By Jim Young
Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record
August 30, 2006
RALEIGH - Chuck Amato is a guy who likes to smile and loves to crack a joke. This preseason, the N.C. State football coach smiled a lot. You got the feeling it was because he was in on a joke that only he and his team knew.
Whereas last year's hype seemed to pose a mental burden (witness Amato's preseason ban on interviews with his highly touted defensive line), this year's low expectations appear to have had a liberating effect.
The Wolfpack was picked to finish fifth in the ACC's Atlantic Division, but this is a coach who was at his best last season when State was at 2-4 and a potential disaster was looming. Why wouldn't he enjoy the prospect of an entire season as an underdog? Particularly if Amato thinks his underdog is better than most think.
"These kids are funny," Amato said. "I mean that in a very, very positive way. There's a sense about them. They're really pretty close. They went through adversity and beat it last year. It's not the same team, obviously, but it might be a better team for different reasons."
Can the Wolfpack be better than the 7-5 mark it posted in 2005? It's not out of the question. But if it's going to happen, it will be, as Amato noted, for very different reasons.
After two straight seasons of enjoying the luxury of ferocious defenses, State's offense faces more pressure to carry additional weight. The Wolfpack had six starters from its defense taken in the NFL draft, including three linemen who went in the first round. While such a draft haul prompted many cynical national pundits to wonder why State didn't do better than 7-5 last fall, it also led those closer to Raleigh to ask just how much talent is still on campus.
"Let's call it like it is," Amato said. "We're not going to be as good as we were on defense the last two years, three of the last four years. We're not going to be as good as we were. It's that simple. How bad are we going to be? How good we're going to be? Time will tell."
It seemed like a moment of remarkable candor from Amato. Or maybe it was a bit of gamesmanship, an attempt to further establish "underdog" status.
Consider the line. After the loss of Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and John McCargo, all first-round picks in the 2006 NFL draft, it's been a popular subject among media members during Amato's post-practice sessions. But as much as the coach might enjoy talking to recruits about State's success in putting players in the NFL, he's not too keen on rehashing 2005 with the local press.
"The three guys that were drafted," Amato said, "that's yesterday's newspaper story."
Tomorrow's story might not be too gloomy. By now State fans should know better than to worry about the Wolfpack's defensive line. Say what you want about Amato, but never question his eye for defensive line talent.
After plucking McCargo from obscurity in rural Virginia and turning Lawson from a beanpole with no position into a first-round draft pick, Amato has earned the benefit of the doubt. Tackles Teddy Larsen and Alan-Michael Cash could be the next low-rated recruits (just two stars from Scout.com) to make an impact. Senior tackle Tank Tyler recently said that Larsen was getting reps with the first-team defense and looked "dominant" at times.
Junior tackle DeMario Pressley is back at his spot next to Tyler - remember, McCargo missed the second half of last season with an injury - and the return of Raymond Brooks at end is potentially huge. Brooks turned quite a few heads as a freshman in 2004, before missing last season for academic reasons. Will redshirt freshman Willie Young immediately fill the shoes of Lawson? Don't bet on it, especially against the run. But in theory, the State secondary should lessen the dropoff overall.
"That's probably our most experienced position," middle linebacker Pat Lowery said. "Maybe those guys can cover a little longer and help our pass rushers get to the quarterback."
Cornerback A.J. Davis finally started to live up to his hype last year. The other corner, Jimmy Sutton, got plenty of work in nickel and dime packages. Garland Heath and Miguel Scott are both playmaking safeties, so much so that the talented DaJuan Morgan still can't crack the starting lineup.
Actually, Morgan could see plenty of playing time if State goes to a 4-2-5 look on defense. Given the situation at linebacker, that might not be a bad idea.
Right now, this is what the Wolfpack knows about its linebackers: Lowery will start in the middle. Other than that, there's plenty of raw talent but even more inexperience. When Reggie Davis can jump to the top of the depth chart just a few weeks after moving from running back to weakside linebacker, it says something about Davis, but it says more about State's lack of depth at that position.
"It's a valid point that linebacking is a concern," Lowery said, "until we prove otherwise."
Meanwhile, the biggest burden of proof at State remains squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Marcus Stone. The prevailing thought among Wolfpack optimists is that an improved offense will more than make up for whatever dropoff the defense suffers. But that thinking is based on the assumption that Stone will make significant strides this season. It's too much to expect State to keep winning games in which its quarterback completes only one pass in the first half.
