August 27, 2005
The Big Picture
N.C. State Insider: Updates / Analysis
RALEIGH N.C. State receiver Tramain Hall feels more than a little unsatisfied, and he's not afraid to tell you about it. With a palpable passion and all the calm of a buzzing chainsaw, Hall likely spoke on behalf of every member of the Wolfpack when he recently dismissed last year's
5-6 record as a colossal embarrassment.
"Last season was a letdown," Hall said. "I can tell you this: 5-6 is not N.C. State football. N.C. State football is the Gator Bowl. N.C. State football is going undefeated. N.C. State football is what we wear across our shirt: Finish. That's what we need to do."
It may seem odd for a guy who had only 28 receptions last fall to emerge as the Wolfpack's vocal leader, its inspirational mouthpiece. But Hall, a 5-10, 194-pound playmaker, knows a thing or two about perseverance.
After originally committing to N.C. State out of high school in 2000, Hall hit a roadblock when the Wolfpack's misapplication of NCAA rules left him ineligible as a freshman. After spending the spring 2001 semester at NCSU, then learning that his early enrollment actually cost him his eligibility, Hall landed at L.A. Valley Junior College in California. He transferred back to State a year later, but he had to sit out in 2002 because of related eligibility complications.
"What happened to Tramain was really a travesty, because immediately the stigma is well, he's a dumb kid," N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said. "No, he's not a dumb kid. When you get around him, he's really a very intelligent kid."
Not to mention energetic. And speedy. And driven. All of which Hall hopes to convert into leadership this season.
"My senior season will be a good one. I'm going to make sure it's a good one," Hall said. "Look, you don't know what I've been through. I'm not trying to be selfish. But we need everybody on our team. And if I have to get in guys' faces to take that leadership role, that's what I have to do."
There's no doubt that Hall's hunger is shared by many of his teammates. Whether the Wolfpack can mold that motivation into victories remains to be seen.
What is certain is that N.C. State enters the 2005 season showcasing one of the nation's most formidable defenses and an offense eager to pick up its share of the slack. A year ago, the Pack led the nation in yards allowed, surrendering just 221.4 per game while allowing an average of only 19.8 points.
State lost five starters off that defensive unit, including linebacker Pat Thomas and free safety Troy Graham. But the Wolfpack returns intact up front, boasting a line that could be the best in the nation.
Ends Mario Williams and Manny Lawson both were All-ACC selections a year ago, combining for 13 sacks and 27 tackles for loss. They enter this season as candidates for the Bednarik Award, and they'll bookend a line that will rotate a trio of sturdy yet agile tackles in John McCargo, DeMario Pressley and Tank Tyler.
"All those guys are benching 500 pounds, they're jumping 33, 34 inches on the vertical," linebacker Patrick Lowery said. "And then you see them in the weight room and they're doing cartwheels. It's amazing."
Williams is the crown jewel of the bunch, a quarterback-crushing beast who seems destined to make a living playing on Sundays. The 6-7, 290-pound junior still manages to awe his teammates with his athleticism, not to mention his superhero physique.
"It's hard to believe that he's only (20) years old and he's that big. It's unreal," Lowery said. "There are not many people constructed like that physically, and he's athletic on top of it."
Still, as the Wolfpack proved a year ago, a team cannot win on defense alone. That's why State's offensive players are intent on making marked improvement. Specifically, they must cut down on the 32 turnovers that killed far too many drives a year ago.
Hall, who caught 69 balls as a sophomore, has been touted by his teammates and coaches as a player primed for a break-out season. But for that to happen, State will have to receive intelligent play from quarterback Jay Davis and consistent production from a talented and deep tailback rotation that has five players returnees Reggie Davis, Darrell Blackman and Bobby Washington, plus amazing true freshmen Toney Baker and Andre Brown competing for playing time.
Baker, a 218-pound freshman out of Jamestown, N.C., may have the most upside of the backs. He set a North Carolina state record with an eye-popping 10,231 rushing yards at Ragsdale High. But to flourish in Raleigh, Baker will have to prove reliable in pass protection and learn to share the spotlight with his backfield mates.
The key to the offense undoubtedly will be Davis, who threw for 2,104 yards last season but played with a certain diffidence. Too often, he reprimanded himself for poor throws and turnovers, and he often appeared too easily weighed down by the expectations of fans who had become accustomed to All-American play from their quarterback.
"You saw the way things went down," Hall said. "Everybody expected him to come in and be like Phillip Rivers, and there was just no way."
