By Bob Sutton
Burlington (N.C) Times-News
April 19, 2006
RALEIGH -- It was a flip-flop for North Carolina State during spring practice.
Plenty seemed in place on offense, but the overhaul on defense had more than the normal number of wrinkles to straighten out by September.
That's about the opposite view from the past couple of years for coach Chuck Amato's team, which has been sturdy on defense but unsettled on offense since the departure of superstar quarterback Philip Rivers after the 2003 season.
"We know what we want to do," Amato said. "The kids are familiar with what we are doing on both sides of the football. ... We're going to be young on defense, but our defense has got to grow up. Our offense has come a long way."
The Wolfpack was in desperate need of a seamless spring, and in relative terms that took place. Coordinators Marc Trestman on offense and Steve Dunlap on defense are entering their second season in Raleigh, and that bit of stability ought to help a program that has been jolted by staff changes throughout Amato's six-year tenure.
After all, N.C. State needed to get right down to business. The Wolfpack won five of six games to end 2005, but the spring was partly about trying to further distance itself from the wounds that festered by midseason.
Sorting out the defense took precedence ahead of offensive issues, and Amato is a stickler for fielding a strong defense. A year ago, State defenders might have been described as cocky during the spring. This year, they had all they could handle while facing an offense that hit some sort of groove.
Amato said his staff was moving defenders around so often in the spring that he had difficulty keeping track of the switches. It was all an attempt to find the best combinations with the available personnel.
"We're trying to plug the right guys into the right holes," Amato said. "We've had a lot of youngsters that we have moved around. We're looking at corners at safety, safeties at corner, defensive tackles at defensive ends. ... It has been a work-in-progress."
The Wolfpack lost defensive end Mario Williams, defensive tackle John McCargo and linebacker Stephen Tulloch as early entries into the NFL draft. They joined 2005 seniors Manny Lawson (end) and Oliver Hoyte (linebacker) on their way out.
Linebacker Pat Lowery emerged as one of the defensive leaders during the spring, despite having only three career starts. His inexperience could be complicated by a front seven that, besides tackles DeMario Pressley and Tank Tyler and linebacker LeRue Rumph, will enter the 2006 season largely untested.
There was no shortage of chances to watch ends Willie Young and John Amanchukwu in action. Young's mobility is a plus. Linebackers such as James Martin and Ernest Jones also took turns making their cases during the spring.
One of the surprising moves came when rising senior running back Reggie Davis took a spin at linebacker and decided that he preferred to stay there. Davis said his athletic ability will enable him to find his way onto the field.
"I'm liking (the move to linebacker)," Davis said. "I'd rather go out there and hit guys. Maybe I can get an interception next time."
Darrell Blackman, a rising junior, played at receiver during the spring instead of running back. He sometimes will line up in the flanker spot (referred to as "zebra" in the Wolfpack's offense) often occupied previously by Tramain Hall, a senior in 2005.
"Darrell has really, really worked hard on the routes and technique," Amato said. "He has seen what it's like to get the ball in the open field and let your skill take over. It's kind of like returning punts and kickoffs. He has responded really well. He's fast, he can go deep, he can do so many things."
Part of the reason the running back position cleared out some is that Andre Brown and Toney Baker made it apparent that, as long as they're healthy, they'll be the primary ball-carriers. Prep All-American Bobby Washington already had defected from the program, but there are other options available.
As a result, there might have been gains rather than losses at running back. Jamelle Eugene isn't bowing out of the sweepstakes, declaring instead that he's ready for a prominent role. He took a redshirt season in 2005, bulking up to 205 pounds and showing signs that he could contend for playing time. At the very least, he should be a capable replacement if injuries hit.
"Don't forget that name," Amato said of Eugene.
Baker said he has learned more about putting forth a punishing rushing attitude, something he senses could be effective for the Wolfpack.
Quarterback Marcus Stone, for the first time in three springs, wasn't in a contested battle for a starting role. He received rave reviews, and he'll enter the summer as the clear No. 1 guy. The simple fact that quarterback didn't top N.C. State's list of post-spring questions was a statement in itself.
