Tom O’Brien isn’t the type of coach who wears his emotions on his sleeve for all the world to see. There’s no throwing of visors, no jumping into the arms of players coming back to the sideline after scoring touchdowns. Just a man under control, calculating the next move in his battle plan like the Marine officer he once was.
He’s so stoic that it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether his team is winning or losing by watching him on the sideline. It’s an even-keeled demeanor that served O’Brien and his Wolfpack well last season.
Despite an epidemic of injuries that gutted his defense for half the season, rumors that his job was in jeopardy, seemingly insurmountable deficits and the ever-looming shadow of former quarterback Russell Wilson, O’Brien never showed any outward signs of panic.
His players, following his lead, also held things together enough to produce a strong finish that not only saved the season, but helped build some momentum and optimism for 2012.
“Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals character,” O’Brien said. “What [last season] did was reveal the character of this program, and I think that’s a good thing going forward. It’s really rewarding as a coach to be around kids like that, who never give up and keep firing away.”
It’s even more rewarding when difficult decisions made under duress turn out to be the right ones. And O’Brien was faced with a doozy heading into last season.
Instead of waiting for Wilson to decide whether to continue playing minor league baseball or return for his final season of football eligibility, O’Brien decided to fire a preemptive strike and cut his team’s best and most popular player loose so the Wolfpack could move forward with heir apparent Mike Glennon.
The veteran coach caught considerable heat for the move, especially after NC State stumbled out of the gate by losing three of its first five games. The calls for his job began shortly after a humiliating nationally televised 44-14 drubbing on a Thursday night at Cincinnati. It didn’t help matters that Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, where amid plenty of hype and attention, he led the Badgers to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl.
Glennon, however, eventually rewarded O’Brien’s faith in him by throwing for 31 touchdowns, exactly the same number Wilson threw at Wisconsin, while leading his team to an 8-5 season. It’s the first time State has posted back-to-back winning records since 2002-03 — an accomplishment that would cause many coaches to pound their chest and say “I told you so.”
But not O’Brien.
“I never had to feel vindicated by any of that,” be said. “I don’t care what people think. I made a decision that was best for this football team moving forward.”
2011 Record: 8-5
Head Coach: Tom O’Brien (U.S. Naval Academy ’71)
Record at School:33-30 (5 years)
Career Record: 108-75 (15 years)
Assoc. Head Coach: Jon Tenuta (Virginia ’82)
Offensive Coordinator: Dana Bible (Cincinnati ’76)
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Archer (Miami ’76)
As usual, most of the experts and large number of Wolfpack fans downgraded this class as being mediocre — if not worse — because of the lack of stars next to the names. For now, there can be no denying that O’Brien has addressed several pressing needs, especially on the defensive front and linebacker.
Among the 23 players State signed, four are defensive ends and two are defensive tackles. Of those, early enrollee Buntyn and solidly built prospect Hooker both stand a chance to step right in and play right away.
The same is true for juco linebacker Caldwell, who could be a key addition if he can fill the void left by Manning’s early departure.
O’Brien also bolstered the offensive line with Kennedy and two others while adding a promising wide receiver prospect in Hegemony.
The Wolfpack also picked up some insurance at the quarterback position as O’Brien prepares to replace Glennon after next season. Again, this isn’t a class that’s going to be rated high in the ACC. But that’s how O’Brien likes it.
Few quarterbacks in the country faced the kind of pressure Glennon (6-6, 232) did last season. Not only did he have to deal with high expectations that come with being the leader of a veteran team in his first year as a college starter, but his every move was scrutinized in great detail by fans and the media, then compared directly to the star he replaced.
Glennon took almost as much criticism as his coach as he worked through some early growing pains while Wilson became the darling of ESPN by getting off to a fast start. To Glennon’s credit, he stood up to the disapproval, bounced back from his own mistakes and his team’s worst losses to lead State to a strong finish and bowl eligibility.
The highlight of the late run was a 56-41 comeback win against Maryland in which Glennon tied a school record by accounting for six touchdowns (five passing, one rushing). He followed that with an MVP performance at the Belk Bowl to finish the season with the third-most completions in school history (283) while throwing for 3,054 yards and those 31 touchdowns.
“I really tried not to worry about it,” Glennon said of the spotlight in which he spent most of the season. “I knew [Wilson] was a great player who would do great wherever he ended up. I also felt confident in myself and my teammates had confidence in me.”
