N.C. State (6-5) vs. South Florida (6-5), Dec. 31, 11 a.m., ESPN2
By Jim Young
Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record December 22, 2005
RALEIGH -- In August, N.C. State was considered a threat to play in the first ACC football championship game. By October, Wolfpack athletic director Lee Fowler was penning an open letter to State fans, urging them to stay patient with a struggling team.
In December, State is preparing to play in its fifth bowl in six years, having won four of its last five games to finish 6-5.
It has been, to say the least, an up-and-down season for the Pack. But as 2005 comes to an end, against South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, is the state of the State program closer to up or down?
Even amidst the euphoria of closing with a 4-1 run, State coach Chuck Amato admitted that how you judge this season depends on your perspective.
"If we had started the season 4-1 and ended up 2-4, we'd have the same record," Amato said, "but it might not be as important to us, because we might be upset because we had such a big start."
The same could be said for N.C. State football as a whole.
Viewed from one vantage point, it is a program on the rise, with state-of-the-art facilities, scores of quality athletes migrating from Florida, and five bowl trips in Amato's six seasons. That, naturally, is the coach's perspective.
"We don't have to defend what we've done here," he said earlier in the season. "We've come a long way."
The critics beg to differ. To them, Amato caught lightning in a bottle with the signing of Philip Rivers and rode the quarterback's coattails during the coach's first four years in Raleigh. Since Rivers' departure, they point out, State is 11-11 overall. Even counting the Rivers era, Amato has managed just a 23-25 record in ACC play.
Both sides raise valid points. With State's program, some things are good, some are bad, and some are just unclear.
The good: State is in a bowl after starting 2-4, and its quarterback is not named Rivers. That's given the team a feeling of vindication.
"It's very rewarding," Amato said, after the win over Maryland. "I told (the team), you have the last laugh on this."
State was chuckling at season's end because it finally cut back on its bugaboos of the previous year and a half, penalties and turnovers. Once the Wolfpack stopped beating itself, it got a better sense of how its talent stacked up against the field. Mostly, it liked what it saw.
The two deepest positions for State -- defensive line and tailback -- delivered over the last half of the season.
End Mario Williams lived up to the All-America hype, finishing with a school record for sacks in a season (14), and end Manny Lawson wasn't far behind. Tackles Tank Tyler and DeMario Pressley played so well that State barely noticed the absence of stud John McCargo, who missed the final five regular-season games with a broken foot.
Freshman Andre Brown emerged from a crowd of blue-chip recruits to become a workhorse ball-carrier, showing an impressive mix of power and speed. Fellow rookie Toney Baker, who lost playing time after Brown emerged, came on strong in the last two games and showed that the Pack may have a two-headed tailback monster for years to come.
State also was one of the ACC's best defenses on third down, offering some evidence that an area initially perceived as a weakness -- its secondary -- actually turned out to be pretty solid. Marcus Hudson quietly had an outstanding senior season at cornerback, and Garland Heath emerged as a playmaker at rover.
For now, at least, it appears that State will have all of its coaches back in 2006. After losing both coordinators last season, along with recruiting maestro Doc Holliday, the Pack has been blissfully stable so far in December, while several other ACC programs looked to fill gaps on their staffs.
The bad: Most of the good things State did this season were accomplished despite, not because of, its quarterback.
After Jay Davis lost his confidence and his starting role, third-year sophomore Marcus Stone took over and directed the team to a 4-1 record. But Stone benefited from the sudden emergence of Brown and the sudden resurgence of State's defense. Stone didn't lose any games for the Pack, but he didn't win any, either.
"What if Jay had been there handing (Brown) the football?" Amato mused.
Good question. More importantly, what will Stone be like next season, when his top receiving threats (T.J. Williams, Brian Clark, Tramain Hall) are gone, but most of his extremely shaky line returns? And with Lawson, Hudson and linebacker Oliver Hoyte no longer around, and Mario Williams almost certain to join them in NFL training camps, will State's defense still be able to carry the load?
The unclear: Several players face decisions about whether to stay at State or attempt the jump to the NFL, and their calls likely will have a significant impact on next season.
Williams' situation is considered a foregone conclusion. His strong play late gave NFL general managers yet another reason to love the freakishly athletic junior. Based on his play early this fall, some scouts also were projecting McCargo as a first-round pick. But his midseason injury may have been a blessing for the Pack's coaches, who would love to have him anchoring the center of the line again in 2006.
