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Amato's First Full Recruiting Cycle At N.c. State Laid Firm Foundation

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and Staff

November 1, 2004 RALEIGH — When Chuck Amato popped the cork on a bottle of faux champagne on national signing day in 2001, he wanted to signal to the rest of the ACC and the college football world that N.C. State would become a celebration destination in years to come. Like Amato's fake bubbly — it was really a sparkling, non-alcoholic grape juice — the Wolfpack's extra-large 2001 recruiting class looked a lot like the real thing. In retrospect, the surviving members of the group have been very productive, although their success hasn't quite reached a championship level.

Over the last four years, Amato's landmark class — the result of his first full recruiting cycle as the leader of the Pack — has been extremely important in the coach's on-going attempt to build a top-notch program in Raleigh. Of N.C. State's 30 additions in 2001, 13 are regular contributors this fall, and another seven (including four transfers) were prominent players in previous seasons. That kind of success rate — in the football recruiting world, anything over 50 percent is considered good — is what Amato helped achieve during his 18 years as an assistant at Florida State, which posted 14 straight top-five finishes on the field from 1987-2000.

"That's the only way I know," Amato said. "You have to recruit every day, every year. If you don't have players, you're not going to win. It's that simple. You need one strong class, then another and another and another. That's our goal here."

Among N.C. State's 2001 signees, four are true seniors this fall who already have become three-year starters for the Wolfpack: safety Andre Maddox, center Jed Paulsen, cornerback Lamont Reid and linebacker Pat Thomas. A pair of redshirt juniors, safety Marcus Hudson and wide receiver Sterling Hicks, could be added to that list next year. Four members of the class — Maddox and Thomas, plus a pair of since-departed transfers in tight end Sean Berton (from West Virginia) and defensive end Shawn Price (from junior college) — already have earned All-ACC honors.

Amato landed Hicks, Hudson, Maddox and Thomas from the same region in South Florida that had been his designated recruiting area with the Seminoles. In all, 10 of the Wolfpack's 30 signees were from the Sunshine State in 2001, kicking off a trend that remains a significant part of the program's identity to this day.

"In my wildest dreams, I didn't think we'd get that many from down there," Amato said on signing day in 2001. "But we sure did."

Despite those individual success stories, of course, N.C. State still has not managed anything better than a fourth-place finish in the ACC under Amato. As sophomores (for the most part) in 2002, the class did help the Wolfpack to a school-record 11 victories, including wins over Florida State in the regular-season finale and over Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. But the last two seasons have been as much about missed opportunities as accomplishments for the Pack, which has been able to compete with college football giants such as FSU, Ohio State and Miami but has not beaten them consistently enough — or at the right times — to become a national power itself.

Nevertheless, that Amato could put together a consensus top-25 class during his first full recruiting cycle in Raleigh was remarkable. It certainly represented a stark contrast from the efforts of his predecessors at N.C. State. Dick Sheridan and Mike O'Cain both signed lots of prospects they thought could be molded into their systems, but neither landed a large number of prep All-Americans or other high-profile targets. In seven seasons under O'Cain, the Wolfpack never cracked the top 25 in the national recruiting rankings and only once finished that high in the polls.

Amato had limited input with his first (2000) class at N.C. State. After taking over for O'Cain, he had less than a month to lure players to Raleigh. Amato shifted his focus to the Wolfpack only after Florida State won the 1999 national championship, which meant he arrived at his alma mater in early January 2000. With key targets such as Alabama quarterback Philip Rivers already identified by O'Cain's staff, Amato began his work by gaining a crucial commitment from Rivers and firming up some of the holdover pledges. The coach then filled out his first class with some leftovers from South Florida (partial qualifier Troy Graham, wide receiver Andy Bertrand) and a few fortunate finds, including wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, another Alabama product.

By going 8-4 in Amato's first season, with many victories in dramatic fashion under the guidance of offensive coordinator Norm Chow and star-in-the-making Rivers, the Wolfpack caught the attention of the recruits Amato wanted in his first full recruiting cycle. Playing in the MicronPC.com Bowl in Fort Lauderdale, where the Wolfpack had an exciting victory over Minnesota, didn't hurt either.

"If I had to pick the bowl this year, knowing what you have to do to get a foot in down there, that would have been the MicronPC Bowl this season," Amato said in 2001. "The press was very nice to us down there for about 14 days. Sure, it helped us."