That confidence only figures to grow this season now that he’s finally rid of the Wilson comparisons and established himself as a star on his own.
With a strong arm, size, smarts and great downfield vision, Glennon, who’s a graduate student this season, has all the tangibles over which NFL scouts drool. Now all he has to do is improve on his decision-making, an ability that his coach said improved greatly during spring practice.
“Even though he knew the offense, [last year] was his first time executing it,” O’Brien said. “Now he’s executed it. He knows it. Now it’s all about being fundamentally better. He was getting his feet set and getting the ball out much quicker as the season went on. He was more decisive in his reads. Those are all things he can still do much better.”
Glennon’s backup going into fall camp is sophomore Tyler Brosius (6-3, 233). But because of questions about his arm strength and high hopes for freshman Manny Stocker (6-3, 200), who enrolled early and participated in spring practice, there promises to be a battle for the No. 2 spot.
Stocker is considered by most to be Glennon’s eventual replacement, with Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas (6-5, 225) standing by as insurance. Thomas, a junior, is ineligible to play this season under NCAA transfer rules.
In The Backfield
The Wolfpack don’t have any backs that will make people forget about Ted Brown, the ACC’s all-time leading rusher who was passed over again this year by the College Football Hall of Fame. But they do have two serviceable veterans in senior James Washington (6-0, 186) and sophomore Tony Creecy (6-0, 210).
There’s also a possibility that the team’s leading ground gainer from 2010, sophomore Mustafa Greene (6-0, 213) might also be available after missing all last season with a foot injury and spring practice because of some off-the-field issues. Regardless of whether he returns, State figures to have a running game good enough to keep opposing defenses honest and take some of the pressure off Glennon and his productive passing attack. After dealing with a variety of physical problems his first two seasons, Washington emerged as a versatile every-down back last year. He not only led the team in rushing with 897 yards and seven touchdowns on 227 carries, he was also State’s second-leading receiver (42 catches).
Creecy, who played wide receiver in high school, is a speedy complement who came on strong late in the season. He carried 14 times for 49 yards while catching a team-leading eight passes for 52 yards and two scores in the Wolfpack’s regular-season ending rally against Maryland.
Greene is a combination of Washington and Creecy. He was State’s top ground gainer with 597 yards as a true freshman despite coming off the bench in 12 of 13 games. But durability is an issue. So is his character after a run-in with the law that kept him off the field this spring.
“I expect him to be with us in fall practice,” O’Brien said of Greene. “He’s been doing all that’s been asked of him. So long as he continues and completes what we’ve asked him to do, we should see him when practice starts in August.”
Though NC State is set at running back, it will miss one of its unsung heroes in fullback Taylor Gentry. On the positive side, both of his potential replacements — sophomore Logan Winkles (6-1, 252) and junior Tyler Purvis (6-3, 230) — got some game experience after Gentry went down with an injury midway through last season.
For the second straight season, the receiving corps is a question mark after the graduation of its top two pass catchers. Unlike last year at this time, when third-round NFL draft choice T.J. Graham and reliable Jay Smith were still essentially unknown quantities, O’Brien and offensive coordinator Dana Bible have several experienced veterans lined up waiting for their turn to shine.
Senior Tobais Palmer (5-11, 175) will step into Graham’s place as State’s primary deep threat. The slender speedster ranked fourth on the team last season with 37 catches and showed his big-play capability by catching a 54-yard touchdown in a win against rival North Carolina and a 43-yarder in the Wolfpack’s late season upset of then No. 7 Clemson. Sophomore Bryan Underwood (5-11, 174) also showed an ability to get behind opposing defenses by hauling in a 79-yard scoring pass in a win at Virginia among his 16 catches last season.
On the other side of the field, junior Quintin Payton (6-4, 210) provides a big target for Glennon to find on third down situations and on the fade around the goal line. A former high school quarterback, Payton caught seven passes for 107 yards in 2010.
Also battling for playing time are junior Rashard Smith (5-11, 176), a converted cornerback who will remain at wide receiver full time after spending last season bouncing back and forth between offense and defense, along with highly touted redshirt freshmen Hakeem Flowers (6-3, 182) and Maurice Morgan (6-2, 225). There is also a chance that one of this year’s top prospects, Charlie Hedgdus (6-2, 195) could work his way into the rotation with a strong fall camp.