"He has really stepped his preparation up, and what he is doing and how he has gone about doing it," Amato said. "There is no question about who the quarterback is. He's better than what he was when he finished (last season). That's the way it should be. He has really taken the approach of putting in the time on his own. He puts in a lot of time studying the game."
Even though he was a midseason replacement for senior Jay Davis in 2005, Stone seemed to take personally the shortcomings associated with the offense -- prior to and during his late-season stint as the starter. And the team's defense might not be bailing out the Wolfpack as often as in the past.
"We're going to get together and get this offense going," Stone said. "I feel I've come a long way since my first start. When the play is called, it clicks in my head."
Mike Greco should be entrenched as the backup behind Stone, at least until newcomer Justin Burke shows up in August. Burke was the team's top-rated signee in February.
Receiver John Dunlap took an improved mental approach to spring workouts, and that endeared him to Amato. Receiver Lamart Barrett, the lone senior in that group, has aided some of the younger wideouts. They'll all need to be ready to assist Stone, whose favorite target, Brian Clark, was a senior last fall.
While the offensive line wobbled last season, Leroy Harris is considered one of the team's anchors at center -- or at guard, if he moves down the line. With tackles James Newby and Jon Holt showing consistency in the spring, stability could be forming. Compared to the defense, this front line appears in good order.
There were times when the defense had trouble tackling this spring. Amato tried to brush that aside, pointing to the types of running backs the defenders were trying to tackle. Those mishaps need to be addressed, but Amato acknowledged that those were some of the valuable things the staff learned during March and early April.
The Wolfpack made it through mostly unscathed on the injury front. Cornerback A.J. Davis missed the final spring scrimmage with a leg ailment, but it wasn't considered serious. Further, it allowed more opportunities for other defensive backs, in an area of strength for the team.
"The biggest thing is the fact that nobody got seriously hurt," Amato said, "and we didn't even have people miss many days of practice because of injury."
Spring 2006 Overview
Seventh-year coach Chuck Amato deserves a lot of credit for (1) raising the profile of N.C. State football, (2) motivating the fan base and the school's administration to finally upgrade the program's previously embarrassing facilities, (3) dramatically improving the team's talent pool and increasing its NFL-caliber star power, and (4) winning a school-record 11 games in 2002 and earning five bowl bids in six seasons. At the same time, the coach mostly has fallen short of his own big talk and the fans' sky-high expectations, and his honeymoon in Raleigh ended after a 5-6 campaign in 2004. Through six years, Amato's ACC record is a pedestrian 23-25, and there have been significant problems with high staff turnover and undisciplined play. Yet another ho-hum non-conference schedule (Appalachian State, Akron, at Southern Miss, East Carolina) awaits this fall, but an unexpected talent drain to the NFL complicated the possibility of a special season.
Probable 2006 Starters
- -- redshirted ^ -- six/more 2005 starts
- -- injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
Few ACC teams have been able to stockpile elite-level talent at a single position the way NCSU has done at tailback in recent years. Andre Brown and Toney Baker form a young but potentially awesome one-two punch in the backfield, little-known Jamelle Eugene emerged this spring as another one to watch, and one-time starting tailback Darrell Blackman jumped to Tramain Hall's old H-back position in the hopes of displaying more of his versatility there. Rock-solid returning starters: TE Anthony Hill, OC Leroy Harris, PK John Deraney, DT DeMario Pressley, RV Garland Heath. Also looking good: WR John Dunlap, LB Pat Lowery.
Cause For Concern?
State typically has had some outstanding defensive ends and linebackers during the Amato era, and perhaps that will be the case again soon, but the Wolfpack will be relying on an extraordinary number of unproven players at those spots this fall. Also: quarterback, new receivers, shaky depth at multiple positions.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: OG Meares Green.
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: DE Chip Cross (academics), DT John McCargo (NFL draft), DT LaMarte McGhee (academics), QB Chris Moore (chose to graduate), OL Derek Morris (NFL draft), LB Stephen Tulloch (NFL draft), RB Bobby Washington (transfer/Eastern Kentucky), DE Mario Williams (NFL draft).
Chart By: David Glenn