA freshmen with 18 touchdowns last year, but he also was prone to injury, thanks to a running style short on jukes and long on contact. He has vowed to try to elude rather than engage more tacklers this year in an effort to stay in the lineup full-time. N.C. State caught a break when academic question mark Cotra Jackson made good enough grades this summer to be eligible, and he is more than capable of stepping in for McLendon or hard-nosed backup Josh Brown for brief periods of time or longer. Cotchery emerged as a big-play specialist last season, averaging almost 18 yards per catch and drawing comparisons to Koren Robinson, the former Wolfpack receiver who is thriving with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. Cotchery should still be the major downfield threat while the newcomers, Hall and Washington, create havoc underneath. Coaches also like the development of sophomore Brian Clark. The Wolfpack's main question mark when it has the ball will be the offensive line, which went into last season as a serious concern but ultimately developed into a strength. Freshman right tackle Derek Morris disappointed in preseason practice and was relegated to the second team behind Sean Locklear, who moved from right guard to right tackle, but N.C. State has experience up front if nothing else. Senior Chris Colmer is an outstanding left tackle, and junior center Jed Paulsen exudes toughness. Others must develop quickly. The defense also could be problematic, although the Wolfpack coaches will tell you it has more good athletes this season than perhaps any other. Clearly, at linebacker and defensive back, the Pack has as much quality depth as anyone this side of Florida State. N.C. State has had a pair of excellent linebackers graduate to the NFL in the last couple of years. Levar Fisher is with the Arizona Cardinals and Dantonio Burnette with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but what's left behind is a significant amount of speed, talent and depth. Juniors Pat Thomas and Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay are excellent from sideline to sideline. Thomas doesn't yet have a well-known name, but coaches call him an All-ACC candidate. Aughtry-Lindsay is particularly valuable because he knows the defensive system so well that he can line up at any of the three linebacker positions without missing a beat. That allows coaches maximum flexibility as they attempt to find playing time for several other proven talents, including senior Roger Pollard, sophomore Manny Lawson and sophomore Oliver Hoyte. Lawson is such a tremendous athlete that his best position defensive end? linebacker? tight end? special teams? has been the subject of great debate among the coaches since he arrived on campus. Hard-hitting Hoyte is a special-teams demon, a perfect fit for middle linebacker and another potential star. Up front, the Pack will miss senior defensive end Terrance Chapman, a projected starter who will miss his second consecutive season because of academic shortcomings. That hurt the depth of a defensive line that lost all four starters and other proven performers from last year's experienced group. Williams is a freakish talent in the mold of Carolina Panthers sack specialist Julius Peppers, and some N.C. State coaches said they have never seen a player so advanced at such a young age. Whether Williams will be able to turn raw material into immediate production will have a major impact on the defense's success. He'll be helped by the fact that he was one of the Pack's many 2002 signees who enrolled at NCSU in January and thus had the benefit of going through spring practice. Speed will work in the Wolfpack's favor in the secondary, despite the loss of starting cornerback Marcus Hudson to academic and disciplinary matters. Greg Golden and Lamont Reid are proven commodities at cornerback, and they'll be backed up by talented redshirt freshman A.J. Davis and converted receiver Dovonte Edwards. Davis, another high-profile prep All-American lured to Raleigh under Amato's watch, is trying to bounce back from a broken leg that kept him out of action in 2002. Where does all this leave the Wolfpack? It is teeming with potential but also needs to answer a few questions. A win against Ohio State could propel State immediately into the top five, giving it an inside track for a run at an undefeated season. But for all the talk about a national championship, N.C. State must first win the ACC, and that means climbing ahead of FSU. Virginia and Maryland also look tough. As a way to temper expectations, Amato is fond of pointing out that his NCSU teams have never finished better than fourth in the conference and that the Pack was the oddball among the most prominently mentioned programs in the preseason. State fans and players, plus many objective observers, are not buying it. They probably shouldn't. Coach Amato said he's going to build a championship program, and the guys here are starting to believe it, Rivers said. It's going to happen. I think gradually that we're going to gain that respect where you say 8-4 and that's a down year for N.C. State. That's the way it should be. We've got to keep it rolling. We won 11 last year, and as hard as it is, we should shoot for more.