1. There is a capable back-up quarterback. Technically, there is a proven quarterback going into the season for the first time in a long time…since Phillip Rivers. We’ll leave it at that without diving into the Jay Davis, Marcus Stone, Daniel Evans, Harrison Beck, Justin Burke (just because you transfer, doesn’t mean I’ll forget about you) fiasco. Russell Wilson surprised everyone by becoming the first freshman to earn the quarterback slot on the All-ACC team last year while also racking up conference Rookie of the Year honors. When he was healthy, the redshirt freshman dazzled and normally was victorious.
However, when the generously-listed 5-11 signal caller went down, so did the offense’s production. Mike Glennon was a All-American prep QB that has been hailed as Raleigh’s Savior since he signed. Last year, he redshirted while Wilson came out of nowhere and cemented his grip on the job. Glennon was named the scout team offensive MVP last year and looked good in the spring game, posting a 23 for 38 effort for a touchdown and no picks. In his best backyard impression, Glennon quarterbacked both teams after Wilson left at halftime to suit up for the baseball team.
Glennon also got the majority of reps with the number ones in the spring when Wilson was playing baseball but after a short summer league stint, Wilson is back and focused on football. It feels good to have just one capable man under center and for this year, the Pack looks to have two youngsters capable of leading the offense. Tom O’Brien recently mentioned that both signal callers would see action in the first half of the opening game against South Carolina.
2. The defensive line will be among the most experienced in the ACC. Willie Young gets the glitz and glamour at defensive end, as he earned preseason All-ACC distinctions this summer. Remember, he redshirted with current NFLers Mario Williams, Manny Lawson, John McCargo and Tank Tyler on the roster. He’s played well enough that he should join his former teammates in the league after completing his fifth season.
Last year, Young tallied 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks while the other projected starter is fellow senior Shea McKeen. The 6-5, 255 McKeen missed the last three games last season with a broken ankle but played well before the injury. This year’s top back-ups, redshirt junior Audi Augustin and redshirt sophomore Jeff Rieskamp, saw a good amount of playing time last season following McKeen’s injury and preformed well.
According to head coach Tom O’Brien, though, the team’s best defensive lineman doesn’t line up on the end. Alan-Michael Cash should be one of the top tackles in the conference this season and is also rebounding from an injury. O’Brien called him the team’s best lineman several times last season and the fifth-year senior racked up 38 tackles, seven for a loss, 3.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries in ten games.
The starting job opposite of Cash will be decided between Leroy Burgess, a senior, and mid-year enrollee Nathan Mageo, who saw time this spring as the Pack’s top two tackles while Cash missed some spring practices.
3. The schedule. 8 Home games. A cupcake non-conference slate: South Carolina (7-6 last year), Murray State (5-7 in the powerful Ohio Valley Conference), Gardner-Webb (5-6 in the Big South) and closing with a noticeably weaker, LeSean McCoy-less Pittsburgh Panthers squad at home (9-4). The Pack could start 3-0 without facing a real test going into the game with Pittsburgh. They could also fall flat on their faces with players facing high expectations for the first time in their collegiate careers.
4. Tom O’Brien’s recruits are beginning to age. This goes hand-in-hand with the coach being able to institute his mindset, playbooks, coaching staff, etc. When TOB was hired, he had a track record: an NCAA record eight consecutive bowl wins at a Boston College program that was tarnished at the time he took the job with a gambling scandal. He built Boston College into a legitimate football program and left as the school’s all-time win leader.
He accomplished those feats at a school that doesn’t get the biggest name recruits but he has unearthed some hidden gems (Matt Ryan, Mathias Kiwanuka) and developed many other players that are currently in the NFL. He has already gotten even better recruits at NC State than he ever did at Boston College and those youngsters, as well as the players who were already here, are beginning to develop under the third-year head coach.
5. Chuck Amato’s underachieving guys are leaving. Chuck was all flash and no results after Rivers left. Sure, maybe I'm a little harsh on the alum but he wore out his welcome with most Pack fans. Chuck had a moderately successful tenure with the Pack but the relationship really soured at the end after Chuck’s teams quit producing. He nabbed many highly touted players but patience wore extremely thin at the end of his run as the teams and highly-touted players (mostly from Florida) repeatedly flopped.
