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Rivers, Schedule Make Program's First 10-win Season Possible

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

By Brett Friedlander,
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer

August 20, 2002

RALEIGH - The first thing you notice about Chuck Amato when he strides into a room is the chest. A sign of strength and confidence, it has become a chiseled monument to the progress the N.C. State football program has made since the coach's return from Florida State in 2000.

Even the most dedicated Wolfpack supporters probably rolled their eyes a little when Amato stormed into Raleigh and, with his high-pitched voice, immediately proclaimed his intention to duplicate the Seminoles' success at his alma mater.

Few are doubting him now. Just two seasons later, State sold out all of its home games at Carter-Finley Stadium and was selected by the media to finish second in the ACC behind FSU. One of the surest signs that the Wolfpack is making progress comes directly from Tallahassee itself. Suddenly, it's the Seminoles who are talking about getting revenge on N.C. State, instead of vice versa.

It's enough to make any coach, even one without such an ample upper body, throw out his chest with pride. Amato certainly does, though as a coach in a league as balanced as the ACC, he's still careful enough to make sure he doesn't stick his neck out too far.

"We're still a ways away, but we're getting better," Amato said. "This season will tell a lot."

The Wolfpack can only hope its defining season ends up better than the way it started. Even before strapping on the pads for its first preseason scrimmage, State suffered two potentially damaging losses when senior tailback Cotra Jackson and senior defensive end Terrance Chapman were declared academically ineligible. Then, during one mid-August practice, sophomore receiver Dovonte Edwards suffered a knee injury and exciting true freshman A.J. Davis broke his leg. All four players would have been either full-time starters or heavy-duty second-teamers this fall. Now, only Edwards has a chance to help.

Jackson, who started at fullback last season, was considered the leading candidate to replace Ray Robinson at tailback. With him gone, State's running game will be left to three backs who have never carried the ball from scrimmage in a college game.

Converted cornerback Greg Golden, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown in last season's Tangerine Bowl loss to Pittsburgh, appears to have the inside track on the starting job. But don't be surprised if highly touted true freshman T.A. McLendon, who set national prep records for career touchdowns at Albamarle (N.C.) High, also gets plenty of carries.

Chapman, meanwhile, led the Wolfpack and ranked fourth in the ACC last season with seven sacks. His absence on the line will put even more pressure on a young defense already struggling to replace all-star linebacker Levar Fisher and five other starters.

"Losing players who have been a part of the team, that hurts," Amato said. "We've got to pick up the pieces and go on from there. Life will go on."

As long as the Wolfpack has the man Amato refers to simply as "No. 17" taking snaps for it, life has a chance to be very good this season. Quarterback Philip Rivers, who arrived in Raleigh with Amato in January 2000, is a legend in the making. He started and won his first college game, had another outstanding season as a sophomore and is well on his way to rewriting every school passing record in the book.

Rivers has led State to 15 wins, including an amazing 34-28 upset of Florida State in Tallahassee last November, and two bowl trips in his two college seasons. But this year, he'll be facing even more pressure than ever, and it has little to do with the uncertainty of the running back situation and the high expectations being placed upon him. Ever since his wife Tiffany gave birth (on July 6) to the couple's first child, daughter Halle, Rivers has faced more responsibility than ever.

If anyone can handle it, of course, Rivers is the man. After all, he's been the father figure to the Wolfpack offense since he was an 18-year-old freshman, just a few months out of high school. It's a role he said he began preparing for a long time before his arrival at N.C. State.

"When I was in Little League baseball," he said, "I was the one who wanted to say 1-2-3 before we said whatever team we were. Calling the huddle and all those things that go along with being a quarterback, those are the things I like. I'm used to having those responsibilities."

A 6-5, 236-pound Alabama native, Rivers already has thrown for 5,640 yards and 41 touchdowns in his Wolfpack career, despite an unorthodox release that sometimes resembles someone hurling a javelin. With a much more experienced receiving corps at his disposal this season, including senior Bryan Peterson, Rivers should continue to be effective in Amato's wide-open offensive scheme.

One question lingers: Will Rivers be able to use his strong arm to throw the ball downfield more, the way he did as a freshman? The answer depends on the development of sophomores Edwards and Sterling Hicks, who have the speed to become the kind of deep threats the Wolfpack has lacked since the departure of first-round NFL draft pick Koren Robinson. Edwards' preseason injury didn't help his progress.

