RALEIGH — After going 16-21 in three seasons without a winning record, N.C. State football coach Tom O'Brien readily admits that his team needs to win more games this fall and get to a bowl game.
As preseason camp begins today, O'Brien and the Wolfpack have some pieces that could help them do that.
Quarterback Russell Wilson, who led the ACC with 31 touchdown passes last season, is back after spending the summer playing minor league baseball.
Linebacker Nate Irving, the leader of the defense in 2008, returns after missing last season because of injuries suffered in a car crash.
But the Wolfpack has some questions that need to be answered during preseason camp, particularly in the backfield on both offense and defense.
Here are some answers the N.C. State coaches will be seeking during camp as the Wolfpack prepares for its Sept. 4 opener with Western Carolina:
1. Who will carry the ball?
After years of counting on talented, Chuck Amato recruited running backs, N.C. State doesn't have a proven commodity ready to carry the ball.
Junior Curtis Underwood redshirted last season in anticipation of a possible opportunity to start now that 2009 seniors Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene have departed.
In limited duty in 2007 and 2008, Underwood was reliable but unspectacular while carrying a total of 51 times for 200 yards and one touchdown. Underwood missed the spring game with a knee injury but should be at full strength for fall camp.
His chief competition will come from James Washington, who showed flashes of breakaway ability last season as a freshman reserve before suffering a season-ending knee injury at Boston College on Oct. 17.
Washington carried 21 times for 76 yards last season, but at 5 feet 11 and 180 pounds, he might not be built to take the punishment of an every-down back.
It seems likely that O'Brien will use both players in a rotation, as he did with Baker and Eugene last season, and Andre Brown and Baker in 2008.
2. Can the secondary improve its play?
Entering camp, last season's most vulnerable position group appears to be this season's shakiest group.
The defensive backs were largely to blame in 2009 as N.C. State gave up 31.2 points per game, the second-highest mark in the ACC. The players in the secondary lined up wrong, missed assignments and whiffed on tackles.
Youth at the position was partly to blame, and O'Brien has expressed hope that the experience those players gained in 2009 will help them. But the team's most promising players at cornerback, sophomores Rashard Smith and Jarvis Byrd, are likely to miss the entire season with knee injuries.
N.C. State is relying on sophomore C.J. Wilson and junior Justin Byers now at cornerback and desperately needs improvement from both of them. The same can be said for sophomore safeties Brandan Bishop and Earl Wolff.
If they're not physically and mentally ready, the N.C. State offense might need to come up with 30-plus points every time to defeat quality opponents.
3. Will the injury bug bite?
O'Brien arrived at N.C. State to take over in the 2007 season with a track record of success at Boston College
But his teams have been torpedoed by a devastating series of injuries over three seasons.
Irving, Baker, Donald Bowens and Anthony Hill are among the many key players who have missed significant playing time because of injuries.
Wide receiver Owen Spencer said staying healthy is one of the biggest keys for the Wolfpack in 2010. But already there has been bad news on the injury front, with Smith lost to the secondary.
With a new athletic director (Debbie Yow) and new chancellor (Randy Woodson) on campus, it's likely that O'Brien will be under pressure to show improvement.
This team seems to have enough talent to post a winning record and get a bowl bid, but it won't be easy if many top players are watching from the sidelines on crutches before the season starts.