Davis said he feels more relaxed heading into this season, and that he won't let himself brood over his mistakes. In the offseason, he took ample time out to watch game film from last season with his dad, John, a high school coach in Florida. Jay used the sessions as a summer school of sorts, recognizing the mechanical flaws that contributed to his 15 interceptions.
"It could be a little thing like opening my front toe too much," Davis said. "And that causes your elbow to drop, which causes the ball to sail a little bit. Stuff like that. They were very little things, but they make a big difference."
Davis seemed to be energized in August, as he operated a Wolfpack offense he deemed "quarterback-friendly." The system was installed by new coordinator Marc Trestman, who was brought in this spring to revitalize a unit that had more turnovers (32) than touchdowns (27) in 2004.
With an attack that tries to balance spreading the ball around with riding the hot hand, State thinks it has the offensive pieces to contend in the ACC's Atlantic Division. At the very least, Trestman's focus and passion have proven infectious.
"Now, even the offensive line has to understand coverages a little bit," Davis said. "You don't have to be real specific with it, but they've got to get the gist of what's going on. And the receivers have to know when certain blitzes are coming and stuff like that. Coach Trestman has kind of made everybody accountable and brought everybody in on the same page."
Coming off the first losing season of his five years in Raleigh, Amato has tried to do the same, getting his players to think big and work harder. The coach didn't make overriding changes to his philosophy in the offseason, but he insists he altered one thing.
"Yeah, I changed," Amato said. "My intensity. That's it. Period. Look it up intensity. Get Webster. I don't know the exact definition of it. But for me, it's one word: intensity."
It certainly won't take long for the Wolfpack's season to generate some intensity. State will kick off on Sept. 4 under the national spotlight, against a Virginia Tech team that finished 10-3 last year and won the ACC. The Hokies' three failures came by a combined 15 points, with a one-point defeat to the Wolfpack joining losses to undefeated 2004 powerhouses Southern California and Auburn.
"I know we play other teams," linebacker Oliver Hoyte said. "But I honestly can't sit here and tell you who else is on our schedule. All I'm worried about right now is Virginia Tech, ESPN2, Sunday night, 7 p.m. It doesn't get any better than that. You can't help but be amped for that game."
With a smile that still glows like the Vegas strip, Hall shares Hoyte's excitement. He hopes a win in the season opener against the Hokies can propel the Pack to a major bowl. With just one season left, the slippery receiver also is bubbling about the big numbers he's expecting to put up individually.
"I'm not trying to be selfish about it," Hall said. "People will say, Tramain, why didn't you get the ball more last season? 'Hey, sometimes the quarterback didn't get the ball off. But I'm not going to dwell on that. It's time to move on. And you can write in your pad that this year you might see Tramain a whole bunch."
Like any confident receiver, Hall has a number in mind for how many balls he'd like to catch this season. That would be 70, or one more than the 69 receptions he put up in 2003. And he won't be fully satisfied until he's left his mark on the program.
"I want to leave a legacy," Hall said. "Like Torry Holt and Koren Robinson. It comes to a point where you want your name on that balcony (at Carter-Finley Stadium). That's what I'm working for, and there's not a question in my mind that's possible for me."
Hall admits that he is still seething over last year's disappointment, and he's not the only one. Just hearing State's record out loud 5-6 recently caused Hoyte to cringe as if he had just swallowed a shot of Clorox.
"What do I think about? Sitting at home," Hoyte said. "Sitting at home when everybody else is playing. Sitting at home, not preparing for a game. Sitting at home while everyone else is on the road and getting bowl gifts. It's not a good feeling. I don't want to feel that way again."
Hoyte paused and looked up with a glare of determination.
"It won't happen again," he said. "We won't let it."
The Big Picture
The heat isn't completely on for Chuck Amato, but last year's 5-6 record was disconcerting enough for many wolves to howl for the first time in the coach's six-year tenure. That makes it imperative for the Wolfpack to bounce back with at least eight victories and a desirable bowl trip, especially considering its soft non-conference schedule. State led the nation in total defense last season, giving up only 221.4 yards a game, and that again will be the team's bread and butter. But the offense has to do its part, after being the weak link in 2004, and that means QB Jay Davis must make better decisions and cut down on his mistakes. State committed 101 penalties for 779 yards last year, and the offense averaged nearly three turnovers per game. That's no way to play field-position football.