Stone, Amato and coordinator Marc Trestman have been saying all of the right things so far - that Stone has made a ton of progress since the end of last season, that he's working harder at studying film and understanding Trestman's schemes, that Trestman and Stone have a closer working relationship. But Stone's 9-for-20 performance against the second-team defense in the Wolfpack's first preseason scrimmage was cause for concern.
Then again, there also are a few things that could bode well for Stone. Thanks in part to the recruiting of receivers coach Dwayne Dixon, as well as the return of John Dunlap and Geron James from injury, State is blessed with a host of very tall, physical receivers. That size could be critical this season, given that (a) Stone has a very strong arm and can throw the deep ball, (b) Stone has shown a tendency to gamble and throw a ball or two up for grabs, and (c) it's expected that teams will stuff the tackle box with defenders, offering up numerous one-on-one situations for State's wideouts.
"I'm sure teams are going to try to make me win the game for us," Stone said. "I'm confident that if I have to start putting the ball down the field, teams will start respecting the pass eventually."
If you don't know why opposing defenses will be focused on stopping the Wolfpack running game, then you apparently were in a coma last season. Toney Baker and Andre Brown both lived up to the hype during their freshman season, leading the State coaching staff to draw up more plays out of split-back sets.
"We're going to always try to get our best players on the field," Trestman said.
That makes sense, but split backs would represent a departure from State's standard one-back, three-wideout formations. If Baker and Brown are both on the field, who takes a seat? Slot receiver Darrell Blackman, who could be State's best playmaking threat on the perimeter? Tight end Anthony Hill, who was dominant at times last season when run-blocking?
Those who-to-play questions at the skill positions simply don't exist on the offensive line. State returns experience and talent there, but not much depth. If the Wolfpack's starting lineup has James Newby at left tackle, Kalani Heppe at left guard, Leroy Harris at center, Curtis Crouch at right guard and Jon Holt at right tackle game after game, then the smile on Amato's face won't be forced. If names like Merci Falaise and Yomi Ojo become familiar to even the casual State fan, then the coach will spend more time grimacing than chuckling.
One area where Amato and his staff won't spend much time worrying is with kicking. For what seems like the eighth straight season, John Deraney will handle it all, from kickoffs to field goals to punts. The signing of two kickers in State's most recent recruiting class led to speculation that the Wolfpack would try to lessen Deraney's workload, but Amato squashed that idea firmly.
"Let me tell you," Amato said. "In that first game, the only reason John won't do all three phases is if John's in the infirmary somewhere."
There are just enough positive signs, along with just enough question marks, to make you wonder who will have the last laugh, Amato or the national pundits who eviscerated him this offseason.
Perhaps the most critical element may be the schedule. State starts off with three straight non-conference games in which the Wolfpack should be favored. Win all three and State builds confidence and momentum heading into the ACC opener, a home contest against Boston College. Lose just one of those early games, though - and Akron at home and Southern Miss in Hattiesburg more than qualify as dangerous - and State again will hear plenty of talk about Amato's sub-.500 ACC record and the tough path to bowl qualification.
Still, almost any situation State could encounter at midseason will be better than in 2005, when the Wolfpack looked dead in the water after losing at Wake Forest. Amato ended that year with a knowing smile on his face. Now he has the same expression heading into 2006.
N.C. STATE INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- Could State produce two 1,000-yard rushers from the same backfield, with Andre Brown and Toney Baker? If so, it would be a first in school history.
It's certainly possible. With a 12-game schedule, each would have to average 83.3 yards per game. Assuming they stay healthy, and if State gets a bowl bid, the required per-game average would come down even more. The closest State has come to having two backs rush for 1,000 yards each in a season came in 1974, when Stan Fritts gained 1,169 and Roland Hooks 850.
Brown rushed for 667 yards and Baker 546 last season as true freshmen, with all kinds of asterisks attached. Brown didn't get any quality playing time until the seventh game, and he averaged 104.2 from there. Baker, who was out and in and out and back in the lineup, got his 546 despite having seven or fewer carries in six games.
- The recruiting class of 20 announced on national signing day in February dwindled by the time fall practice started. That's been a trend under Chuck Amato, who leads the ACC in non-qualifiers since his arrival in 2000.
State wound up with 16 newcomers, then announced that quarterback Harrison Beck had transferred in from Nebraska. The players who never made it to Raleigh were Florida athletes Jordan Delegal, Carlos Everett and Everett Lewis, plus tight end transfer Jonathan Hannah.
Hannah will play at in-state Louisburg Junior College this season. He would have had to sit out as a transfer from South Carolina anyway, but now he can open up his recruitment again and play anywhere he wishes next season. The staff would rather have him in school, on campus, in the system, and practicing daily. Hannah said he still plans to wind up with the Wolfpack.