Peterson is the top returning pass catcher, with 48 receptions last season. Edwards and Hicks combined to bring in 23 balls, with each averaging more than 14 yards per catch. Junior Jerricho Cotchery, who had 41 grabs and four touchdowns, also returns. Redshirt sophomore Andy Bertrand, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, posted a team-best 4.34 in the 40 last spring. It all adds up to remarkable depth.

"We have six or seven guys who can run and have experience. I think we can do some special things throwing the ball," Rivers said. "I think the experience they gained will help us be a better offense. As far as going deep, we have to take what the defense gives us, and we have to just stick with running our team offense. We have had success with it, so we will stick with it and try to improve on it."

Even with an offensive line that includes a pair of converted defenders at guard in Sean Locklear and Shane Riggs, Rivers and his offense shouldn't have trouble putting big numbers on the scoreboard. The task figures to be particularly easy against a nonconference schedule that includes New Mexico, East Tennessee State, Navy and Massachusetts.

The key to whether the Wolfpack realizes its preseason promise, and perhaps even challenges Florida State for conference and national prominence, depends on the effectiveness of its defense in keeping points off the scoreboard. Although State ranked fifth in the ACC in total defense last season at 359.3 yards per game and second in scoring defense at 20.3 points per game, Amato believes there is still plenty of room to grow.

"We're getting better," said Amato, a former linebacker and career defensive coach. "But we're not going to be a great football team, and we won't be able to get where we want to, until we can play great defense. It's that simple. You can win those 52-48 games all you want, and the fans will love it, but you won't win a lot of championships. When I first went to FSU, we won a lot of games that way, but we didn't win any championships until we started stopping people when we needed to stop them."

The way to do that, according to Amato, is by adding more speed to the lineup, and he certainly did that with his first two recruiting classes.

Though still a work-in-progress, much like the new NCSU football building rising above the south end zone at Carter-Finley, the upgrade can best be seen on the defensive line. There, even without Chapman, the Wolfpack is as quick and talented as anyone in the ACC north of Tallahassee. Athletic senior Shawn Price, Chapman's bookend and former juco teammate, was particularly impressive in preseason drills, after recording six sacks and 10 tackles for loss last season.

Inside, Terrance Martin returns at nose tackle, and Jerrick Hall is back at the other tackle position. Drew Wimsatt, who was still recovering from back surgery while playing in all 12 games last season, probably will be the first choice to fill Chapman's spot at end. Senior George Anderson is another experienced hand and part-time starter.

The secondary, which was prone to giving up the big play last season, again will be anchored by first-team All-ACC free safety Terrence Holt. A 6-2, 203-pound senior, he has become much more than Torry's younger brother during his time in Raleigh. In his first three seasons with the Pack, Terrence compiled 215 tackles and nine blocked kicks.

Holt's influence and leadership figure to be even more important this season, when he may find himself surrounded by sophomores in the secondary. Marcus Hudson started the last four games of 2001 at cornerback as a true freshman, and speedy Lamont Reid appears poised to beat out junior J.J. Washington at the other corner. Hard-hitting Andre Maddox established himself at the rover position during spring practice. The three sophomores provide a lot of speed, a lot of athleticism ... and a lot of youth and inexperience. But they're not completely untested.

"We're young at some spots, but those young guys had a trial by fire last season," Amato said. "They played a lot of snaps and in tough situations."

Other than senior Dantonio Burnette, the Wolfpack's linebacker corps doesn't have that same luxury. What's worse, at least two players from a group that includes Corrie Dawson, Roger Pollard, Avery Gibson, Pat Thomas and Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay will have to live with the constant comparisons to the duo they'll be trying to replace.

Although they may not be able to match Fisher or Brian Jamison in ability or experience, Holt said the Wolfpack's new linebackers have at least one quality that sets them apart. It's toughness, a trait he said comes directly from Amato.

"Players emulate their coach, and Coach Amato is as tough and as intense as they come," Holt said. "We've got a lot of guys who want to win and who are working hard to get it done. I'm excited about what we have a chance to accomplish this season."

That's the kind of attitude that would make any coach's chest swell with pride, even one whose muscular upper body already looks that way.