Center Leroy Harris, a fourth-year junior who became a first-time father this fall, also has the NFL draft to consider. Asked before the Maryland game about turning pro, he didn't say he would make an early jump, but he didn't deny the possibility, either. Elsewhere, the father of talented but enigmatic right tackle Derek Morris has talked about his son's path to the pros for three years. In the unlikely event that both Harris and Morris leave early, it may not matter who is behind center next season.
Still, quarterback is the position that creates the most posts on the message boards. And though State already has a commitment from Justin Burke, a well-regarded high school prospect from Kentucky, the name that has fans really buzzing is Brent Schaeffer. A Florida product and one-time Tennessee quarterback, Schaeffer put up PlayStation numbers in junior college this fall and has State high on his list of possible destinations for 2006.
Whoever plays quarterback for State next season, there should be more fans in the stands watching him. The Wolfpack's building blitz will continue when the north end of Carter-Finley Stadium is bowled in, bringing its capacity closer to 60,000.
The project is yet another indication that State is taking itself seriously as a football school. Of course, that means next season had better have a lot more ups than downs, or the howls of joy in Raleigh quickly could turn back into a chorus of boos.
MEINEKE CAR CARE AND BEYOND
WR Brian Clark, QB Jay Davis, HB Tramain Hall, OG Dwayne Herndon, LB Oliver Hoyte, CB Marcus Hudson, DE Manny Lawson, DE Mario Williams (likely NFL), TE T.J. Williams
WR Sterling Hicks, FS J.J. Jones, OG John McKeon, DE Renaldo Moses, TE John Ritcher, WR Fred Span, RB/DB Bobby Washington (transfer)
2006 Returning Starters
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2006 Class
QB Marcus Stone 6-4/230 Jr.
RB Andre Brown 6-0/232 So.
SE Lamart Barrett 6-1/190 Sr.
LT James Newby 6-5/295 Sr.
LG Kalani Heppe 6-3/295 Jr.
OC Leroy Harris 6-3/295 Sr.
RT Derek Morris? 6-6/327 Sr.
DT John McCargo? 6-2/295 Sr.
DT DeMario Pressley 6-4/288 Jr.
LB LeRue Rumph 6-2/225 Jr.
LB Stephen Tulloch 5-11/230 Sr.
RV Garland Heath 6-2/225 Sr.
FS Miguel Scott 6-0/203 Jr.
CB A.J. Davis 5-10/190 Sr.
Special Teams (2)
PK John Deraney 6-4/215 Sr.
P John Deraney 6-4/215 Sr.
Other Tested Returnees
RB Toney Baker, RB Darrell Blackman, OG Curtis Crouch, RB Reggie Davis, WR John Dunlap, TE Anthony Hill
DT Martrel Brown, LB Ernest Jones, DS William Lee, LB Patrick Lowery, RV DaJuan Morgan, CB Jimmie Sutton, DT Tank Tyler
Projected 2006 Strengths
At two very important positions, tailback (Brown, Baker, Blackman) and defensive tackle (McCargo, Pressley, Tyler), N.C. State has developed the kind of depth normally seen on ACC champions and other national contenders. The tackle spot, in particular, is a persistent concern for coaches throughout the conference, and the Wolfpack is able to go three- or four-deep there with quality performers. Elsewhere on defense, veterans Tulloch and Heath likely will continue to make it extremely difficult for opponents to run between the hash marks. On special teams, the emergence of Deraney as a reliable three-way (placements, punts, kickoffs) threat should provide a strong foundation.
Projected 2006 Questions
While the departing class represented some of the elite-level talent brought into the program in 2002 and 2003, is it clear yet that subsequent recruiting classes hold similar prospects, beyond a pair of eye-opening tailbacks and a handful of others? Will the most unstable staff in the ACC finally benefit from what looks as if it will be a rare offseason without turnover? Is Amato's FSU-like habit of leading the league in non-qualifiers and academic-related attrition preventing his program from achieving a desirable level of maturity heading into year seven? Is it possible to win consistently without a proven quarterback or a reliable offensive line, regardless of the talent at other positions? Will the Wolfpack's refusal and/or inability to build even decent depth at quarterback, offensive tackle, wideout, linebacker and defensive end prove costly in 2006, when several untested players likely will be forced into key roles?
Chart By: Editor David Glenn