A dramatic turnaround propelled State to a bowl win a season ago, but the sterling finish cannot completely cover up the fact that Amato & Co. have a lot of holes to fill and fixes to make before the program can be a consistent factor in the chase for the ACC crown.
Pack Pride takes a look at 10 of the burning questions surrounding the Pack as fall camp breaks in Raleigh.
1. A Stone’s Throw — How much has redshirt junior Marcus Stone progressed in the offseason?
Second-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Trestman maintains that Stone has made significant strides in his grasp of the “Trest-Coast Offense,” so onlookers will be eager to see how that demonstrates itself in fall camp. If Stone has learned to go through his progressions more calmly and find touch on shorter passes, opposing defenses won’t be able to put eight in the box to stop State’s vaunted group of tailbacks. Stretching the field will be a must for the Wolfpack in ’06, and assuming he has the time to do so, it will rest squarely on Stone’s shoulders to make that threat a reality.
2. Is it Just-in Time? — Will State have the luxury of redshirting signal-caller Justin Burke?
Quarterback Justin Burke
Third-string quarterback Michael Greco elected to take his game to the junior-college ranks rather than fight for the backup spot or endure a position switch, leaving NC State with just two scholarship quarterbacks in Stone and redshirt sophomore Daniel Evans. Following a record-breaking prep career in Kentucky, newcomer Justin Burke would appear to be slated for a redshirt campaign, but the lack of arms and the level of physicality shown every Saturday in the conference could eliminate that luxury.
Expect Trestman to throw the playbook at Burke in fall camp to see what sticks, then make a determination on how much the youngster might be able to handle in 2006.
3. Three-headed Monster — How will the Pack make use of tailbacks Andre Brown, Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene?
The presence of Brown, Baker and Eugene allowed Amato to address two trouble spots by moving Darrell Blackman to receiver and Reggie Davis to linebacker. Like most rookies, Brown and Baker had ups and downs a season ago, but both appear poised to wreak havoc on the opposition this year.
Trestman has devised packages that will have both players in the backfield at the same time, while Eugene will see action as a third-down back and could even get reps at receiver. One of the interesting developments will be to see how Trestman will find a way to involve all three playmakers on a consistent basis.
4. Anchoring An Offense — Will NC State's offensive line prove to be a strength for the Wolfpack?
We could question the arrival of Pat Meyer as offensive line coach and the overall unit, but we think that the presence of three redshirt seniors and a redshirt junior among his starting five and his rock-solid reputation will make the front a position of strength for the Wolfpack.
Right Guard Curtis Crouch
Big things are expected from left tackle James Newby and center Leroy Harris, but the senior who could provide the most stability is right tackle Jon Holt. Holt, who played quality snaps over the past couple of seasons while subbing for the departed Derek Morris, came up big two years ago for State in the Wolfpack's 17-16 win over Virginia Tech, and they will need a big year from Holt. If he can't step up to the plate, expect mammoth redshirt freshman Jerail McCuller to take over at the position, and he even has the potential to beat Holt out this fall.
Two underclassmen are locked in at the guard positions in left guard Kalani Heppe and right guard Curtis Crouch. Heppe started the first half of the 2005 season before being sidelined with a shoulder injury, but his absence was offset by the emergence of Crouch. Checking in at 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, Crouch has outstanding feet and can be a dominant blocker for the Wolfpack's ground game. Amato speaks highly of the talented sophomore, and he will be a full-time starter in 2006.
With Heppe, Harris, and Crouch manning the interior, this could be the Wolfpack's best line since the 2002 campaign, assuming Holt or McCuller can emerge at right tackle.
5. Tight End Troubles? — How will NC State cope with a lack of depth at the tight end spot?
Anthony Hill is a bonafide NFL prospect and unquestionably one of the league’s best tight ends. However, what is known at the tight end position begins and ends right there. Jamesly Jean never developed at the spot and Octavius Darby has not made the desired progress, either, leaving a gaping hole at the position behind Hill.
Trestman likes to use the H-back and two–tight end packages, so walk-ons John Kane (fullback) and Jacob King (tight end) could be thrust into action more than the offensive staff would like. Also, Trestman would love nothing more than to see Penn State transfer Pat Bedics seize the fullback position and show H-back capabilities when fall camp gets into full swing.
Depending on how things stack up at tight end early in camp, State may be forced to rush a youngster—such as signee Rashad Phillips — into action earlier than they would prefer or move a player to the position, see Matt Kushner, to make up for the lack of depth.
6. Catching Is Up for Grabs — Who will emerge at the receiver position for the Pack?
A valid concern is the group of targets that Stone will be looking for now that Brian Clark and Tramain Hall are gone.
