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Post-rivers Era Begins With More Talent, Important Questions

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

Brett Friedlander, Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer

August 23, 2004

RALEIGH — The gap between perception and reality in college football can be as deceiving as a fourth-and-goal situation from inside the one-yard line. It might not seem like much, but it's a lot farther than you think once you get the ball in your hands and try punching it into the end zone.

Take a look at N.C. State. The perception around much of the ACC, particularly outside the state of North Carolina, is that this is going to be a rebuilding year for the Wolfpack. It's an easy assumption to make, especially now that the Pack's leader and most recognizable player for the past four seasons, quarterback Philip Rivers, finally has moved on to the NFL.

That assumption may be incorrect.

As important as Rivers was to his team's success, the reality in Raleigh is that the reigning ACC male athlete of the year is one of the few players coach Chuck Amato and his staff will have to replace. In all, State has 19 one-time starters returning — including explosive offensive weapons T.A. McLendon and Tramain Hall — from a team that went 8-5, made its fourth straight bowl appearance and led the league in scoring last season.

“I'm not saying we won't miss him, but we won't be slowing down,” Hall said of Rivers, the ACC's all-time total offense leader. “We won't miss a beat, because we have playmakers.”

Among the best of them is McLendon, a hulking 5-11, 216-pound junior workhorse who — when healthy — is as good as any running back in the country.

The problem has been keeping him healthy. Last season, McLendon missed four games with a variety of knee, hamstring and other ailments and was limited to 608 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. The previous year, he earned first-team All-ACC honors as a freshman by running for 1,101 yards and 18 touchdowns.

McLendon pronounced himself 100 percent fit when he arrived for the start of August two-a-days, and he's coming off a spring practice in which he remained healthy from start to finish. If he isn't able to stay that way this fall, at least the Wolfpack has a few insurance policies — unlike last season, when the team's serious depth problems at tailback directly contributed to several defeats.

Some of the biggest headlines surrounding the start of preseason drills followed the surprise arrival of prep All-American Bobby Washington, who was ranked among the top five high school tailbacks in the country last year. Washington originally signed with hometown Miami, his long-time favorite, but he ended up enrolling at State after the Hurricanes denied him admission despite his status as an NCAA qualifier. Miami officials questioned Washington about his unusual test-score jump and allegations that an imposter had signed up to take an additional test in his name, but the player quickly received approval from State officials and began practicing with the Wolfpack right away.

Washington's rare combination of size and speed eventually could make him a nice fit for the NFL, but the same has been said of fellow freshman Darrell Blackman. A prep All-American tailback who originally signed with the Pack in the Class of 2003, Blackman spent last season at Hargrave Military Academy after failing to qualify academically out of high school. He's known for his blazing speed, and the extra year of maturity may give him the edge over Washington this fall.

The availability of McLendon, Blackman, Washington and sophomore Reggie Davis in the backfield can't help but improve a running game that ranked last in the ACC a year ago. The amount of improvement on the ground, however, will be dependent on the development of an offensive line that will be much better if tackle Chris Colmer and guard Ricky Fowler are healthy and in the lineup.

Colmer missed all of last season with a rare nerve disorder, and Fowler is coming off major knee surgery. Monster tackle Derek Morris also is coming off an injury, to his ankle, leaving center Jed Paulsen and guard Leroy Harris as the only sure things up front. The State coaches do think they're finally building some solid depth, with versatile veteran John McKeon available for starting or reserve duty and tackle James Newby showing promise.

“Sure, I hope our running game is much better, but only time will tell,” Amato said. “But time will tell if Colmer's going to be there, if Fowler is going to be there, and if others will be out there. If you don't have people up there to block, I don't care if you have T.A. or you go down to Miami and talk Ricky Williams out of retiring, you're not going to run the ball.”

The better the Wolfpack can run the ball, of course, the less pressure it will put on whoever earns the unenviable distinction of replacing Rivers at quarterback.

According to Amato, the decision between redshirt junior Jay Davis — Rivers' understudy for the past three seasons — and highly touted redshirt freshman Marcus Stone probably won't be made until right before the season opener against Richmond.

