NC State began the season with redshirt senior Anthony Hill and redshirt junior Matt Kushner at the top of the depth chart, as both players entered 2008 with a wealth of experience.
However, just two games in, Hill and Kushner were out with injuries, as Hill would miss four games with a muscle strain and Kushner was lost for the season with a knee injury the second game of the year.
The injuries allowed redshirt freshman George Bryan to emerge as a valuable weapon for the Wolfpack. Hill returned against Florida State and didn't miss a beat, recording 15 catches for 162 yards and three touchdowns while being dominant at times as a blocker.
Their strong play has helped key the Pack's offensive attack.
"That was one of the keys to us getting back and playing offense the way we have," said head coach Tom O'Brien. "Anthony Hill has been tremendous. Now I know what we missed all last year and about half of this year.
"George Bryan has been a pleasant surprise. He was thrown into the fire and has performed better than I think any of us has expected."
"Anthony is an excellent blocker," added O'Brien. "George is learning that way. George has great hands, and Anthony can catch the ball too. It doesn't matter who is in the game, but when both are in the game they both are threats. A lot of times you have two tight ends and one is a blocker and one is a [receiver]. They can do both. It gives us a lot of flexibility."
Not only have both been extremely productive, but Hill's stellar work ethic and leadership qualities impact Bryan and should enable him to continue to mature as a football player.
"Anthony is a very good practice player," said O'Brien. "By practicing with Anthony, George has learned to practice much better. I think it will help him as he goes along and help us as we go into the future."
"He's definitely the best tight end I've ever played with," said Bryan. "Anthony is a really good teacher. I've learned a lot from him, and he's a great guy. He looks after everybody... he's a good team leader. He lets us know if we're doing something wrong or right. He's just a great guy.
"I'm sure he intimidates some teams.... just with who he is and how hard he plays. He's so aggressive. He just gets after it and everybody feeds off his energy a lot."
Facing a tough Miami defense, the Wolfpack will need Hill and Bryan to have big days on Saturday.
Thanksgiving At The Barn
Last year Tom O'Brien allowed the local players to head home for Thanksgiving dinner... the Wolfpack lost 37-0 that weekend to Maryland. No one can say for sure that factored into the defeat, but O'Brien informed the media today that he has changed things up a bit this year.
"I changed it a little bit," he said. "I gave them a little bit of freedom last year and it wasn't the best result so we went back to the way we used to do it.
"I just gave them a little more time off, and let them go home for Thanksgiving dinner if they wanted, but that didn't work out. We're going to have a team dinner like I've always done. We've had better success that way."
"We're going to practice basically the same time tomorrow," he added. "We're going to move it up maybe a half an hour. We're going to try and stay in the same routine, and Friday will be the same."
With the team having Thanksgiving together, don't expect O'Brien to be making the meal.
"I'm not cooking at all," he stated. "We're going to the Angus Barn and they are serving us up."
Bryan's Hands Are Exceptional
If it wasn't for Anthony Hill (and vice versa), George Bryan could be in line for All-ACC honors, despite being a redshirt freshman. He has tallied 18 catches for 201 yards and four touchdowns, a total that leads all Atlantic Coast Conference tight ends.
Bryan, who hails from Wilmington, North Carolina and enrolled as one of the most heavily-recruited players in the Wolfpack's 2007 class, credits the rest of his offense for his success.
"I give a lot of credit to the offense in general," he stated. "I've been able to get open a couple of times, and it is because everybody else is doing their job.
"If the receivers don't run their routes the right way and pull somebody over I wouldn't get open. If the line doesn't block well, Russell [Wilson] wouldn't have time to throw it. If he doesn't go through his reads, he can't find us open. We're all working together."
Bryan is being modest because he deserves credit for being able to get open. In back-to-back games against Wake Forest and North Carolina, Bryan beat defenders off the line of scrimmage to get open for a touchdown reception in the redzone. Against Wake, he used his hands to beat potential All-American Aaron Curry for a score. A week later, he shedded a chip from UNC defensive end E.J. Wilson and caught a strike from Wilson before taking a huge hit from North Carolina safety Deunta Williams. What did Bryan think of that play?
"I took a hit, but we got into the endzone and that's really all that matters."
At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, Bryan has great size for the tight end position. What has been surprising is his ability to catch the football.
"We had some good tight ends at BC," said O'Brien. "[George is] exceptional though I think for a freshman at this point... some of the catches he's made, you just don't see them out of a redshirt freshman."
"I'm glad I'm having a good year," Bryan stated. "I hope I can build on it."