Lamart Barrett is the most experienced of the crew, promising John Dunlap is two years removed from knee surgery. Lanky redshirt freshman Geron James needs to display consistency, so the depth isn’t so hot, either. Look for Darrell Blackman to make an impact. One thing is certain with Blackman: when he gets the ball in his hands, he is a threat to break foes’ ankles and hearts.
Wide Receiver Darrell Blackman
An All-ACC special teams standout, Blackman has been devastating as a return man and showcased rare skills out of the backfield and running the ball. However, the problem has been how to get the ball into his hands enough. With so many good backs in the fold, the question became how to make Blackman—called one of the team’s best players by Trestman—a vital cog in the offense. Shifting him to receiver could solve two problems at once if he can continue to make the strides he showed during spring drills.
Blackman’s progress at wideout will be monitored closely this fall, and his transition could be one of the biggest stories for this year’s version of the Pack.
The good news is that assistant Dwayne Dixon will have a bevy of incoming freshmen to work with at the spot, and the hope is that fall camp will reveal James experiencing a breakthrough and two or more of the rookies showing the maturity to handle immediate time. Watch out for Orlando (FL) Jones standout Jarvis Williams. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound freshman has the natural ability to be a special player.
7. Can This Reggie Be Mr. August? — Can senior Reggie Davis successfully move from running back to linebacker to improve a shaky spot?
After giving up a redshirt season to step in at an injury-plagued tailback position as a true freshman, Reggie Davis was lauded as a terrific teammate and selfless player by Amato.
Now, in his final season, Davis is doing what is best for the program again, moving across the line of scrimmage to try his hand at weakside linebacker. The Pack defense has long relied on playmakers at “Will,” highlighted by NFLers Levar Fisher, Pat Thomas and Stephen Tulloch, so Davis has some big shoes to fill. He showcased big-hitting ability in the spring, but he did make the expected mental mistakes that are a part of learning alignments, angles and finishing tackles.
With the loss of standouts Tulloch and Oliver Hoyte, an improved, reliable, quick-learning Davis would go a long way toward shoring up a troublesome area for the Wolfpack.
8. No More Waiting on the Edge — Who will step up to replace first-round NFL draftees Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and John McCargo?
The Pack was able to redshirt freshman Willie Young and junior Littleton Wright at defensive end a season ago, giving them valuable time to learn behind pass-rushing demons Williams and Lawson.
Defensive End Willie Young
Now the duo of Young and Wright will have every opportunity to become first-round heir apparents by grabbing hold of the available starting spots in fall camp. Behind those two, a nice blend of vets and promising youngsters will sort out the pecking order in practice. In the middle, DeMario Pressley and Tank Tyler have gotten plenty of reps despite McCargo’s presence in recent years, so they are more than ready to shine.
John Bedics has the edge over redshirt freshmen Teddy Larsen and Alan Michael-Cash as the third member of the tackle rotation, but nothing is set in stone and fall camp will wipe the slate clean as spots in the depth chart are thrown up for grabs.
9. The X (Ray) Factor — After a year away, will Raymond Brooks be ready to assume a starting job at defensive end?
Because Williams and Lawson bookended the NC State defensive line to rave reviews in 2005, the loss of Raymond Brooks to academics went relatively unnoticed.
However, he was one of the most productive members of the Pack defense as a reserve in 2004, and his return this year could represent an enormous lift to a defensive front that is long on talent but short on experience. Brooks brings both attributes to the table for State, a veteran with rare physical gifts and the ability to provide leadership who will be itching to forge his reputation following an absence.
If a summer in the classroom is rewarded by his return to the program, Brooks will be one of the most closely watched players on the entire squad during fall practices.
10. Chuck’s Chair — Is this a pivotal year for State head man Chuck Amato?
By now, the numbers “12-11” have become well-known to diehard Wolfpack fans. That’s the Pack’s record in the last two years, following the departure of record-breaking quarterback Philip Rivers to the NFL.
Head Coach Chuck Amato
It took a staggering turnaround a season ago to avoid back-to-back losing seasons in Raleigh, and prior to a 5-1 finish, call-in shows and message boards were alive with the question that would have seemed inconceivable following a terrific start to Amato’s coaching tenure: Was Amato on the hot seat? The bowl victory and having three players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft took much of the attention off of Amato, but now that fall camp is here, eyes will once again be watching closely.
A favorable early schedule should theoretically allow the Wolfpack to get off to an impressive record, but if the team stumbles in the first few weeks, the rumblings could start again quickly. An unproven quarterback, inconsistent receiving corps, depleted tight end group and untested front seven on defense won’t make things any easier, but Amato relishes challenges and could use the perceived criticisms to circle the wagons.
Most fans are tiring of the six- and seven-win campaigns that end with NC State scraping into a lower-tier bowl game. But as long as Amato keeps earning bowl season berths, it will be difficult for the administration to justify a change—especially considering all of the improvements that have gone on at Carter-Finley Stadium during Amato’s tenure.