6. Russell Wilson. It’s quite simple, R.W. is the top quarterback in the ACC. I’ll take Wilson over Riley Skinner any day of the week. Wilson does two things that coaches love while he may lack the prototypical size of an elite quarterback: he doesn’t turn the ball over and he JUST WINS. Want proof? I’ll let the ACC coaches tell you:
“I’ve been enjoying my summer and then you bring up Wilson,” Florida State legend Bobby Bowden said. “He is something else. I remember watching him last year – we beat them and I don’t know how. He’s the most dangerous quarterback that I saw last year and he might be the most dangerous in the country but I haven’t seen enough of him. He’s something else.”
“We’ll try to play about 14 guys at one time,” Bowden answered when asked how he planned to stop Wilson.
Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani said the best way to stop Wilson was to keep him on the bench.
“I think Russell Wilson is a great, great football player,” Spaziani (sidenote: if you ever want a good quote, go to Spaz, he was a riot at the ACC Kickoff) said. “He’s still a baby in the system. I think he’s just going to get better and better as the team gets better.”
7. Each running back has something to prove. Although Andre Brown left for the NFL, there is still a haul of capable backs in Raleigh. Toney Baker and Jamel Eugene were as highly regarded as Brown until injuries allowed Brown to take center stage. Eugene is always having to disprove his critics due to size concerns and he is bouncing back from an injury that forced him to miss spring practice. However, Eugene was the one that was named team MVP in 2007 when Baker and Brown were both injured. The redshirt senior Eugene has 1,168 career rushing yards.
Meanwhile, Baker has 1, 272 career rushing yards and 12 touchdowns despite not seeing game action in nearly two years since going down in the 2007 season opener. “The touchdown maker” was back in the spring and says he’s feeling good. In high school, Baker rushed for 10,231 yards and 161 touchdowns. Now you know where the nickname is from.
Whoever steps into the role as third running back must prove that he can contribute on this level and there’s a host of talented youngsters vying for that spot. Junior Curtis Underwood has shown potential in the limited amount of playing time he has seen due to the backfield’s number of injuries over the past few years. Redshirt freshman Brandon Barnes was highly-touted coming out of high school and mid-year enrollee James Washington is a speedy freshman who could factor into the decision.
8. A balanced division. Bobby Bowden said it best at the ACC Kickoff: the ACC was pretty balanced last year. It looks to be the same this year in the Atlantic Division, at least. Sure, Virginia Tech will probably run away with the Coastal title but four of the six teams in the Atlantic tier received first-place votes from the media. Nobody is sure who will distance themselves but, with a quick start, the Pack can be the first to distance themselves. It will be keeping the distance once the conference slate begins that really counts, though.
9. Special teams consistency. Tom O’Brien usually has good to great special teams play. The Pack returns special teams standouts TJ Graham and Josh Czajkowski this year. Graham was one of the most exciting returners in college football last year as the sophomore burner racked up a 25.1 yard average per kickoff return and had a memorable 100-yard return last year.
Czajkowski is a redshirt junior kicker that was 16 of 19 last year but only had three opportunities from longer than 40 yards (making two). The kicker hit a 52-yarder in one the spring scrimmages and the staff should show more trust in him this season, in addition to the offense getting him more opportunities. Finally, as a special teams believer, I must mention that the Pack returns both long snappers, as well, and the duo splits the duties nicely: there was only one bad snap last season (the sound you here is Wolfpack nation knocking on wood)
10. The emergence of young tight ends. What is a young quarterback’s best weapon? A reliable tight end and NC State has a few promising options. Although the team loses future NFL star (had to get that prediction in) Anthony Hill, he was injured much of last season and the Pack’s youngsters received valuable playing time in his absence. Redshirt sophomore George Bryan is flying under the radar but he’s going to be good. The 6-5, 270 pounder looked good at times last year, scoring four touchdowns, in limited action and has impressed in the spring.
Matt Kushner is also an experienced fifth-year senior but is rehabbing from a serious knee injury that happened during the second game of last season. Redshirt freshman Mario Carter was a highly-touted prospect coming out of Independence High in Charlotte but suffered a knee injury before his senior year. He rehabbed it back to strength last season and began practicing with the team before the close of the year. In the spring game, Carter led all receivers with six catches for 68 yards.
Two freshmen, Asa Watson (the younger brother of New England Patriots TE Ben Watson) and Anthony Talbert, both stand 6-4 and could factor into the depth chart.
That was the ten reasons for optimism among the Wolfpack faithful this summer.Tear it apart and criticize, bleacherreport. I'll have a ten reasons for concern later this week.