"My initial thought (while in high school) was to stay in Florida, because Miami was recruiting me hard, Florida and Florida State were somewhat," said Hicks, who played at Sunshine State power Pompano Beach Ely. "But throughout the (2000) season, I saw a lot of N.C. State games come on television, even in South Florida. They were getting a lot of exposure, and Philip Rivers was a freshman. He was throwing the ball 45 times a game. I knew the program was up and coming. Me and (Deerfield Beach product Tramain Hall) talked a lot about it. We knew we were going to come up here."

Hall committed on Christmas Day in 2000, two days after the Pack's win over the Gophers, and Hicks followed a day later. Unfortunately, N.C. State officials inadvertently damaged Hall's career by allowing him to enroll (in January 2001) as a full-time college student before he had completed a basic (Florida's high school exit exam) and well-known academic requirement, so his on-field arrival was delayed for nearly two years by NCAA eligibility complications. Hall played at Los Angeles Valley College for one season, then sat out 2002 as a redshirt in Raleigh before finally becoming eligible for the Wolfpack in 2003.

The rest of the dominoes in the Wolfpack's eye-catching Class of 2001 began to fall quickly after that, and the Pack ended up with so many Florida products that even Amato was surprised on signing day. In the end, eight of the team's nine prep signees from the Sunshine State were ranked among its top 100 seniors. Most were from South Florida.

"There are a lot of youngsters down there who have grown up wanting to be a Hurricane," Amato said. "And if they always wanted to be a Cane, it's going to be tough to convince them otherwise. But some of them don't want to be a Cane. Some of them want to get away. Some of them, their parents want them to get out of the city. If they say they want to get out of the state, then we've got a really good shot."

"I wasn't that highly recruited myself, but I know that once I saw a couple of guys commit, I was like, 'Man, Chuck knows how to recruit the Florida guys,'" said Thomas, who stepped in as a starter after a one-year apprenticeship under All-American linebacker Levar Fisher. "He knew how to get us up there. It was going to be a place just like home."

Amato also attracted Maddox, Thomas' teammate at Killian High in Miami, and the two began a trend that now has landed five former Killian players on the Wolfpack roster. Thomas and Maddox are strong All-ACC candidates again this fall, while sophomore linebacker Stephen Tulloch and freshman tailback Bobby Washington appear to have a legitimate chance to reach that level in future years.

So the 2001 class, stamped by the efforts of Amato and long-time Florida recruiter Doc Holliday, clearly established that N.C. State could get top-notch recruits out of Florida, even a few who were coveted by some or all of the Big Three of Miami, Florida and FSU. Notably, the Wolfpack signed two players (Hall and Hicks) from South Florida who fit that description, while the Seminoles landed only one elite-level prospect (Willie Jones) from the same region that year.

"There's a communication factor, a trust factor, down there," Amato said. "I went three or four years at Florida State before some of the coaches opened up to me. It was, 'Who's this fast-talking guy from up North coming down here?' So you build relationships, and you build trust. Hopefully, the coaches trust you, and then the players will trust you, and then the players that you recruit trust you, and they come back and tell others."

Another South Florida player Amato signed in 2001 was Hudson, the younger brother of Florida State linebacker Jerel Hudson. The Seminoles weren't interested, and Amato swooped in to get him away from Nebraska and Ohio State, among others. The coach promised that with the younger Hudson on the field, the Wolfpack would beat FSU over the next four years. That prediction came true in 2001, when State became the first ACC team to beat the Seminoles in Tallahassee. Hudson was the first player Amato hugged after the coach shook hands with his former employer and mentor, Bobby Bowden.

Among the other players signed from Florida was Jay Davis of Clearwater, who is now solidly in place as Rivers' replacement. Davis chose the Wolfpack in part because he already was familiar with Chow's style of offense. Davis' father and high school coach, John Davis, had installed a similar scheme at Central Catholic High after meeting up with Chow protÈgÈ Mike Canales.

Of course, Davis never got to learn anything from Chow, who left for Southern California after one year with the Wolfpack, but Amato hired Canales as the team's quarterbacks coach for two years. Canales, who left N.C. State in 2003 to take a job with the NFL's New York Jets, is now back in the college ranks as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Arizona.

Another out-of-state player from the Class of 2001 who has had a big impact at N.C. State is Paulsen. A rare signee from the Midwest (Missouri) for Amato, Paulsen has played through multiple injuries in his career, including an ankle problem that has wiped out much of his senior season. Nevertheless, he's been a three-year starter on a patchwork offensive line that has done a remarkable job in protecting Rivers and Davis.

Amato also signed three junior college players and accepted the transfer of Berton in 2001, and they all made big impacts very quickly. Berton sat out the 2001 season under NCAA transfer rules, but the three juco players — Price, defensive end Terrance Chapman and defensive tackle Terrance Martin — all were big contributors from the start. When Berton became eligible in 2002, he developed into one of the most punishing blockers in the ACC.