- State lost four players with eligibility remaining to the NFL after last season. Mario Williams and John McCargo were first-round picks, Stephen Tulloch was drafted, and Derek Morris was not drafted but got a free-agent deal.
A quick look at the 2006 roster reveals very few players who could project to be early entry candidates at the end of this season. Tight end Anthony Hill and defensive tackle DeMario Pressley, both true juniors, have NFL-caliber size and potential but would have to have outstanding seasons to become early picks. Brown also would be allowed to enter the draft after this season, even though he's only a sophomore, because he graduated from high school in the spring of 2004 and went to Hargrave for a year. Everyone else with NFL potential is either a senior or too young to leave early.
- Amato turned 60 on June 26, which is obviously a milestone and probably a surprise to many fans. Amato doesn't look that old, and he's in only his seventh season as a head coach.
But it's a significant number in terms of this and future seasons. As Amato has pointed out many times, he's not looking to go anywhere else. He wants to finish his career at State, and he's not looking to finish it anytime soon. He cites Bobby Bowden (76) and Joe Paterno (79) as role models.
Considering the way State's administration supported Herb Sendek when Sendek came under fire from fans, Amato can't be on the hot seat nearly as much as some national analysts suggest. He wouldn't leave on his own, even after a disastrous season, and the current NCSU administration has a history of supporting coaches and turning a deaf ear to disgruntled fans.
In stark contrast to Sendek, who remains bitter about the circumstances that surrounded his departure, criticism doesn't seem to bother Amato. It only makes him more determined to prove his critics wrong. And he's coming off a season in which he finished 5-1 after starting 2-4, so that'll strengthen his resolve even if more adversity hits.
THE BIG PICTURE
Chuck Amato quieted the boo-birds after State started 2-4 last year, closing 5-1 to salvage a bowl bid and a winning record. He's only one losing season away from the hot seat, though, and now he faces the challenge of replacing six starters on defense, three of them first-round NFL picks. State was predicted to finish fifth in the Atlantic, and if that plays out, Amato will have to listen to more talk about never finishing higher than fourth, even in the Philip Rivers era. The coach is playing it coy, because he likes some of the unproven talent on hand, but he's not confident enough to be boastful. If Andre Brown and Toney Baker run wild and QB Marcus Stone improves and the defense is adequate, State might surprise. If not, it won't take long for the boo-birds to return to Carter-Finley Stadium.
The PooP Stone was recruited as Rivers' eventual heir, but he frustrated the staff once he arrived with a perceived lack of seriousness and an inability to grasp the system. That cost him early playing time. Now entrenched as the starter, Stone seems to have his head in the right place. He's spending more time in the film room, and apparently grasping what coordinator Marc Trestman wants. Stone's strong personality was a hit with his teammates even when it wasn't with the coaches, so he rates as a team leader, a guy to whom other players relate and respond. That's likely part of the reason he's 5-1 as a starter.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 3-5 (6) 3-8 None
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)
ACC: 37-43 (.463)
Overall: 68-52 (.567)
Building Blocks If you've heard Amato stress the kicking game once, you've heard him stress it a million times, and you'll hear it a million more this year. The good news is that fifth-year senior John Deraney again is set to handle all kicking duties - kickoffs, punts, field goals and PATs. He averaged 40.1 yards per punt last year, was 15-for-20 on field goals and 28-for-28 on PATs, and 26 of his 54 kickoffs went for touchbacks. His leg never tired in 2005, as it had the previous year.
Coming On Strong Brown and Baker are true sophomores with a combined seven starts. But they're arguably the best returning one-two punch in the ACC, and the offense will be geared to utilizing both to maximum capacity. Amato has sold the duo on a time-share similar to what Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown once had at Auburn, and there will be times when they are in the backfield together. The sky's the limit for both, especially if Baker overcomes his fumble-itis, which led to Brown's opportunity last year. As always, a great running game opens up the pass and keeps the defense off the field.
Cause For Concern? There are big holes to fill at defensive end and linebacker, with the departures of Mario Williams, Manny Lawson, John McCargo, Stephen Tulloch and Oliver Hoyte. The new ends are raw, and there are so many players vying for playing time at linebacker that there's no set rotation yet. Chemistry will be an issue early, beyond the obviously enormous dropoff in talent and experience.
The Whole Truth "Let's call it like it is. We're not going to be as good as we were on defense the last two years. It's that simple. But how bad we're going to be, how good we're going to be, time will tell."
- N.C. State coach Chuck Amato Chart By: The NCSU Insider