October 11, 2005
RALEIGH - The remainder of N.C. State's season could hinge on how well, or how poorly, the offensive line holds up.
State has a senior quarterback and more depth at tailback than anyone in the ACC, but none of that will matter if the line can't protect Jay Davis and open some holes in the running game for Toney Baker (a rising star as a true freshman), Darrell Blackman, Andre Brown, Bobby Washington and Reggie Davis.
The jury was still out through four games, and that's being kind. There were plenty of reasons to wonder if this won't be a problem for the rest of the season.
In the 17-14 win over Georgia Tech, State finished with only 56 net yards rushing on 31 plays, an average of 1.8 yards per play. That included two sacks for 22 yards in losses. In the 31-24 loss to North Carolina, State finished with 13 net yards rushing on 28 attempts, an average of 0.5 yards per play. That included six sacks for 50 yards in losses.
Throw out the numbers against Division I-AA Eastern Kentucky, because that was a mismatch in size and talent. In its first three ACC games, State averaged 65.3 net yards rushing and 2.2 yards per attempt, while giving up 10 sacks.
Those ugly numbers certainly weren't Baker's fault, given the way he runs when there actually is a hole. There are an increasing number of plays that are doomed from the start because of breakdowns up front. And between holds, personal fouls and false starts, the line accounted for 15 of State's 40 penalties in the first four games.
The curious part is that, on paper, this shouldn't be one of the team's weak spots. This is the sixth year of coach Chuck Amato's program, and he has succeeded with the progression of having predominantly redshirt upperclassmen in his offensive line rotation.
Of the five starters, right guard Dwayne Herndon is a fifth-year senior, left tackle James Newby and center Leroy Harris are fourth-year juniors, and left guard Kalani Heppe is a third-year sophomore. Right tackle Derek Morris is a true junior, but he's actually a fourth-year player, having missed the 2002 season because of eligibility complications.
Of the second-teamers, versatile John McKeon is a fifth-year senior, tackles Jon Holt and Merci Falaise are fourth-year juniors, and center Luke Lathan is a third-year sophomore. Only guard Curtis Crouch, a true freshman, has been in the program for less than three years.
Granted, Herndon is in his first year on the offensive line, after playing defense throughout his career, but these are guys who have been in the program and in the weight room for a substantial amount of time.
One of the themes coming out of the preseason was that the competition for playing time up front had been keen. It's looking now as if that was a polite way of saying that very few people were stepping up and seizing their opportunities.
Part of the line's problems can be traced to injuries, even though nobody has missed substantial game action. Herndon and Morris were hurt in the opener against Virginia Tech, and they've been dinged up off and on since. Amato has lamented the fact that both have missed getting the consistent reps in practice it takes for a player to be sharp on Saturdays, and that obviously also translates to the overall cohesion of the group. Throw in the fact that the line is adjusting to new blocking schemes under first-year coordinator Marc Trestman, and the chemistry issue is further complicated.
Amato admits that he doesn't have the depth he would like to have. In some ways, he's between a rock and a hard place with how to proceed. He knows his linemen need more reps in practice, and yet he can't risk further injuries or he's really cooked.
"They're getting better every week," he said after the Georgia Tech game. "But we can't afford to have anybody miss anything. The depth is not deep, as it is on most teams. As it is on most teams.
"We've got to be careful what we do at practice. I'm one that likes to be physical. Football is a contact game. But we've got to watch the reps on some things we do, some things I can pull off here and there to make sure they're going to be able to play on Saturday, or Thursday."
The reality of the situation: Outside of McKeon, there's just not a whole lot of reliable depth.
"We've got a putty man in McKeon, almost like Sean Locklear was a couple years ago," Amato said. "He can play any one of the positions, center, guard or tackle. And we've got a couple young players that are going to be good, too. But they're not ready yet."
INJURIES, ACADEMICS HURT PROGRESS
How the situation got this way is a story in itself.
Morris was projected to be a star when he got to State, after being a Parade All-American at Huntersville (N.C.) North Mecklenburg near Charlotte. But he has not developed the way anyone hoped. He was overweight and rusty when he got to State, after initially signing with Ohio State but leaving that program under unpleasant circumstances. After finally breaking ties with OSU, Morris and his father contacted numerous big-time programs, but almost everyone except State backed off, with some citing NCAA concerns.
Morris served an unspecified NCAA suspension for part of his freshman year in Raleigh, and he wound up playing in only six games. Then he got hurt for a stretch last year and missed two games. Now this year he has fought injuries again, and he's still doing things (false starts, personal fouls) that make line coach Mike Barry go bananas.
Heppe and Falaise also were sidetracked by injuries earlier in their careers. Heppe played just four games last year, after breaking his right foot in the preseason. Falaise missed all but one game in 2004 because of a knee injury.
State has taken some hits with linemen not panning out, or not even making it to Raleigh, or just not being ready yet. The best examples come with this latest recruiting class. State signed seven linemen: Crouch, Andy Barbee, Julian Williams, Doug Palmer, Jeraill McCuller, Brandon Jeffries and Garrett Kline. Jeffries was a transfer from Tennessee. Kline arrived via junior college.
But Jeffries and Palmer failed to qualify academically, a common theme at a program that has led the ACC in non-qualifiers since Amato arrived. Kline obviously hasn't provided the instant help coaches wanted, and the others (excluding Crouch) are redshirting.
The best-case scenario is that the line starts to mesh and some of the younger players continue to develop. Amato is high on Crouch and Meares Green, a 6-6, 299-pound redshirt freshman guard who's a walk-on from Wilmington, N.C. Theoretically, offensive lines by nature improve more over the course of a season than most other positions. But it's clearly an area of concern, and an area to continue to watch.