October 23, 2007
RALEIGH Going into the season, the popular thinking was that coach Tom O'Brien would have a soft landing at N.C. State because he was inheriting a relatively experienced team. Midway through the season, it was painfully clear to Wolfpack fans that having experience doesn't always mean having talent.
Meanwhile, some State fans looked longingly over to Chapel Hill, where North Carolina appeared to be making steady progress with a two-deep depth chart that was loaded with true and redshirt freshmen.
The thinking often turned along these lines: Why not follow the Tar Heels' route and go with youth? Those voices grew louder as State's season turned south. There's nothing much left to play for, it's time to get some of the young guys valuable experience, etc.
Oh, if only it were that simple.
"I think we're playing the best players we have," O'Brien said in the week before N.C. State's win over East Carolina. "I think that's the conclusion we came to, and we've just got to make those guys better."
Maybe O'Brien was stubbornly sticking with the upperclassmen and the fading hope that somehow, some way, those players would improve and get the Wolfpack back into contention for a bowl game. More likely, he avoided playing young talent because there just wasn't much young talent to play.
Nevertheless, here is a look at the youthful options State has at each position and the chances that they will see significant playing time in the second half of the season.
Quarterback: Actually, sophomore Harrison Beck is the youthful option here, at least compared to junior Daniel Evans. There are two younger quarterbacks on the roster, but neither is likely to get on the field, barring injury. Granted, given State's injury woes, that's not altogether unlikely.
Redshirt freshman Justin Burke hasn't been in the quarterback conversation this season, and it's starting to look as if that might be a long-term situation. Bear in mind that O'Brien and coordinator Dana Bible declined to offer Burke a scholarship when he was coming out of high school. As for message-board favorite Russell Wilson, he's planning to play baseball in the spring. Guys who skip spring practice aren't included in long-range quarterback planning. They just aren't. If Wilson wants to keep playing two sports at State, his future on the football field probably will be in the secondary.
Running back: In the saddest of ironies, the one position where State would rather not play youth is the one position where it had no choice but to go young. Fortunately, sophomore Jamelle Eugene is a talent and can use this chance to show what he can do in a feature role. As for true freshman Curtis Underwood, it's a good thing O'Brien made him a late addition to last year's recruiting class, isn't it?
Wide receiver: State probably has the ideal mix of old and young at this position. Two seniors, John Dunlap and Darrell Blackman, earn the most playing time. Three freshmen Darrell Davis, Jarvis Williams and Owen Spencer and one sophomore, Donald Bowens, also see regular action. The problem, of course, is that it's hard to know what you have at receiver when you're so unsure about the person throwing the ball. Bowens, though, looks like he has promise.
Offensive line: Another message board favorite, true freshman tackle Jake Vermiglio, finally got his shot out of necessity. When left tackle Julian Williams went down before the ECU game with a knee injury, Vermiglio was given a battlefield promotion. He's probably the only young prospect who will play much this season on the line, although it should be noted that Williams and right tackle Jeraill McCuller are only sophomores this fall.
As for the other available freshman linemen, Desmond Roberts and Henry Lawson, it looks as if O'Brien has elected to redshirt them. The thinking is that the quick fixes on the line will have to come through junior college recruiting (most of the staff hit the junior colleges during the bye weekend) and not by accelerating young linemen onto the field this season.
Defensive line: This hasn't been viewed as a major recruiting need this season by the coaching staff, which is an indication that they're at least satisfied with the young talent on hand. Two sophomores, Alan-Michael Cash and Ted Larsen, split time at one tackle spot, while true freshman Markus Kuhn has gotten playing time because of injuries. Another sophomore, former wunderkind Willie Young, has fought his way back into the starting lineup. Although the line mustered just eight sacks in the first six games, its six-sack performance against ECU may have been a break-out game.
State's three other true freshman linemen, tackle Wayne Crawford and ends J.R. Sweezy and Jeff Rieskamp, all are expected to redshirt.
Linebacker: Expected to be the weak link in the defense this season, State's senior linebackers, LeRue Rumph, Ernest Jones and James Martin II, have struggled often but managed to hold onto their starting positions. That may be an indictment of their backups, redshirt freshmen John Ware and Nate Irving and sophomore Ray Michel. Rumph, Jones and Martin haven't been game-changers, by any means, but they mostly know their assignments. That's allowed the State staff to bring along the young linebackers slowly. It's also allowed them to use this line on the recruiting trail: "We have three senior starters at linebacker, we need you next season!" That's certainly done the trick with 2008 linebacker recruits Terrell Manning, Dwayne Maddox and William Beasley.
Defensive backs: This wins the award as the most tinkered-with section of the N.C. State two-deep. It also, though, boasts one of the few youth success stories on the roster.
After several failed attempts to find a corner to play opposite senior Jimmie Sutton, the staff finally appears to have found a fit in redshirt freshman DeAndre Morgan. His size 166 pounds (maybe) is far from ideal, but he plays the position with an aggressive, confident style that has been sorely lacking at several other spots on the defense. Another freshman with potential is safety Javon Walker. He got a whopping 68 snaps against Clemson, and he was in on a team-high 11 tackles (four solo) against ECU.
As you can see, it's not as if O'Brien has many options to experiment with in the coming weeks. There is hope for the future, though.
The incoming recruiting class should address several glaring needs, and the staff is believed to be high on several players who are redshirting. Together, those groups may combine to make the 2008 State team sort of like UNC's 2007 version, a squad that takes its lumps but shows some promise along the way.