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Ground Game, Defense Generate Optimism

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


June 28, 2004 RALEIGH — A few mid-summer thoughts about the upcoming football season, including a few reasons why the Wolfpack might be better in 2004, even without Philip Rivers:

When tailback T.A. McLendon was out of the lineup — which was often — in 2003, the N.C. State offense was so totally one-dimensional that it couldn't possibly maximize its potential even with Rivers at the controls.

Sure, Rivers continued to roll up big yards with big passes, but there were times when a healthy running back could have made all the difference, especially in the third overtime against Ohio State and the late losses to Maryland and Florida State. In the latter two, the Wolfpack couldn't establish any kind of ground game to take control of a clock that needed to be run out, putting the opponents on offense to go against what turned out to be one of the ACC's worst defenses.

With McLendon ailing all year, Amato treated him with kid gloves, holding him out of practice and not letting him get hit. Perhaps that's why he couldn't hold onto the ball in the fourth quarter against the Terps and just before halftime against the Seminoles, a pair of miscues that were of huge importance in those losses.

Now, with Amato confirming in June that speedy prep All-American and two-time tailback signee Darrell Blackman finally has qualified academically, and with both veteran Josh Brown and super-sized load Reggie Davis returning this year, McLendon should get the help he didn't have last year to give the Wolfpack a reliable and diverse running game. Brown supposedly is healthy after missing most of the 2003 season with an abdominal injury and then sitting out spring practice following surgery. Davis, whom Amato had hoped to redshirt last year, was the most impressive runner in the spring.

Even with Andre Brown, the decorated running back signee and 2003 North Carolina player of the year from Greenville, likely headed to prep school or junior college this fall, Amato believes he has four strong candidates to carry the ball in the upcoming season. He barely had even one last year.

Here is the other reason the Wolfpack running game should churn along much better in 2004: The offensive line, which has developed a reputation as a patched-together but surprisingly effective unit during Amato's tenure in Raleigh, is one of the best in the ACC.

Sixth-year left tackle Chris Colmer, an All-ACC candidate who sat out all of last year with an unusual nerve-related shoulder injury, is expected to return when practice begins. Frustrated for more than a year by a condition that he's not sure has ever been diagnosed correctly, Colmer recently said he feels good about his chances of returning to top form this fall. Amato has been very cautious about saying anything optimistic about Colmer, noting the "rust" that can develop when a player sits on the sidelines for an extended period, but the player clearly believes he can return to being one of the league's top tackles.

If Colmer is able to join a healthy Derek Morris, a healthy Ricky Fowler (coming off major knee surgery), freshman All-American Leroy Harris and veteran center Jed Paulsen, the Wolfpack will have the talent and experience up front to rival that of Florida State. Not to mention that there is finally some depth that can step in if one of the three starters who sat out spring practice because of injury isn't immediately back to top form.

Meanwhile, a question: Why is everyone so worried about how either Marcus Stone or Jay Davis will perform as Rivers' replacement?

If memory serves, when Rivers was a freshman, he mostly threw short passes to talented wide receiver Koren Robinson and tailback Ray Robinson out of the backfield, then let them do all the work. Sure, Rivers showed an uncanny ability to step in and run the offense as a rookie, but he also was put in position to succeed by then-coordinator Norm Chow, whose offense was innovative yet simplistic enough for Rivers to handle.

The record-setting quarterback got better as his career went along, and the offense became more complicated as different coordinators took over for Chow, but the real workhorses in Rivers' freshman year were the Robinsons, who touched the ball on 311 of the team's 806 offensive plays. With a stable of receivers that includes Richard Washington, Brian Clark and Sterling Hicks (returning from knee surgery), plus the versatility of H-back Tramain Hall, the new quarterback's main responsibility will be to get the ball quickly into the hands of the skill players and then get out of the way.

P.S. While just about everyone on the planet agrees that Stone (a redshirt freshman) has the best long-term (read: NFL) potential among the N.C. State quarterbacks, most also agree that Davis (a redshirt junior) has a better grasp of the offense, is more patient in the pocket, delivers a more accurate ball, and does a better job of avoid mistakes at this stage of the players' careers. In this regard especially, it will be a very interesting August in Raleigh.

