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July 7, 2009
THE SCHEME: North Carolina State runs a pro-style offense that also includes read-option elements.
STAR POWER: There wasn't a more valuable player in the ACC last year than QB Russell Wilson. As a redshirt freshman, Wilson threw 17 touchdown passes with only one interception while also rushing for 388 yards and four touchdowns. He became the first freshman quarterback to earn first-team All-ACC honors. His value to the Wolfpack was evident in the Papajohns.com Bowl. Wilson threw for 186 yards and ran for 46 yards in the first half while helping the Wolfpack take a 17-6 lead over Rutgers. After he sprained his knee late in the first half, North Carolina State's backup quarterbacks threw three interceptions as Rutgers rallied for a 29-23 victory.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: North Carolina State must break in first-year starters at both guard spots, which could allow redshirt freshmen Zach Allen and R.J. Mattes to crack the lineup. Although Allen and Mattes might not open the season as starters, they should earn ample playing time. Mattes also has the ability to play tackle, though the Wolfpack have more depth at that position. Redshirt freshman Andrew Wallace also could work into the mix at guard despite being sidelined for most of spring practice.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: North Carolina State likes to utilize the tight end in its passing attack, so sophomore TE George Bryan could be in for a big year now that he's taking over for the departed Anthony Hill. Bryan showed his big-play ability as a part-time starter last year by tying for second on the team with four touchdown catches. He scored the first touchdown in a victory over North Carolina and had a tying touchdown reception against East Carolina. After catching 18 passes for 201 yards last year, Bryan could double those totals this fall.
STRONGEST AREA: By the end of the season, North Carolina State fans might be arguing that they have two of the ACC's top quarterbacks. Wilson certainly can stake his claim as the conference's best quarterback. He's a dangerous runner who also can beat teams with his arm. Although he completed less than 55 percent of his passes last season, Wilson made up for his lack of accuracy by posting a spectacular 17-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Wilson can't afford to rest on his laurels, though, because 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman Mike Glennon – the brother of former Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon – was ranked as the No. 59 prospect in the 2008 recruiting class after he threw for 2,557 yards and 32 touchdowns his senior year at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The inexperience at guard is a concern. North Carolina State already had to worry about replacing 2008 starters John Bedics and Meares Green. The Wolfpack's depth at this position took an additional hit when projected starter Julian Williams missed much of spring practice with a knee injury.
THE SCHEME: North Carolina State runs a 4-3 defense.
STAR POWER: The Wolfpack potentially have two of the ACC's most dynamic defensive players in DE Willie Young and LB Nate Irving. The key word here is "potentially." Young has recorded 12½ sacks and 28½ tackles for loss over the past two seasons, but he has struggled with consistency throughout his career. If he plays up to his potential all season, Young could emerge as the ACC's most dangerous pass rusher. Irving recorded 84 tackles – 12 for loss – and four interceptions in only 10 games last year, but he broke a leg and suffered a collapsed lung in a car wreck this summer. The injury has left his status for the season uncertain.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman LB Terrell Manning sat out the 2009 season while recovering from a knee injury he sustained his senior year at Scotland County High School in Laurinburg, N.C. Manning now seems eager to make up for lost time. Manning will spend the preseason competing for a job as the Wolfpack's strongside linebacker.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: North Carolina State's lack of experience at safety means someone at that position needs to have a breakthrough season. We're guessing SS Clem Johnson is the guy who makes the most of the opportunity. Johnson struggled with injuries last year in his first season since arriving from Valley Forge Military College, but he played well when he was healthy. He came back from a broken jaw to start three consecutive games before going down again with an ankle injury. If he stays healthy, Johnson could help solidify the secondary.
STRONGEST AREA: The Wolfpack should boast one of the top defensive lines in the ACC. We already mentioned the pass-rushing potential of Young, but he's just one of the Wolfpack's three returning starters on the line. DT Alan-Michael Cash is a fifth-year senior who recorded 5½ tackles for loss in the final five games of the 2008 season. DE Shea McKeen isn't as dangerous as his two senior classmates, but he should provide the Wolfpack with a nice pass-rushing complement to Young.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: North Carolina State is breaking in new starters at each of the two safety positions. Considering the Wolfpack already finished last in the ACC in total defense and scoring defense a year ago, the lack of experience at safety represents a major concern.
Josh Czajkowski returns as North Carolina State's kicker after a 2008 season in which he went 16-of-19 on field-goal attempts, though he only attempted three kicks from at least 40 yards. True freshman Chris Ward could immediately establish himself as the Wolfpack's punter. Ward averaged 42 yards per punt his senior year at Starrs Mill High School in Fayetteville, Ga. T.J. Graham did a fine job returning kickoffs and punts last season. Graham scored on a 100-yard kickoff return against Boston College.
North Carolina State's record over the past two years might not reflect it, but Tom O'Brien has done a good job of making the Wolfpack competitive in the ACC again. North Carolina State has started slowly and finished fast each of his first two years on the job. That kind of improvement reflects well on a coaching staff. O'Brien also won himself plenty of brownie points across Tobacco Road last year by leading North Carolina State to an unofficial state title. The Wolfpack went undefeated against in-state opponents with victories over East Carolina, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke. O'Brien has benefited from continuity, as the Wolfpack's coaching staff returns intact this fall.
North Carolina State's season opener with South Carolina should let us know how far the Wolfpack have come in the past year. The Wolfpack opened the 2008 season by losing 34-0 to the Gamecocks. The Wolfpack's first seven games are all very winnable. North Carolina State opens the season with a four-game homestand against South Carolina, Murray State, Gardner-Webb and Pittsburgh before traveling to Wake Forest. The Wolfpack follow that up with a home game against Duke. The schedule gets much tougher down the stretch. North Carolina State travels to Florida State and Virginia Tech and hosts Maryland, Clemson and North Carolina in its final five games.
North Carolina State is getting plenty of preseason attention as the ACC's biggest team on the rise, but Wolfpack fans shouldn't make their bowl preparations just yet. This offense relies heavily on Wilson, who arguably was the league's most indispensable player last year. Irving means almost as much to the defense. And both players have been known to get hurt, with Irving's status for the season opener already uncertain. As long as Wilson stays healthy, this offense ought to rank among the best in the ACC. But the offense will have to be good to make up for the defense. North Carolina State allowed more points and yards per game last year than any team in the conference. If Wilson and Irving stay healthy, Young lives up to his potential and the defense gets a little better, the Wolfpack have a chance to win the Atlantic Division title. But if Wilson gets hurt and the defense continues to struggle, the Wolfpack could finish below .500 for a fourth consecutive year. But we're betting the string of losing seasons ends this year.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.