“We’re in a similar situation to where we were a year ago when we lost three guys,” O’Brien said. “We didn’t know about Tobais and Bryan Underwood coming into the season. They showed flashes. They can be really good wide receivers. It’s just a question of them being experienced, getting confidence and making the plays.” Tight end is just as uncertain after the graduation of four-year mainstay George Bryan, who left as the leading receiver in school history at the position. Senior Mario Carter (6-4, 262) was the top backup last season, catching nine passes for 84 yards and a touchdown in limited action.
He’ll be pushed by junior Anthony Talbert (6-4, 254), who played mostly on special teams last year, and junior Asa Watson (6-4, 235), who missed all last season after undergoing heart surgery. Watson showed signs that he can be a valuable weapon in the passing game with an impressive 74-yard catch and run in State’s spring game.
The Big Uglies
The trademark of O’Brien’s most successful teams at Boston College was a deep, strong offensive line that set a physical tone for the running game while giving the quarterback ample time to find receivers downfield. It’s taken a while, but it appears as though the Wolfpack may finally have an offensive front that lives up to that reputation.
Not only are four of the five starters back, led by senior left tackle R.J. Mattes (6-6, 313). A four-year starter whose father played for Virginia when O’Brien was an assistant there in the early 1980s, Mattes is a big, strong, vocal leader who has NFL potential. As good as Mattes was last season while playing on a sore ankle, O’Brien believes he’ll be even better now that he’s healthy again after undergoing offseason surgery.
“We thought he was going thought he was going to miss all of spring practice, [but] he missed the first five days,” O’Brien said. “You didn’t see many ill effects coming off the surgery. He played through it last year, but he certainly looked quicker on his feet this spring than he did at the end of last year.”
Mattes isn’t the only Wolfpack lineman who made a jump during the spring.
For the last two years, O’Brien, Bible and offensive line coach Jim Bridge have been waiting for massive tackle Rob Crisp (6-7, 312) to live up to the lofty reputation he built coming out of high school. While he’s played well as a backup, not allowing a sack in 413 snaps last season, he hasn’t excelled enough to find a spot in the starting lineup. Now, with the graduation of Mikel Overgaard at right tackle, the 2010 Parade All-America is going to get his chance.
Joining Mattes and Crisp up front are returning starters Camden Wentz (6-3, 301) at center, Zach Allen (6-3, 328) at right guard and Duran Christophe (6-6, 302) at left guard. Christophe, a junior, will have his hands full holding onto his position with the return of senior Andrew Wallace (6-5, 304), another former starter who missed last season with a knee injury.
As solid as the starting unit is, there’s also depth at every position for the first time in O’Brien’s five-year tenure at State.
Sophomore Cameron Fordham (6-3, 286), Andy Jomantas (6-7, 289) and Tyson Chandler (6-6, 340) all saw action last season. Fordham, a transfer from LSU, can play guard and center, while Jomantas and Chandler are the top two backups at tackle going into the fall.
True freshman Bryce Kennedy (6-3, 293) may also play right away after changing his commitment from rival North Carolina to State on the eve of signing day. An early enrollee who participated in spring practice, Kennedy has made a rapid jump up the depth chart to battle redshirt freshman Joe Thuney (6-5, 265) for the backup center job.
The injury problems began before the season ever began when starting tackle and defensive captain J.R. Sweezy broke his foot during the first week of fall camp, and they escalated from there. At one point, six defensive linemen — including three of the four projected starters — were sidelined with a variety of bumps, breaks and bruises.
Things got so bad that during the second half of the Wolfpack’s 44-14 drubbing at Cincinnati on Sept. 22, O’Brien and defensive coordinator Mike Archer had to resort to using starting fullback Taylor Gentry and walk-on offensive lineman Jacob Kahut (6-4, 266) to fill in the holes.
As bleak as the situation might have looked at the time, it did have a silver lining. Not only did a lot of young players get a lot of experience they didn’t think they’d get this early in their careers, they’re further along in their development because of it.
“During the Cincinnati game we were thinking ‘who can we put in there next,’ because guys were dropping everywhere,” Archer said. “But we fought through it, and the reason we are where we are now is that those guys played and learned. They had their baptism under fire.”
Among those who benefited most is sophomore T.Y. McGill (6-1, 298). The only true freshman to start a game for the Wolfpack in 2011, McGill was on the field for more than 200 snaps while getting credit for 19 tackles and a sack. One reason he got to play so much was a foot injury that kept Thomas Teal (6-2, 315) for the better part of seven weeks. Teal is back now and will start at the other tackle, where he has the potential to be an aggressive space-eater in the tradition of fellow O’Brien recruits B.J. Raji and Ron Brace at BC.