Finally, Amato is convinced that his defense, which went through some miserable growing pains last year, when the Pack had to replace all four starters up front, will be much better in 2004.

"But it shouldn't take a lot," Amato said. "Should it?"

It does, in fact, return a total of 11 starters, including first-team All-ACC picks in linebacker Pat Thomas and safety Andre Maddox, as well as 2002 cornerback starter Marcus Hudson, who is now a safety.

The fact is, with the move of freakish (that's a compliment) 6-5, 220-pound athlete Manny Lawson to end down the stretch last season, the defensive front is stocked with plenty of talent and experience. The linebacker corps of Thomas, Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay, Oliver Hoyte and Stephen Tulloch could use more depth, but it definitely has talented starters. And the secondary, even without dismissed cornerback Greg Golden, could be the best Amato has had in his time at N.C. State.

All of these factors should combine to lower the atrocious passing numbers opponents put up last year, and the front line should be more capable of slowing down the run.

Toughest Challenge: More Victories

Sadly, at least for Wolfpack fans, here are the two overwhelming reasons why State probably won't win more games in the upcoming season than it did last year, when the Pack finished a disappointing 8-5. Please note the absence of Rivers' name in this analysis.

With Miami, Florida State, Ohio State, Clemson (away), Maryland (away) and Virginia Tech (away) on the schedule, this is the toughest lineup of opponents in school history, without question. Even Amato says so, and he was in Raleigh during the 1970s, when Penn State, Georgia, Syracuse, Florida, Michigan State and West Virginia made regular appearances on the Wolfpack's schedule.

The toughest of those may have been in 1973, when Nebraska, Georgia, Penn State, South Carolina and East Carolina were the Pack's regular-season non-conference opponents. (The Pack went
6-0 in the league that year and won the ACC championship.) In 1975, State's non-conference foes were Florida, Michigan State, Penn State, South Carolina, East Carolina and Indiana.

Also, like nearly every other school in Division I-A, State will play only 11 regular-season games this year. After playing 14 total games two years ago and 13 last year, the Pack's best chance is to play 12 this time around, and an 8-4 finish probably should rank as an accomplishment, even if it would be a disappointment in the eyes of many fans.

OSU-Sendek Reports Caused Stir

The immediate speculation that basketball chief Herb Sendek might be a candidate for the Ohio State job gave a lot of fodder to the vocal group of Wolfpack fans who still aren't enthralled with their coach, despite three straight NCAA Tournament appearances and three straight upper-division finishes in the ACC standings.

But Sendek was only a B-list consideration at best for the OSU job through the first month of the Buckeyes' seemingly dysfunctional search. His name came up mainly because of his past ties to Miami-Ohio, where he began his head coaching career after being an assistant at Kentucky to Rick Pitino, and because he's widely regarded as a man of impeccable integrity who stays away from even the "gray area" of potential NCAA rules violations.

In some on-line polls of OSU fans, Sendek received some support (behind five others) as a potential candidate for the job, and news reports continued to list him as a possibility for the Buckeyes into late June. But Wolfpack AD Lee Fowler said in late June that nobody had called him to ask for permission to talk with Sendek about a job vacancy, and that the coach told him he wouldn't be interested in the OSU job even if the Buckeyes did call.

Ohio State officials likely will stay within their basketball family in looking for a coach, or they at least will attempt to lure a successful leader from their backyard to fill the vacancy left by Jim O'Brien's firing for illegally giving some $6,000 to a foreign recruit years ago.

With his incoming recruiting class (top-30 center Cedric Simmons, top-50 forward Andrew Brackman and top-80 swingman Gavin Grant, plus Georgetown point guard transfer Tony Bethel), which some have called the best in the ACC, and the recent addition of top-60 shooting guard Courtney Fells from the Class of 2005, Sendek continues to build for a future that looks brighter and brighter with the Wolfpack.