By Dan Wiederer
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
August 30, 2007
RALEIGH On the opening day of fall practice, Tom O'Brien stood at the corner of the N.C. State practice field and gave every player who jogged past him a quick once over.
O'Brien didn't say anything, didn't ask questions. He simply used his sunglasses as a microscope to get a raw first impression of his team.
"I want to see what they've got in their eyes," he said. "Sometimes you can tell which guys are ready to go and which ones aren't."
Consider this O'Brien's subtle welcome to the new era of Wolfpack football. And don't expect much more in the way of animation from the program's new leader, a straightforward coach who's often described by his players as a strict disciplinarian who is as laid back as they come.
If it sounds contradictory, then you just don't know the way Tom O'Brien carries himself.
"In a way it's weird," junior tailback Toney Baker said. "He comes in all laid back and smooth, but we know when he steps into the room that it's time to focus."
Focus is what O'Brien most wants from his new Wolfpack players. He wants them to know their assignments. He wants them to be disciplined. And he wants them to embrace a brand of intelligent and polished football that can turn frustrating losses into springboard victories.
That might just be the prescription N.C. State needs coming off a 3-9 faceplant that included seven losses by eight points or fewer in 2006.
"A lot of that is simply a lack of confidence coming down the stretch and not knowing how to win," O'Brien said. "That's something we really need to work on."
This is what O'Brien is known for. And it's no coincidence that in his 10-year tenure at Boston College, his Eagles developed a quiet confidence in their ability to win. After a pair of 4-7 records in his first two seasons, O'Brien averaged 8.1 victories over his final eight years in Chestnut Hill, also producing a remarkable streak of seven straight bowl wins.
Last season, the Eagles went 9-3 during the regular season, produced five victories by seven points or fewer and finished second in the ACC's Atlantic Division. Yet before BC's trip to the Meineke Car Care Bowl, O'Brien decided that the N.C. State opening was too good to pass up.
"I thought it was time," he said.
O'Brien thought back to his hiring at Boston College in 1997 when he was one of 22 head coaches stepping into a new position. A decade later, only Purdue's Joe Tiller and Fresno State's Pat Hill remained in those same jobs.
"If I was going to make a move, this was the time to make it," O'Brien said. "This is my last coaching job. I had one move to make."
It certainly didn't hurt that N.C. State had the ability to provide O'Brien with an opportunity that included a more lucrative contract, better facilities and a richer recruiting base from which to draw players.
The mellow coach also examined the Wolfpack and saw a team that was in better shape than its 3-9 record indicated. So when he arrived in Raleigh last winter, he immediately got to work repairing his team's psyche. O'Brien wanted his new players to know that a quick turnaround could happen if they simply cleaned up the sloppy mistakes that had so often plagued them.
"We weren't a losing team last year," defensive end Martrel Brown said. "We were just a team that lost games."
Now the big question heading toward a Sept. 1 season opener with Central Florida is whether the Wolfpack picked by the media to finish last in the ACC's Atlantic Division can better its three wins of last season.
Defensively, State has veteran playmakers, including Brown, linebacker LeRue Rumph and preseason All-ACC pick DeMario Pressley. But that trio of seniors also has to set a tone and a standard for their younger teammates.
On offense, the Wolfpack is loaded with talent at the skill positions, particularly at running back where Baker, Andre Brown and Jamelle Eugene give State a 1-2-3 backfield punch that's arguably the best in the ACC.
Yet the Wolfpack doesn't have the same stability at quarterback. As of Aug. 26, a starter for the Central Florida game had yet to be named with O'Brien still choosing among junior Daniel Evans, redshirt freshman Justin Burke and Nebraska transfer Harrison Beck.
"The thing about the quarterback is you want them to make the right decisions," O'Brien said. "You don't want them to make the fastest decisions.
"We need our quarterback to be like a point guard in basketball. They have to distribute the ball and get you going in the right direction. They don't have to win the game for you in the first three quarters. But then the separating factor between good quarterbacks and a great quarterback is when it comes down to the fourth quarter and you need a big play, the great ones are able to come through."
Coming through in the clutch is something O'Brien hopes his N.C. State teams become known for. But he has made it known that will only happen if the Wolfpack puts a greater priority on discipline in key situations.
"I think you get your attitude from the head coach," Burke said. "Coach O'Brien takes very much a business-like approach. He's injected us with a confidence that he knows what he's doing and that we can have faith that he'll get us in the right situation at the right time. That trust is big for this team."
