May 1, 2007
RALEIGH One major question mark going into spring football practice remained unanswered for new N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien and his staff.
State didn't have a full-time punter on its roster in the spring, let alone a proven punter, and nobody emerged. For that reason, O'Brien chose not to punt at all during State's spring-ending Red-White game.
So the hopes this fall likely will ride on the leg of Jeff Ruiz, a junior college transfer who is scheduled to enroll this summer.
Ruiz was a late addition to O'Brien's recruiting class, after averaging 43.3 yards on 63 punts at Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista, Calif. He was recommended by John Matich, a kicker at Boston College from 1996-99 who worked with Ruiz at The Kicking System.
O'Brien inherited an empty cupboard from Chuck Amato after the graduation of John Deraney. Deraney worked triple-duty the past three seasons, handling all kickoffs, placements and punting chores. Amato had two scholarship kickers in the program who redshirted last season as freshmen, Josh Czajkowski and Nathan Franklin, so that situation was not nearly as dire when O'Brien arrived.
Franklin also punted in high school, averaging 45 yards as a senior at Wilmington Hoggard, so he would have been the most likely candidate had Amato kept his job. Quarterback Daniel Evans punted in high school, too, and still could step up in a pinch. Remember, he's the son of Johnny Evans, who punted at State and in the NFL in the 1970s.
O'Brien tried to put a positive spin on the situation during the spring, but he also was quick to admit that one of the most vital parts of special teams hinged on the toe of someone who has yet to set foot on State's campus.
"The kicking game is something we pay a lot of attention to," O'Brien said. "That's why I have a coach that all he does is coach the special teams. That's something that will continue to evolve, but I like what I've seen of what we have on campus right now."
Ruiz is an interesting story beyond his connections with Matich, who played on O'Brien's first three teams at Boston College and still is kicking in the Arena League.
Ruiz enrolled at Chula Vista with the intention of playing baseball only, as a first baseman. He will play both sports at State, with three years of eligibility remaining. That's another thing that apparently impressed O'Brien and Jerry Petercuskie, State's special teams coach. They consider Ruiz's athleticism and good hands to be big pluses for a punter.
Ruiz had an impressive net average of 40.3 yards last season. Fifteen of his 63 punts went for 50 or more yards, and 23 of them were inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Deraney finished 10th in the ACC in punting last season at 39.1, and State was 10th in the league in net punting. Boston College, with Johnny Ayers averaging 42.1, was fourth in both categories.
COACH IMPRESSES OFF FIELD, TOO
O'Brien may be low-key in nature, but he aggressively has gone about the business of trying to connect with State fans, alumni and former players. All three were evident with various events on the weekend of the Red-White game, and the most striking was the get-together he hosted for former players the night before the spring game.
More than 300 former players, including ex-Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, attended the Friday night reception, and most of them stayed around for the spring game. Several had glowing comments about O'Brien's gesture and their desire to feel like a part of the program again.
The players' comments were similar to what former basketball players said after Sidney Lowe was hired to replace Herb Sendek last spring. The difference is, it was easy to understand why Lowe, a star on State's 1983 national championship team, would embrace former players in a way that Sendek didn't. Sendek kept a closed shop in many ways, and didn't embrace a lot of things. That was just his personality, his approach.
Amato, though, was a State grad and boasted about his affection for his alma mater. Perhaps it was just assumed that he was reaching out to former players and doing things behind the scenes to embrace them. Apparently not.
O'Brien said he hopes that the players' reunion will become an annual event in the spring, as it was during his time at Boston College.
"I want to see them all all that want to be part of the program," O'Brien said. "The reunion will only get bigger and bigger from here. It is a good first step."
O'Brien also held a meet-and-greet session for the team and fans after the spring game, which is somewhat commonplace. But long after much of the crowd had dispersed, he did something else.
He met with Wolfpack Club members and supporters at another function, and the first topic was the NCAA rulebook as it pertains to alumni and fans. Jon Fagg, State's assistant athletic director for compliance, spoke to the group. That was significant, particularly since O'Brien and Amato have been known to have distinctly different recruiting styles and methods.
NOTHING TO LOWE-BOBCATS TALK
Lowe found his way into the rumor mill regarding the Charlotte Bobcats job, which came open when the club announced in March that Bernie Bickerstaff would not return as the head coach.
Lowe openly has acknowledged talking to the Bobcats. But the rumors were based on false assumptions and speculation, and Lowe was never either a prospect or an interested candidate. The Bobcats wanted Lowe's feedback on other coaches they were considering, including some college coaches, since Lowe had spent all of his coaching career in the NBA until last season.
Plus, Lowe and Bickerstaff have held conversations throughout the year, anyway. Bickerstaff was one of the first to call when Lowe got the State job, and Bickerstaff again was one of the first to call when Lowe was hospitalized for a night in Chapel Hill after suffering dehydration during State's game at North Carolina.
Lowe appears to have a good thing going in Raleigh, and he continues to say that his goal is to spend the rest of his coaching career at State. State's late-season surge can only fuel his enthusiasm for next season, with his first true recruiting class on the way to join a 20-win team that returns four starters.
The core of next year's team: returning starters Ben McCauley, Brandon Costner, Gavin Grant and Courtney Fells; reserves Dennis Horner and Trevor Ferguson; transfers Farnold Degand and Marques Johnson; and recruits J.J. Hickson, Tracy Smith, Johnny Thomas and Javier Gonzalez.