Davis is a 6-2, 206-pound marksman from Florida who, in limited action last season, completed nine of his 10 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown in six games. Stone, at 6-4, 228, is a highly touted prospect who threw for more than 5,100 yards and 50 touchdowns during his high school career in Pennsylvania. They entered August practice neck-and-neck, and both were given ample opportunities to work with the first team and win the job.

“Four years ago, we had no idea that (Rivers) was going to be that good,” Amato said. “We'll have memories of him, but we've got to go on. Somebody will replace him.”

Without tipping his hand as to which quarterback he favors, Amato said he believes his offense will be in good hands, regardless of how the preseason competition turns out.

“Whoever gets ahead will be capable,” Amato said. “They've both got enough talent and potential. The biggest plus they have over Philip for four years was the fact that whoever wins it, the supporting cast is going to be much better than what the supporting cast was when Philip was a freshman.”

The best of that supporting cast is McLendon and Hall, a sophomore speedster who had 69 catches for 799 yards and seven touchdowns last season, along with two other long scores on kick returns. Hall is just one of several potent pass-catching weapons in an arsenal that also includes fellow wide receivers Richard Washington, Brian Clark and Sterling Hicks, plus speedy tight end T.J. Williams.

Meanwhile, the promising August performance of strong-legged sophomore John Deraney will make State a scoring threat from anywhere inside 50 yards. That's the good news.

The bad news — according to the doubters, at least — is that the Wolfpack returns 10 starters from a defense that was burned for nearly 30 points and 300 passing yards per game a year ago. Those are stats that will have to improve, especially with an offense that could experience a few growing pains early, for the Pack to survive a brutal schedule that will make it difficult to earn its fifth straight bowl trip under Amato.

Not only does State face a tough early test when Ohio State comes to Carter-Finley Stadium on Sept. 18, it also must face ACC newcomers Miami and Virginia Tech, as well as traditional rival Florida State.

“We'll never be great until we play great defense,” Amato said. “That's where Florida State and Miami really distance themselves.”

State is hoping to start narrowing that gap, in large part because of the experience some of its young defenders gained last season.

End Mario Williams and tackle John McCargo, for example, started all 13 games as freshmen last season. Both are back — bigger, stronger and more confident. They promise to be even more effective with the shift of Manny Lawson from linebacker to end, a move that should give the Wolfpack one of the quickest lines in the league.

“We played a lot of young players last season,” Amato said. “But this season we'll reap the benefits of that. We have some players with experience, and we have solid senior leadership. We have some guys who are tough and fast.”

That strength and quickness up front should have a positive effect on a linebacker corps anchored by Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay, affectionately nicknamed “Dash” by his teammates, plus Pat Thomas, Oliver Hoyte and Stephen Tulloch.

Speed also is a key element in the secondary, where the return of Marcus Hudson, who sat out last season after starting at cornerback in 2002, should mean fewer open receivers downfield for the opposition. Hudson is now at safety, where he will be flanked by rover Andre Maddox. The cornerback spots will be manned by spring star Dovonte Edwards and veteran Lamont Reid, with speedy sophomore A.J. Davis in reserve.

“We have the talent, we have the speed, we have everything it takes,” Reid said. “As far as us getting there, it's just a matter of us coming together to do it.”

Amato took a significant step toward making that happen during the offseason, with the addition of Reggie Herring to his staff. A former Florida State linebacker who spent the past two seasons with the NFL's Houston Texans, Herring gives State its first full-time defensive coordinator since 2000. If nothing else, the move has provided the defenders with more accountability for their performance than they had when Amato was calling the shots.

“Coach Herring brings a lot of intensity to the table, a lot more than we had before,” Reid said. “That's something we all feed off.”

Even the offense seems fired up about the Wolfpack's new defensive attitude and its new-found ability to carry the team, if necessary.

“If we can put up 21 points, we have a good enough defense to hold onto that for us,” Hall said. “They've worked hard, especially on the pass. They're getting better, and they've got nothing but seniors.”

That's the perception, at least. Reality begins on Sept. 4. Only time will tell how big a gap there is between them.

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