With all the positive vibes bouncing around campus, O'Brien isn't necessarily giddy to get the season started. His depth chart is far from settled and his players often still seem to suffer from brain lock under pressure.
After a scrimmage two weeks before State's season opener, O'Brien blasted his players for their lack of urgency. The new coach was startled and displeased with the way his Wolfpack operated under late-game situations in the scrimmage, showing a propensity to loaf and an inability to stay sharp when sharpness was needed the most.
"We came in with certain standards and the way we want this football team to react, and we haven't gotten that yet," O'Brien said. "There are sparks. But once they get into some competition, they lose their focus."
That should be a major area of concern with the season opener fast approaching. And O'Brien promised to get his message across with his no-nonsense, upfront demeanor.
Asked if his team plays hard, O'Brien didn't hesitate to say so. Asked if his team plays smart, he sighed.
"No," he said.
There's a long road ahead for State to return to its winning ways. But the one thing O'Brien hasn't had to instill in his new program is a hunger to get better.
"These kids were embarrassed by what happened to their football team last year," he said. "And they want to make it right."
N.C. STATE INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- It's standard operating procedure for a new coach to essentially throw the previous staff under the bus by moaning about talent gaps in the squad he inherits. So far Tom O'Brien mostly has refrained from using that tactic with former Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato. But sometimes, very rarely, O'Brien will let slip something about the team he inherited that's not up to his standards.
After the situational scrimmage on Aug. 16, O'Brien clearly was miffed that his players didn't have the urgency needed in running late-game situations and didn't seem to have all the do's and don'ts down well, either.
The next day he said his team was playing hard, but he had a blunt answer when asked if the Wolfpack was playing smart: "No."
That was one of the biggest indictments of the Amato tenure in Raleigh teams that were high on athletic ability and low on football IQ. That's one of the main reasons why O'Brien was brought in from Boston College. His preseason comments, though, made it sound like it's not just a problem of coaching but of the personnel on hand.
One way to figure out what a new coaching staff thinks of the talent it has on the roster is to take a look at its recruiting priorities once it sends its assistants out on the road. For N.C. State, it's clear that there's not much faith in the linebackers who are currently on campus. Three of the biggest commitments for the Class of 2008 Terrell Manning, Dwayne Maddox and William Beasley project as linebackers. It's a safe bet that the opportunity for early playing time was dangled in front of those recruits.
It's worth noting that both Manning and Maddox were prized in-state recruits. The snagging of those two commitments, as well as blue-chip running back Brandon Barnes, is an indication that N.C. State truly is taking recruiting in its backyard very seriously. Amato and his staff always paid lip service to the idea of keeping North Carolina's best high school talent at home, but so far O'Brien and his staff are actually walking the walk. Eight of the Wolfpack's first 10 commitments came from in-state players.
"We are the state university, we have a great education for them, we have a great student body, 30,000 strong," O'Brien said, when describing his pitch. "We have tremendous fans here, most passionate fans in the state of North Carolina. If they want to play football at the highest level, and they want to win and get a meaningful degree, then this is as good a place as any place in the country for them."
It sounds like a pretty obvious pitch, but clearly it's been effective so far. O'Brien is basically going back to the same recruiting playbook he used back when he was an assistant coach at Virginia and was plucking the best talent out of the Tidewater region.
Back then, O'Brien was having to fend off out-of-state interlopers such as Penn State who were constantly poaching the commonwealth's best players. Eventually, O'Brien was helping to land Virginia stars such as Chris Slade and Terry Kirby. O'Brien also is known for the subtle touches in his recruiting style. It's no coincidence that he has taken to repeatedly referring to N.C. State as "the state university." The Cincinnati native probably is borrowing that phrase from The Ohio State University.
- It's the standard conundrum that every diehard fan must face when trying to find meaningful preseason news: How should scrimmage statistics be interpreted?
N.C. State fans spent August watching and wondering as the three quarterbacks competing for the starting job fourth-year junior Daniel Evans, third-year sophomore Harrison Beck and redshirt freshman Justin Burke tossed a great many more interceptions than touchdowns.
What does this mean? Is the Wolfpack secondary filled with ballhawks? Or is State facing yet another year post-Philip Rivers in which it gets little production from its quarterback? Probably a little of both.
State's new defensive coordinator, Mike Archer, switched the Wolfpack to a zone scheme in its pass defense, after years of bump-and-run, man-to-man under Amato. The read-and-react style of the zone defense is designed to produce interceptions, provided the defenders get good breaks on the ball. Clearly, the State defenders appear to be adapting well, and that's a good thing for a defense that was woefully short on forced turnovers the last two years.
