October 6, 2003 RALEIGH The thing Chuck Amato liked about linebackers Levar Fisher and Dantonio Burnette when he arrived at N.C. State and the coach said this himself many, many times was that their motors were always running. That's what enabled them to be strong leaders, on and off the field. They talked a lot and they made plays, and their teammates respected them for that. But having a motor that always runs and having a mouth that always runs are not exactly the same thing, and that fact is a contributing factor to the nightmare that is the Wolfpack's defense in 2003. Amato said something similar himself: The problem with the Pack's defense, which recently made Georgia Tech freshman QB Reggie Ball look like a Heisman Trophy candidate, is not the young players up front, it's the experienced players who should know better by now. Granted, on a defense that starts no seniors, youth is a factor for why the Wolfpack recently ranked 116th out of 117 Division I-A schools in passing defense and 97th in total defense. It's probably a testament to Amato's skill as a defensive coach that so many fans and media members anticipated big things from the Pack this fall, despite its brand-new defensive line. I have never coached this many young players on the defensive front, Amato said. So the coach has looked to experienced veterans such as junior safety Andre Maddox, junior cornerback Lamont Reid, junior cornerback Greg Golden, junior linebacker Pat Thomas and junior linebacker Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay to make plays and become defensive leaders. So far, they have not gotten the job done. Golden was beaten so many times by Ball and receiver Jonathan Smith that he and Reid eventually were pulled in favor of sophomore Dovonte Edwards and redshirt freshman A.J. Davis. After the game, Golden basically said there wasn't much the cornerbacks could do against the Jackets' receivers, because they were pretending to block, then breaking free after initial contact. Maddox might be the best player on the defense, but he's been so busy trying to clean up problems with the cornerbacks and help keep new starting safety Troy Graham straight on his assignments that there's hardly been time to take up a leadership role. Graham, a converted receiver, is a major dropoff from first-team All-ACC player Terrence Holt. Amato (a former linebacker) recently said that defensive leadership should come from the linebackers, but so far Thomas and Aughtry-Lindsay have not lived up to expectations. Both are big talkers on the field, and they have made some big plays, but not the way Fisher and Burnette did. Amato has been working some of his younger linebackers, such as true freshman Stephen Tulloch, into the rotation, in hopes of having a more rested group. Tulloch has drawn rave reviews for his production and tenacity, and coaches think he'll develop into a Burnette-like leader at some point down the road. The problem with the front four is that they make big plays, but they also are inconsistent in maintaining their assignments from play to play. That lack of discipline up front freezes the linebackers, who get caught up in making sure the basics are covered before they handle their own responsibilities. In other words, it's become too easy for opponents to trip up an undisciplined and young defense for the Pack to be the upper-division program that was envisioned in the preseason. In fact, lack of discipline might just be the Wolfpack's biggest problem on defense. On Georgia Tech's final scoring effort, State's defense had three personal foul penalties that made up the biggest chunk of a 59-yard drive. It originally was extended by a roughing-the-kicker penalty on a punt, and it later was aided by a late hit from Tulloch and a personal foul away from the ball on true freshman end Maurice Charles. Amato said he likes the challenge of taking undisciplined young players and bringing them in line, and he suspended at least one player for each of the Wolfpack's first five games. Wide receiver Richard Washington has been suspended twice, though his indefinite suspension following the Texas Tech game lasted only six days. Defensive linemen Sheldon Lewin and Alan Halloway and Edwards also have missed time because of off-the-field problems. I will not bend, Amato said in September. Those guys will come around to my way. The lack of discipline apparently is infectious. Sophomore tight end John Ritcher, possibly the least likely Wolfpack player to get into any sort of trouble, was ejected from the Georgia Tech game after a first-half personal foul. It's pretty obvious that the Wolfpack defense needs someone to step forward to take charge, before things really get out of control. After all, the Wolfpack (3-3, 1-2 ACC) hasn't even reached the hardest part of the season yet.
Injuries, Excuses Tied Together Here's a rule Amato should learn if he ever wants to win a public-relations war: You can't claim an injury as an excuse if no one knows about the injury. Amato claimed after the Georgia Tech loss that the Wolfpack's running game was hampered by the absence of sophomore T.A. McLendon, who missed his second consecutive game with a hamstring pull, and a hip-flexor injury to junior Josh Brown. Amato said Brown was playing at about 70 percent, on an injury he sustained the week before. It was, for those who regularly cover the team, the first anyone had heard of Brown's troubles. Amato mentioned it to explain why the Wolfpack had minus-eight yards rushing, the third-lowest rushing total for the school since 1959. Brown had minus-seven yards on five carries. His longest run of the day went for no yards. Slow-footed senior Cotra Jackson, apparently the only healthy tailback on the roster, had two yards on two carries. The Pack's longest run of the day was recorded by quarterback Philip Rivers, on a 13-yard scramble after he was chased out of the pocket. This is not an excuse, Amato said. T.A. is not in there. Josh Brown was about 70 percent. We had one running back. (Brown) is not 100 percent. He is legitimately hurt. Well, it certainly sounded like an excuse, to come up with an injury that no one knew about to explain why things went so poorly. Amato makes a big deal of talking about injuries only on Mondays and Fridays, citing the school's new policy on injuries, which was established because of new federal (HIPAA) guidelines. On those days, the school releases an official report from the training staff. Before the North Carolina game, Amato refused to answer questions about McLendon's injury during his Sunday teleconference, telling reporters, I know what's wrong, but I am not going to tell you. You can write about it tomorrow. With closed practices and the enabling HIPAA policies that all schools now use as a convenient crutch, it's extremely easy to hide injuries, something most coaches would prefer to do anyway. That's exactly what Amato did last year before the North Carolina game, when he admitted fibbing about tight end Sean Berton's injury, then crowed over the fact that nobody knew about it. But if those are the rules injuries will be reported on those days then all injuries should be revealed. Otherwise, no one is going to believe that a phantom injury is the reason for a lack of performance on the field. A coach just can't have it both ways.
Expansion Presents Big Challenges Throughout the expansion process, N.C. State's stance was pretty simple. It didn't care how things were split up, as long as it still was able to play North Carolina in football every year and maintain a home-and-home rivalry with the Tar Heels in basketball. Well, so much for getting what you asked for. In football, the Wolfpack will trade annual matchups against Duke and Virginia for games the next two years against Miami and Virginia Tech, an extremely tough road for a football program that hopes to reach the upper echelon of college football, where the Hurricanes and Hokies currently reside. Amato didn't seem bothered by the announcement that next year's schedule will include league matchups against Miami, Tech and Florida State, plus a non-conference game against defending national champion Ohio State. Then maybe we'll play someone (powerful) in the bowl, too, Amato said. Add that to it, and maybe we'll have five of them. Hey, that's why we got em in the conference. Sooner or later, our turn would come up to play all three. So, it's here, and we'll play em. That's fine. But, for a team that will be playing with an inexperienced quarterback in 2004, the new football schedule looks pretty daunting. In basketball, the Wolfpack drew North Carolina and Wake Forest as primary partners, which might make things a little easier for basketball coach Herb Sendek. He has had virtually no success against Duke, other than an upset in the 1997 ACC Tournament and a couple of regular-season wins the last two years.