Price and Martin were starters in 2002 as well, and they were key reasons why the Wolfpack led the conference in total defense. Chapman, on the other hand, had a disappointing finish in Raleigh. He sat out the 2002 season and was declared academically ineligible for 2003, ending his college football career.

Interestingly, while most of the Wolfpack's highly ranked 2001 signees ultimately became contributors, most of the team's lesser-known signees have failed to rise above their relatively modest high school reputations.

Wide receiver Fred Span of Florida has been a career reserve and special teams player. Avery Gibson of Alabama arrived as a linebacker, was converted to tight end/fullback, and now plays little as a reserve. Offensive lineman Antoine Colvin of Maryland spent three years in the program, then transferred closer to home at Division I-AA Towson, where he stepped into the starting lineup this fall. Offensive lineman Brandon Moore, a Charlotte native who played one semester at Hargrave Military Academy before enrolling in January 2002, played little and left school after the 2003 season. Offensive lineman Brian Archis spent three years with the Pack but left before the 2004 season.

What is sometimes forgotten about this landmark N.C. State class is that there also were 11 recruits from North Carolina, as Amato tried to build his much-talked-about fence around the state. The most productive of those in-state players have been Reid, receiver-turned-cornerback Dovonte Edwards, linebacker Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay and offensive lineman John McKeon.

Aughtry-Lindsay, a two-year starter from High Point who originally committed to nearby Wake Forest, is glad he changed his mind. The Demon Deacons fired coach Jim Caldwell after the 2000 season, opening the door for Amato. Aughtry-Lindsay made his final choice after hearing who else might show up with him in Raleigh.

"That was a big part of my decision, the other guys in the class," Aughtry-Lindsay said. "You could see, with the coaches in the program, how things were coming along."

Aughtry-Lindsay has turned out to be one of the class' most pleasant surprises, along with McKeon, another two-year starter who garnered little interest from other Division I-A programs coming out of high school.

Amato gave a nod to the school's history when he signed tight end John Ritcher out of Raleigh's Ravenscroft High. Ritcher is the son of former Wolfpack All-American and Outland Trophy winner Jim Ritcher, who played center in the late 1970s, when Amato was the Pack's defensive coordinator under Bo Rein. John Ritcher sees plenty of action as a backup tight end and on special teams, where he is a fiery, hard-nosed, reliable player.

Defensive end Renaldo Moses was a late addition to the Wolfpack's 2001 class, after originally committing to Virginia and then East Carolina. He changed his mind the first time after UVa coach George Welsh announced his resignation, then again after Amato came forward with a late scholarship offer. A rail-thin 6-6, 225-pounder, Moses has struggled to bulk up during his career, and he missed all of last season after suffering a torn knee ligament. A redshirt junior, he hasn't played much this fall as a third-team end.

Rover J.J. Jones, who did not play football during his senior season of high school, also switched from ECU to NCSU in 2001. He has begun to see more action on the field this fall behind Maddox and could compete for a starting job in the spring. After sitting out the 2002 season for disciplinary reasons, Jones has another year of eligibility remaining.

Tailback Josh Brown was the Wolfpack's second-leading rusher over the last two seasons, after sitting out 2001 as a partial qualifier, but he was hampered by injuries throughout his career. He missed seven games last year with a severe abdominal strain and never developed into a reliable front-line player. In the fall, he opted to discontinue playing football but remained with the team as a student coach.

Defensive linemen Chip Cross and Kennie Covington had checkered careers with the Wolfpack, mainly because of academic difficulties. Cross, who saw limited action over the last two years after redshirting in 2001, was ruled ineligible earlier this fall. Covington failed to qualify in 2001, spent two seasons in junior college, then re-joined the Pack in 2003. He redshirted last fall but was declared ineligible just as preseason practice began for 2004. Both players left the team a few days into August practice.

There were several other players whose careers just didn't work out with the Wolfpack. That probably shouldn't be surprising with such a large class, especially one that included several players who already were skating on thin ice when they arrived in Raleigh.

As anyone who has been to inner-city Miami knows, recruiting in that area of the country doesn't come without some risks. Even a one-time gangsta-rap program such as Miami, which recently cleared the way for Willie Williams and his multiple felony arrests to join its program, hasn't been immune to running into a few problems now and then. It's politically incorrect to use the term these days, but the most common phrase veteran college recruiters use to describe the South Florida region is "war zone."

