Saturday, August 18, 2012

season preview: NC State Wolfpack


8/31: Tennessee (Fri.)
9/8: @ Connecticut
9/15: South Alabama
9/22: The Citadel
9/29: @ Miami
10/6: Florida State
10/13: BYE
10/20: @ Maryland
10/27: @ North Carolina
11/3: Virginia
11/10: Wake Forest
11/17: @ Clemson
11/24: Boston College

Skip: Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech

Projected starters:

QB: Mike Glennon (5Sr.)
RB: James Washington (Sr.)
FB: Logan Winkles (rSo.)
WR: Tobais Palmer (5Sr.)
WR: Quinton Payton (rJr.)
TE: Mario Carter (5Sr.)
LT: Rob Crisp (Jr.)
LG: R.J. Mattes (Sr.)
C: Camden Wentz (Sr.)
RG: Zach Allen (5Sr.)
RT: Andrew Wallace (5Sr.)

DE: Darryl Cato-Bishop (rJr.)
DT: Thomas Teal (rSo.)
DT: T.Y. McGill (So.)
DE: Brian Slay (Sr.)
SLB: Rodman Noel (So.)
MLB: Sterling Lucas (5Sr.)
WLB: Rickey Dowdy (rJr.)
CB: David Amerson (Jr.)
CB: C.J. Wilson (5Sr.)
SS: Earl Wolff (5Sr.)
FS: Brandan Bishop (Sr.)

K: Niklas Sade (So.)
P: Wil Baumann (So.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Tom O'Brien (6th season)

Media prediction: 3rd, Atlantic Division


2011 1st team: SP T.J. Graham, CB David Amerson
2011 2nd team: TE George Bryan, LB Terrell Manning
2011 HM: S Brandan Bishop, LB Audie Cole, S Earl Wolff
2012 preseason: CB David Amerson, S Earl Wolff

(Italics indicate departed player.)

I have to cop to consistently underestimating the Wolfpack last season.  I did say, in my season preview, that they wouldn't likely win more than seven games, and that's exactly what happened in the regular season.  But they had a way of winning games I thought they'd lose, including and especially the one against us, and their bowl game as well.  NC State doesn't seem to have a pile of blow-you-away talent, but Tom O'Brien is a master at squeezing every last drop out of what he has.


That's an idea that's perfectly embodied in senior quarterback Mike Glennon.  Glennon doesn't excite the viewer the way a flashier quarterback would, but he quietly posted a 31-touchdown season in 2011, quieting and even converting all the critics who existed simply because Glennon wasn't Russell Wilson.  Glennon did an outstanding job spreading the ball among a number of receivers, none of whom was a certifiable superstar (though T.J. Graham did go in the third round of the NFL draft) but as a unit presented a real coverage challenge.

NC State goes into this season, again, without a proven receiving corps.  It's probably even less so than last year when the Pack at least had a foundation at tight end and a track star (Graham) at receiver.  Tobais Palmer proved to be a very reliable second fiddle in 2011, and now must take the next step and be the featured receiver in 2012.  After him, there's little experience; Quinton Payton and Rashard Smith are fourth-year juniors that are finally seeing their turn atop the depth chart, but neither has played a major role in the past.  The Pack also break in a new tight end - Mario Carter has been waiting patiently for his turn after George Bryan held down the position so well for four years.

The passing game will get a boost from the backfield, as James Washington is an accomplished receiver; his 42 catches were good enough for second on the team last year.  However, Washington and his backup Tony Creecy (another quality passcatcher) are at best adequate carrying the ball.  The two combined to average just 3.9 yards per attempt while dominating the carries.  NC State has a very experienced and dependable offensive line, especially up the middle, so a little more explosiveness out of the backfield would go a long way.

That line is led by three third-year starters up the middle.  Center Camden Wentz is the anchor, and he and RG Zach Allen have both had their position on lockdown for two years now, going on three.  Though the Pack have a new starter at left tackle, they think highly enough of Rob Crisp that longtime starter R.J. Mattes has been bumped inside to left guard.  Andrew Wallace, at right tackle, is pushing the reset button in a way - two years ago he was the starting LG, then suffered a knee injury in bowl practice and missed most of 2011, and when he returned he came off the bench.

Everyone knows offensive success begins in the trenches, and though NC State doesn't have much to excite at the skill positions, the Pack offense should function just fine, thanks to a senior quarterback and a wealth of experience up front.  Especially if the tackles can settle into their jobs with minimal bumps along the way.


The offense may be lacking in star power, but the defense can hang its hat on having maybe the best cornerback in the country.  Junior David Amerson, who's been starting since his freshman year, set a new single-season ACC record with a crazy 13 interceptions in 2011.  It's probably safe to say quarterbacks won't throw to his side of the field.  Like, ever.  That'll be OK with NC State; the other side is manned by C.J. Wilson, who only has three career picks, but also has three career pick-sixes.  One day he'll be tackled and think someone broke a rule.  NC State rounds off what clearly is the league's best secondary with two veteran safeties in Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop.  The pair combined for 194 tackles in 2011, and Bishop picked off five passes and scooped up three fumbles as well.

That two safeties had so many tackles is, as ever, a bad sign for the rest of the defense, though.  In this case, it's fair to say that it's partly from being pretty darn good, but don't expect those tackle numbers to go down, as the Pack have one of the most inexperienced linebacking corps in the league.  All three starters are brand new.  Fifth-year senior Sterling Lucas, the new middle linebacker starter, has been backing up the position his whole career, but actually saw a major reduction in snaps from 2010 to 2011.  On the weak side, Rickey Dowdy is a redshirt junior and has literally played one snap his entire three-year career (against Western Carolina in 2010); it's safe to say his position atop the depth chart isn't set in stone.  Rodman Noel is the older brother of hoops super-recruit Nerlens Noel at Kentucky, so if he's got any of those athleticism genes he might be the best linebacker on the roster, but he too has never taken a snap from scrimmage; thus far, special teams only.

Up front, NC State has experience on the edges but not in the middle.  DE Darryl Cato-Bishop hasn't been a regular starter, but he has been a fixture in the rotation and will provide NC State's primary pass rush.  Brian Slay, on the other side, is a converted tackle and is much more of a run-stopper than a pass-rusher.  (Too bad, because he's got one of the best names you could hope for in a defensive player.)  At tackle, T.Y. McGill shows a fair bit of promise but has minimal onfield experience yet; he too played in the rotation in 2011, but at the back end of it.  Thomas Teal would have been as well, but missed half the year while injured.  There's some potential here on the line, but it's vital for the Pack that they live up to it because letting the linebackers handle it won't be the recipe for success.


Punter Wil Baumann has a strong leg at times, with a season long of 62 yards last year, but he's wildly inconsistent; a 37.5 average is nothing to speak of.  That was his freshman season, so a year of experience should pay off with some improvement on that.  Kicker Niklas Sade is near-automatic inside 40 yards but needs to improve his range; he's just 2-for-6 beyond that.


NC State has some good pieces, including two elements vital to any contending team: a veteran quarterback and a solid offensive line.  But I can't help but think that part of the reason they were voted third in the division is that there's no good reason to vote anyone else above them.  The gap between the top two teams (FSU and Clemson) and the rest of the Atlantic is more of a chasm.  The Pack will be a tough out and shouldn't find themselves losing to anyone who's worse than they are on paper, but are they a title contender?  No.  This is a solid-medium bowl team and not a great deal more; they lack too many pieces on defense and don't have a lot of playmakers on offense, and that will be what prevents them from making too many waves.

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