Junior A.J. Ferguson (6-3, 281) is another player who gained experience by being thrown into the fire last season. Along with junior college transfer Deylan Buntyn (6-4, 330), redshirt freshman Dave Mann (6-3, 249) and potentially incoming freshman k’Hadree Hooker (6-2, 285), the Wolfpack now have enough depth inside to keep everyone fresh and be prepared in case more injuries strike.
At the end positions, senior Brian Slay (6-3, 274) and junior Darryl Cato-Bishop (6-4, 278) both started games at one time or another last season. They return as the two most experienced in a promising unit that also includes another sophomore Art Norman (6-1, 242), another of the young pups who ended up leading the team with seven sacks.
The Wolfpack lost all three starters and its top backup for a number of reasons, including graduation, but because of the one person who decided to stay with the program, the rebuilt linebacking corps shouldn’t be as much of a potential liability as it might seem. Less than 24 hours after being hired by Illinois as its new defensive coordinator, respected linebackers coach Jon Tenuta changed his mind and decided to stay with the Wolfpack.
It was a decision that came as welcome news for a defense Tenuta helped transform into one of the ACC’s best over the last two seasons with his aggressive, blitzing style that has helped State average 40 sacks a year since his arrival. It was especially important, because it came only one day after junior Terrell Manning declared for the NFL draft.
Combined with the graduation of Audie Cole and Darryl Maddox, and the one-year substance-related suspension of D.J. Green, Tenuta was left with an entire unit to rebuild, almost from scratch. But if anyone is capable of getting the job done, it’s Tenuta.
“The biggest thing we have to solve in August is the linebacker position,” O’Brien said. “There’s not a lot of experience coming back there at all. We have to play a lot of young kids. Hopefully, coach Tenuta can get those guys headed in the right direction.”
Though the jury is still out and will continue to be through fall camp with all three starting positions up for grabs, several of those vying for the spots showed an ability to learn and improve during spring practice. The most experienced among the group is senior Sterling Lucas (6-2, 231), who had played in 37 career games with a pair of starts before missing last season with a knee injury. Junior Rickey Dowdy (6-2, 240) and sophomore Brandon Pittman (6-3, 216) are listed as the other two starters on the post-spring depth chart, but both are liable to find themselves in major battles to keep those positions for the Aug. 31 season opener against Tennessee at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Pressing them will be highly regarded junior college transfer Robert Caldwell (6-3, 235), converted safety Rodman Noel (6-3, 210), junior Ryan Cheek (6-1, 231) and perhaps incoming freshmen M.J. Salahuddin (6-2, 192) or Drew Davis (6-3, 230).
The potential star of the bunch is Noel. The older brother of Kentucky’s star basketball recruit Nerlens Noel, the redshirt sophomore has the speed and athleticism to cover a lot of ground and the physicality to deliver a powerful hit once he gets there. He showed off his potential with an eye-opening performance for the winning Black team in State’s spring game.
“He’s in a similar situation that D.J. Green was in last year. Both of them had played backup and special teams as a freshman at the safety position.” O’Brien said. “The way we’ve played defense for years is that field linebacker position is a hybrid strong safety-linebacker spot. He has a lot of the same skill sets of guys that we’ve had there through the years. He’s tall. He’s got length to him. He can run. He’s smart. Now it’s just a question of gaining the experience and confidence to be successful there.”
Three seasons ago, a group of freshmen were pressed into service in the Wolfpack secondary because of injuries and attrition and were torched for an average of 222 yards per game and 20 touchdowns while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete more than 62 percent of their passes. Together, they picked off just nine passes.
Last year, playing their third season together as starters, senior safeties Brandan Bishop (6-2, 210) and Earl Wolff (6-0, 201) and cornerback C.J. Wilson (5-11, 187) joined with junior All-America corner David Amerson (6-3, 194) to lead the nation with a school-record 23 interceptions while allowing opponents to complete only 57 percent of their passes.
Amerson, the Jack Tatum Award winner, had 13 of those picks to set an ACC record and equal or better the total of six rival league teams.
“Our secondary is the best in the ACC,” said quarterback Glennon, who has to face it everyday in practice “I’d argue they’re the toughest defense I’ll face all year.”
