October 20, 2003 RALEIGH With four games remaining, Chuck Amato is stinging. He hasn't taken N.C. State to the top of the national polls. Several national publications, including Sports Illustrated and USA Today, listed the Wolfpack among the nation's most disappointing teams at the mid-point of the season. The local papers, now that basketball is about to start up again, are ignoring the gridiron Pack in droves.
It's the kind of thing that drives Amato, and most other football coaches, absolutely nuts. But the truth of the matter is this: The Wolfpack is a solid program, but it's hardly the breakthrough team many publications SI chief among them projected in August.
The reasons are pretty simple. The defensive front that was so good for the Wolfpack last year has not been good at on-the-job training. The collection of freshmen, sophomores and junior college seniors has been beaten easily at times, and that has made life more difficult for the linebackers and defensive backs. The offense has been hobbled with various injuries, unlike any Amato had to coach around in his first three years.
If Amato just knew he had a tailback he could count on from week to week, things would be a little maybe a lot better. But with injury-prone sophomore T.A. McLendon alone in the spotlight, the Wolfpack's running game is always week-to-week.
Backup Josh Brown is OK, but he also has been hobbled by injuries. Third-team back Cotra Jackson, a converted fullback, was better suited for his former position. True freshman Reggie Davis, who reportedly has been a load in practice, surprisingly retained his redshirt status through the first eight games of the season. Amato knew well ahead of time that he'd need more help, and he signed two other highly regarded tailbacks (Darrell Blackman, Brian Dennison) in February, but in both cases he got burned by his Florida State-like habit of signing too many academic question marks.
Here's one reasonable goal for the Wolfpack over the final month of the season: to avoid being listed among the most disappointing teams at the end of 2003. With games still remaining against Virginia, Florida State and Maryland the three teams that beat the Pack last year and finished ahead in the ACC standings State doesn't have an easy road. With Duke (and all its troubles) as the Wolfpack's other opponent, getting the six wins necessary for a bowl bid won't be an issue. But there's no way the Pack can count on anything as good as the Gator Bowl again, unless it wins all four of its remaining games.
Just being in this situation to begin with is something to be significantly concerned about. Amato's record, soon to be the fourth-best in school history after four seasons, looks to be impressive, with 31 wins and 15 losses. But the truth is his four-year ACC mark (15-13) isn't dramatically better than Mike O'Cain's conference record after seven years (26-30). The Wolfpack hasn't won a game on the road this season, and Amato's road record in league games is 6-8.
Most Wolfpack fans, heading into the season, would have said anything worse than 9-3 is a major disappointment, coming off last year's 11-3 record and the win over Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. Just getting to that point won't be easy, considering that Florida State is much better than it has been the last two years, and Amato hasn't beaten Maryland in his first three tries.
The most encouraging development since the loss to Georgia Tech was that the defense won the last two games, thanks primarily to improved play by junior linebacker Pat Thomas, junior linebacker Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay and junior safety Andre Maddox. Those were three of the players Amato had in mind a few weeks ago, when he challenged his defensive veterans to upgrade their play.
Thomas has been the unsung guy, putting pressure on quarterbacks and helping to create other big plays. Those included the fumble and interception Aughtry-Lindsay returned for touchdowns against Connecticut, plus the clinching interception cornerback Dovonte Edwards had in the Thursday night game against Clemson.
McLendon: Tough, But Prepared?
So here comes the question N.C. State fans love to ponder: Is McLendon hurt so much because he runs so hard, or is he just not prepared to take the punishment he gets in every game he plays?
There's no question that, on game day, McLendon and Florida State's Greg Jones (when healthy) are the most rugged runners in the ACC. There's no doubting either player's toughness. McLendon bowls people over, spins away from them and pounds them whenever he gets a chance. However, his opportunities have been limited this year because of various lingering injuries, including a locked knee in the first half against Clemson that appeared to have ended his night before it got started.
McLendon, despite waxing poetic about how he loves practice and being with his teammates, is not a Monday-through-Friday guy. He's all about the Saturdays.
It's a recurring joke with Amato about McLendon's availability for practice, especially the gassers at the end of the day. McLendon rarely runs them, since he's almost always in a pink jersey and hobbled by some sort of ailment. Some people question his physical preparation, even on game day. Remember, that hamstring injury against Texas Tech came on his first carry of the second half. Many wondered if he was properly stretched when he went onto the field.
At times, McLendon can be as dominating as any offensive player on the field when he's healthy. Unfortunately, in the second year of his career, that hasn't been very often. If the Wolfpack is going to be able to survive without quarterback Philip Rivers after this season, McLendon has to be ready to carry the team's offense. Taking the preparation a little more seriously certainly wouldn't hurt.
Asleep During Midnight Madness?
Both North Carolina and Duke had splashy first basketball practices, hyping their top-10 programs and highlighting what should be a rejuvenating year for college basketball's best rivalry.
So what were Herb Sendek and the Wolfpack basketball team doing? Presumably, considering the late-night nature of Midnight Madness, they were in bed.
Sendek doesn't like any outsiders attending his practices, and he apparently doesn't want the fans to see what his teams do, even if it's a just-for-fun event like the ones at Duke, Carolina and dozens of other schools all across America. Instead, the Pack will stage a milder brand of festivities as part of its annual intrasquad game, two weeks after everyone else in the state of North Carolina has caught basketball fever.
So, the Wolfpack coach maintained his standard 10 a.m. practice on the first day of the season. Is it any wonder that Sendek a man his friends say can be funny, personable and relaxed in non-public settings is still considered the most boring figure in ACC basketball since, oh, former Wake Forest coach Bob Staak?
We try to have our excitement for the Red and White game, Sendek said. We are going to do some things with Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani and let our fans be a part of that.