Davis is in the spotlight and on the spot, after being the lightning rod for controversy last year. He distanced himself from confused backup Marcus Stone as the undisputed starter in the spring, and Amato insists that Davis has improved tremendously. He's smarter. He's more poised. He's more confident. He's taking more of a leadership role. He's more suited to succeed in the West Coast offense run by new coordinator Marc Trestman. Nevertheless, most State fans will have to see it to believe it.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1995 2-6 (7) 3-8 None
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
ACC: 36-44 (.450)
Overall: 64-55 (.538)
The defensive line may be as good as any front four in the nation. End Mario Williams is an All-America candidate and could be the ACC's defensive player of the year. End Manny Lawson also will play on Sundays eventually. The top three tackles, DeMario Pressley, Tank Tyler and John McCargo, keep getting better. Without question, this is the strong suit of the team, and if it can shut down the run and keep constant heat on opposing quarterbacks, it'll make everyone else's job a lot easier.
Coming On Strong
Five heralded tailbacks are competing for the starting job, replacing T.A. McLendon, and Amato believes the competition is making them all better. Reggie Davis (46 carries, 227 yards in 2004), Darrell Blackman (52-206) and Bobby Washington (57-151) remain in a dead heat, and impressive freshmen Toney Baker (wow!) and Andre Brown could gain ground as the season progresses. Amato tried to give everyone equal reps in the preseason to sort it all out. One thing's for sure: Fumble a lot, as McLendon did, and you go to the back of the line.
Cause For Concern?
Depth issues have prompted Amato to go to "interchangeable" linebackers this season, with players learning at least two of the three positions. The talent is there, and some of the front-liners especially Stephen Tulloch are experienced and versatile enough to move around. Others are not, though, and the backups are largely unproven.
The Whole Truth
"Those two coordinators, one (Steve Dunlap) will be Jay Davis compared to Philip Rivers, he won't be able to do anything right, no matter how good we are. And the other one (Trestman) won't be able to do anything right because everyone expects him to do everything. They're in a tough situation, and they knew it when they came here. But I'm excited about both of them."
-- N.C. State coach Chuck Amato
CHART BY: THE NCSU INSIDER
N.C. State Insider: Updates / Analysis
Coach Chuck Amato has allowed new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman to change the entire terminology used in play-calling. Amato said he initially was reluctant to do so, figuring that it would be easier for Trestman to make the transition from NFL terminology than it would be for 40 or 50 players to start from scratch. Later, Amato relented, thinking that a true break from the past and perhaps from the many problems the team endured under former coordinator Noel Mazzone (now at Mississippi) might be good for everyone.
According to the N.C. State coaches, one result of the change has been more attentiveness from the offensive players, and Amato figures it may have even rejuvenated some of the assistants themselves. Clearly, it's a fresh start for an offense that was mistake-prone for most of last season.
First-year defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap, formerly of West Virginia and Syracuse, didn't get a similar opportunity upon his arrival in Raleigh this spring. Amato, a former linebacker and long-time defensive assistant in the college ranks, said he'll never change his defensive terminology. He's used some of the basic principles for 23 years, going back to his first season as an assistant under Bobby Bowden at Florida State in 1982.
The competition in August for playing time on the offensive line was keener than the coaches envisioned, so Amato said he may take a long time to settle on his starters. Only junior center Leroy Harris seems a sure bet. The emergence of junior tackle James Newby in the spring was a pleasant surprise, and the failure of junior tackle Derek Morris to turn into a dominant player was a notable disappointment. Morris spent much of the early stages of fall camp working with the second unit. He'll likely be back in the starting lineup by the opener against Virginia Tech, but it may not be merely by default.
Amato said his gag order on the defensive line will continue at least until the Sept. 4 opener against Tech, and maybe even longer. The d-line, rated by some analysts the best in the nation, hasn't been allowed to do media interviews since the spring game. Amato has given cryptic answers about why he imposed the gag order, but most link it to comments made by end Manny Lawson before the spring game about the defense's motto, "We're all we've got." The defensive players who are allowed to talk have been scrambling to stress that the slogan wasn't meant as a slight to the offense.
Amato also said he wasn't completely happy with the defensive line's work habits in the preseason, and he's afraid they spent too much of the summer reading too many clippings about how good they are going to be this fall. The whole episode clearly is more of a motivational tool than anything else. One question: If ESPN wants to interview All-America candidate Mario Williams before the Tech game for its national telecast, will the gag order still apply?
Defensive ends Raymond Brooks and Chip Cross were academic casualties in the summer, and three 2005 signees failed to qualify: offensive lineman Doug Palmer, junior college defensive end Chad Green, and Tennessee offensive line transfer Brandon Jeffries. Brooks, an athetic 6-3, 270-pound sophomore, would have gotten the most playing time of the five, as the top backup to Lawson. Unproven youngsters Willie Young and Renaldo Moses are among those who will be asked to fill the void.