Jamelle Eugene doesn't feel any pressure. With publications and media outlets picking NC State anywhere from first to third in the Atlantic Division, expectations in Raleigh are much different entering the 2009 season.
Prior to the start of last year's campaign nearly everyone picked the Wolfpack to finish dead last in the Atlantic. Technically that's where they finished, given their overall record of 6-6, but the Wolfpack was also a game out of first place in the jumbled six-team division.
"I hope these are the same people who picked us at the bottom last year because that is where we finished," said Eugene. "We can't worry about any of that... our focus is on South Carolina. When you get ahead of yourself you lose games.
"I don't feel like we have any pressure on us though. We have enough veterans that we can keep the young guys from thinking about any of those predictions."
In fact, Eugene feels his team can use it as added motivation.
"If you are a true competitor, you would see being picked second or third as a slap in the face," he stated. "We know we have a lot to prove, and that starts with South Carolina... then the next game, and then the next game.
"You can't look past anybody, you can't feel any pressure, and you can't buy into what the fans are saying. I believe we see it as an opportunity to show we're getting better as a team and show we are capable of going to the next level."
The Wolfpack showed those glimpses late last season. After struggling to a 2-6 start... and an 0-4 record in conference play, NC State won its final four games, all against league foes, to finish 6-6 and 4-4 overall.
"All of that was
his God-given talent."
A major reason for NC State's success was the rapid development of Russell Wilson at quarterback.
"It was exciting to see Russell get better every week," said Eugene. "He came to me at times for some advice, and I was able to provide him some advice and help him out.... nothing to impact the game though. All of that was his God-given talent.
"He is a hard worker and he uses all of his tools. He has earned everything, and he's deserving of all the attention he has received. Russell has always been a mature guy, and he's showing he is still the same guy with all of the attention and praise he's received. That speaks volumes."
Wilson is a big factor in the hype around the Wolfpack, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, but the maturation of the players around him played a major role as well.
NC State averaged 278 yards and 16 points per game in the first six FBS games of the year. Over the final six (including the bowl loss to Rutgers), the Wolfpack amassed 381 yards per game while scoring 29 points per contest, a difference of over 100 yards and 13 points per game.
Returning with Wilson and Eugene are four offensive linemen who have started double-digit games, all of the wide receivers, and talented tight end George Bryan while adding potential impact players like Mario Carter, Toney Baker, Donald Bowens, and R.J. Mattes among others.
"We feel like with the receivers and quarterbacks we have, the development of the offensive line, and the people in the backfield, we have the ability to score on every possession," said Eugene. "It's very exciting. I really didn't feel that way my first three years... we were hoping for scores at times. We didn't have that confidence... maybe we could get a big play on special teams and get a score that way, but now the mindset is get us the ball and we're going to make something happen.
"Whether we will or not is going to be determined throughout the season, but we have the ability to do it. Having Russell back there takes pressure off the other individuals. You get to show what you can do."
If something should happen to Wilson the Wolfpack will turn to heralded redshirt freshman Mike Glennon. The 6-foot-7 signal-caller nearly won the job last fall, but redshirted and will receive reps in the opener.
"Mike is mature and has really handled himself well," said Eugene. "He's in a situation where he is a talented young guy who is eager to play and wants to play but behind a big-time player.
"The thing that's great is he hasn't complained and he hasn't started any friction... that's big. He's working hard and is already a leader. We know what he can do. We feel confident when he comes in that we will still move the ball."
Eugene should have a good feel for the offense as he spent the spring sidelined after shoulder surgery. It enabled him to watch his competition at tailback, including Toney Baker, who is returning from a knee injury, and incoming freshman James Washington.
believe he is 100%."
"Toney is my partner in crime... it's great having him back," Eugene stated. "I feel like Toney was probably at that time around 90%. It was his first time back with contact, going through the plays... live action. He improved as the spring went on, and now I honestly believe he is 100%.
"James is definitely going to be a player to watch out for. He has a bright future. I think a lot of his traits are similar to me in that he's a good athlete, really strong for his size, explosive, and he has the heart of a lion... he doesn't fear contact.
"He's one of the smaller guys out there but he does what he is supposed to do... there's only a few of us like that. You can be 230 pounds and go knock down a defensive end, but when you're 190 pounds and do it that speaks to your heart. He works hard and does all the little things. As he matures and develops he's going to be a great player."
Because NC State is still a couple of years away from having experienced depth along the roster, most feel for them to truly compete for the ACC title they must have an injury-free year.
"Staying healthy would mean everything to us because it hasn't happened the past couple of years," said Eugene. "Few teams have an injury-free year, but we've been at the other end of the stick... if we could have a healthy year, it would be big for the team and the Wolfpack Nation.
"I believe we stated off last year with three or four starters out, two for the season. After the first game we lost another one or two... Nate went down for some games, Cash was out for some games. It was frustrating, but we were able to overcome it, and it has added confidence. It allowed some younger guys to gain experience, and we'll benefit from it this year."
"We are clicking," he added. "We look as good as we can in the summer. We still have some rust to knock off but that's what camp is for. We're ready to go."