Now that Amerson has emerged as the star of the group, the general consensus is that opposing teams aren’t going to throw the ball his way as much this season. That’s fine with O’Brien.
“If that’s the case, it takes away a third of the field from a lot of people, which then helps us with the rest of the defense,” the coach said.
And it’s not as if those others in the secondary are any slouches either. Bishop, playing the same field side as Amerson, picked off five passes last season to rank third in the ACC. Wolff added three and Wilson one. Bishop and Wolff also ranked 2-3 on the team in tackles with 212 between them.
Junior safety Dontae Johnson (6-3, 196) provides a veteran backup and a solid defender in blitzing and nickel packages. He contributed 30 tackles and three sacks last year. But other than Johnson, depth could become an issue after the unexpected transfers of safeties Dean Haynes and Donald Coleman in May. Their departures move redshirt freshman Hakim Jones (6-2, 190) up to a prominent place on the fall depth chart.
The backups at corner — redshirt freshmen Juston Burris (6-1, 193) and Tyrrell Burriss (5-11, 177) — are equally as inexperienced. O’Brien also signed five defensive backs in his 2012 recruiting class, some of whom could also figure into the mix with a strong fall camp.
The Return Game
The Wolfpack have a major hole to fill with the graduation of first-team All-AC return man Graham, who ranked fourth in the league on kickoffs and second in returning punts.
Going into the fall, it looks as if speedy wide receivers Palmer and Underwood will get the first crack at the kickoff return job, with cornerback Wilson getting some reps as well. Amerson and corner-turned-receiver Smith are penciled in as the primary returners on punts.
As far as the coverage teams are concerned, they appear to be in good hands, led by top gunner Zach Gentry (6-0, 227), a senior linebacker who was awarded a scholarship in the spring. In addition to Sade and Baumann, who also doubles as the holder, sophomore long-snapper Scott Thompson (6-0, 220) also returns.
Kicking and Punting
The Wolfpack’s kicking duties are in good hands with sophomore Niklas Sade (6-3, 195). A native of Germany, Sade grew up playing soccer before switching to football in middle school when his family moved to the U.S. He came to State after originally committing to Nebraska and stepped right in to become one of only six players nationally last season to handle his team’s kicking chores as a true freshman.
Sade made 46 of his 47 extra point attempts and was 11 of 16 on field goals, including 9 of 10 on tries from inside 40 yards. He finished the season ranked seventh in the ACC with 79 points.
Wil Baumann (6-4, 185) had his share of memorable moments as a true freshman last season, including a 62-yard boot against Florida State. He was also voted ACC Special Teams Player of the Week after keeping North Carolina pinned in its own territory, despite kicking into a stiff wind, during State’s 13-0 win over the rival Tar Heels.
But because Baumann had just as many punts he’d just as soon forget, he ended up with an average of 37.5 yards that ranked in the bottom half of the league standings. Baumann spent most of the spring working on his mechanics, and if his performance in the Wolfpack’s spring game is an indication, the effort has paid off. Punting for both teams, he kicked 16 times for an average of 41.1 yards with four downed inside the 20.
There’s a reason teams and coaches aren’t judged until the end of the season. Five games into the 2011 campaign, O’Brien was squarely on the hot seat as Wolfpack languished at 2-3 and appeared to be heading nowhere. It’s amazing how different the outlook is now after State rallied to win six of its last eight games, including a 31-24 triumph against Louisville in the Belk Bowl.
Not only did State overcome a rash of injuries to put together its first back-to-back winning seasons since 2002-03, but because of O’Brien’s decision to build around Glennon instead of waiting for a decision from Wilson last spring, he’ll have a confidence, experienced quarterback to lead his offense in 2012.
The team also returns virtually its entire offensive line, talented young wide receivers Tobais Palmer and Underwood, and its leading rusher from both 2011 (Washington) and 2010 (Greene). And while there will be some important holes to fill on the defensive line and linebacker, the secondary will be strong with the return of Amerson and his nation’s best 13 interceptions, along with starters at every other secondary position.
But while all the elements appear to be in place for the momentum to continue, you just never know when it comes to the Wolfpack. Between perennial slow starts, a penchant for injuries in bunches and a much-more challenging nonconference schedule that kicks off with a nationally televised clash with Tennessee in Atlanta and a true road game at Connecticut, things can change in a hurry, as NC State learned last year.
2012 Prediction: 8-4