Conversely, the fact that State went down to the wire in naming its starting quarterback probably should tell you something, as well. It wasn't just O'Brien's secrecy that kept everyone from learning the starter's identity. It was also because no one quarterback pulled away from the field. The safest bet all along was that Evans would be the man under center when State takes on Central Florida. That wasn't because of what Evans had done his lack of arm strength just won't let him stretch the field but what he didn't do throw interceptions at the rate Burke and Beck did.
- O'Brien will get the first chance to display his reputation as a coach who instills discipline when a decision is reached about third-year sophomore right tackle Jeraill McCuller. McCuller, who was expected to be the Wolfpack's starting right tackle, was charged with driving while impaired in late July.
It's believed that McCuller will be suspended for two games, but given O'Brien's reluctance to make public just about anything he doesn't have to make public, don't expect to find out for sure until the first snap of the Central Florida game.
Junior Meares Green, who played a utility role on the line last season for N.C. State, is the likely fill-in for McCuller.
- McCuller is one of two new starters on the offensive line. The other, fellow third-year sophomore Julian Williams, will be asked to fill the vital slot at left tackle, protecting the blind side of State's quarterback. Fortunately for the Wolfpack, Williams turned heads in the preseason.
"I've been really impressed by his one-on-one pass rush (blocking)," senior center Luke Lathan said. "He's probably one of the best on our offensive line on pass rush."
The Big Picture
For years the knock on N.C. State under former coach Chuck Amato was that it had the talent, but not the discipline. But now that the Wolfpack has a coach, Tom O'Brien, who's known for discipline, its talent level has dipped from recent seasons. More importantly, it remains to be seen how the mix of Amato-recruited players and an O'Brien-hired coaching staff will work. Win early and it shouldn't be a problem. An early losing streak, though, could cause some personality conflicts to bubble up.
State's unwillingness to talk about its quarterback situation could be a product of O'Brien's penchant for secrecy. Or it could be because no QB has stepped forward to clarify things. Harrison Beck has the arm strength to make the downfield throws that coordinator Dana Bible likes, but Beck's decision-making is questionable. Daniel Evans has savvy and leadership but not enough arm strength to make some key throws. Justin Burke would, in theory, seem to be a good mix of Beck's physical skills and Evans' mental aptitude. But Burke was recruited by the coordinator of last year's woeful offense, Marc Trestman, and put up the worst numbers in preseason scrimmages. If Bible can mold one consistent performer out of this bunch, he'll have earned his salary.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 3-5 (6) 6-5 None
1998 5-3 (4) 7-5 MicronPC Bowl (L)
1999 3-5 (5) 6-6 None
2000 4-4 (5) 8-4 MicronPC Bowl (W)
2001 4-4 (4) 7-5 Tangerine Bowl (L)
2002 5-3 (4) 11-3 Gator Bowl (W)
2003 4-4 (4) 8-5 Tangerine Bowl (W)
2004 3-5 (8) 5-6 None
2005 3-5 (4A) 7-5 Meineke Bowl (W)
2006 2-6 (6A) 3-9 None
ACC: 36-44 (.450)
Overall: 68-53 (.562)
O'Brien comes to Raleigh with a reputation as a man who churns out quality offensive linemen. But he doesn't need to use smoke and mirrors to get results from a Wolfpack unit that has potential. Many felt last season that tackles Julian Williams and Jeraill McCuller would have started if not for Amato's loyalty toward upperclassmen. Guard Curtis Crouch can be physically dominating. It's also key that the new offense takes a more simple approach than the previous scheme, which should cut down on mental mistakes.
Coming On Strong
O'Brien doesn't like to dole out too many compliments, but even he can't deny that State has the running backs needed to be a serious factor on the ground. Though Andre Brown is the most physically gifted, and Jamelle Eugene is the shiftiest back at State, Toney Baker seems to be the best match for what O'Brien and Bible want to do. Baker is not a breakaway threat, but he's very adept at reading blockers and squeezing out extra yards on ordinary runs.
Cause For Concern?
State has been cleaning up in-state in recruiting linebackers so far, which should tell you what the new staff thinks of the talent it currently has on campus. None of the starting trio LeRue Rumph, Ernest Jones and James Martin is going to make anyone forget Stephen Tulloch, or even Pat Lowery for that matter. Either the defensive line or the secondary will need to overachieve to cover the weakness at linebacker.
The Whole Truth
"We're going to be as hard as we can on them and separate the guys who are going to be the tough guys and the guys we can count on and those we can't."
N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien
Chart By: The N.C. State Insider