So it wasn't surprising when wide receiver Chris Murray of Seffner Armwood ended up as part of N.C. State's 2001 class. He came to Raleigh after decommitting from Miami when Hurricanes coach Butch Davis resigned to take the head coaching job with the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Murray had the reputation of a problem child on the recruiting trail, but he had great size (6-4, 195) and was rated a prep All-American by some analysts.

Murray's stay in Raleigh was short and troubled. He left the program midway through his first year, citing family issues related to his one-year-old son in Florida. Amato rejected Murray's request for a release to Central Florida, citing the presence of the Knights on a future (2005) Wolfpack schedule. Murray later begged to return to NCSU, and Amato let him come back as a walk-on receiver in 2002. Murray had very little impact, though, and he left for good after the Pack's season-ending win over Notre Dame.

Greg Golden of St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale was another talented player whose prep reputation was something of a mixed bag. He did have a significant impact on the Wolfpack program, starting at tailback and cornerback at various times, but he was dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons just before last year's Tangerine Bowl. He declared himself eligible for the 2004 NFL draft but was not selected.

In several ways, Golden was an important player for the Pack. He saw some action as a freshman, setting the school record on kickoff returns in the Tangerine Bowl loss to Pittsburgh. His biggest contribution came as a sophomore, when he jumped at the opportunity to move from defensive back to running back because of multiple injuries in the NCSU backfield. He started at tailback for four games, allowing a smooth transition for then-freshman T.A. McLendon to take over the job. Golden also added a little mouth to the offense, which seemed to rub off on Rivers in a positive way. Because of his sacrifices, Golden often appeared to be one of Amato's favorites, but he was suspended from the team prior to last year's postseason game against Kansas and never returned.

College coaches always say, of course, that you can't really judge a recruiting class until the third or fourth season after the players arrive on campus. In this case, Amato should be able to look back at his first full class at N.C. State with the same pride he had when he announced their signings in February 2001.

Six starters on what was recently the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation came from that signing class. Davis and Hall, two key parts of this year's offense, were part of that class. Few schools can claim more productivity from any single group of newcomers.

If Amato has any regrets, it's that seven of his best 2001 signees — Aughtry-Lindsay, Edwards, Gibson, Maddox, Paulsen, Reid and Thomas — weren't able to take a redshirt season. The N.C. State team Amato inherited had too many holes, and Amato's first full recruiting class in Raleigh had too much talent, for the newcomers to sit and watch.

"Wouldn't it have been nice if we had been able to redshirt them?" Amato said. "It would have been nice to know that all of them were juniors. But (the class) showed the fact that if you get out and work your fanny off, and you have something you believe in, then these youngsters will bite on it."

With more recruiting classes like the one they landed in 2001, Amato and his assistants are likely to have even more reasons for celebratory toasts in the future.


Recruits: 30
Points: 215 (7.2 per)
All-ACC Selections/Candidates: 4
Starters: 15
% Starters: 50.0
Second Team: 5
% Contributors: 66.7
Missing (Dismissed/Left) Players: 9

VA OL Brian Archis Left Team 2004
NC LB F. Aughtry-Lindsay* Two-Year Starter
WVU TE Sean Berton! Starter 2002-03
NC RB Josh Brown Left Team 2004
JC DE Terrance Chapman Starter/Dismissed
MD OL Antoine Colvin Transfer/Towson
NC DE Kennie Covington Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
NC DE Chip Cross Dismissed 2004
FL QB Jay Davis Starter
NC WR Dovonte Edwards* Starter (CB)
AL LB Avery Gibson* Second Team (FB)
FL DB Greg Golden Starter/Dismissed 2003
FL RB Tramain Hall Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
NC DT Dwayne Herndon Second Team
FL WR Sterling Hicks Two-Year Starter
FL DB Marcus Hudson Two-Year Starter
NC DB J.J. Jones Second Team
FL DB Andre Maddox* Three-Year Starter
JC DT Terrance Martin Juco/Starter 2002
NC OL John McKeon Two-Year Starter
VA OL Brandon Moore Left Team 2004
NC DE Renaldo Moses Second Team
FL WR Chris Murray Left Team 2003
MO OL Jed Paulsen* Three-Year Starter#
JC DE Shawn Price Juco/Starter 2002
NC RB Lamont Reid* Three-Year Starter (CB)
NC TE John Ritcher Second Team
VA TE Lamarr Smith Non-Qualifier/Re-Signed
FL WR Fred Span Career Reserve
FL LB Pat Thomas* Three-Year Starter

^ – 2001 walk-on ! – I-A transfer # – injured
* – never redshirted/exhausts eligibility this fall


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