ORLANDO, Fla. — Within an hour of the end of his final college game Tuesday night, N.C. State senior linebacker Nate Irving was predicting big things in the future for the Wolfpack program.
In 2010, N.C. State snapped a streak of four straight losing seasons, capping a 9-4 record with a 23-7 defeat of No. 22-ranked West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl.
It marked an end for Irving, who received first-team All-ACC honors after bouncing back from a car wreck that caused him to miss the 2009 season. But he said the game was just the beginning for N.C. State.
"For this team, it's a stepping stone for things to come," Irving said. "The team next year, 10 wins at least. We set things up for the team next year, and we're going to build on it."
Regardless of whether quarterback Russell Wilson returns for his senior season in 2011, N.C. State will suffer significant personnel losses. But the Wolfpack should have the talent to contend for the ACC Atlantic Division title again after finishing tied for second place in 2010.
Irving will be missed on defense, but Audie Cole and Terrell Manning will be back to lead the linebackers after emerging as outstanding players this season. Starters J.R. Sweezy and Jeff Rieskamp will be back to give the defensive line a strong foundation, and an improved secondary returns all four starters.
On offense, four linemen who started as sophomores will be back, including highly regarded tackle R.J. Mattes.
The big question, of course, is at quarterback. After leading the ACC in touchdown passes each of the past two seasons, Wilson is considering leaving school to pursue professional careers in baseball and football.
But coach Tom O'Brien and his players seem confident in Mike Glennon, a 6-foot-6 dropback passer who was highly recruited and who will be a junior next season.
"He's pretty tall," wide receiver T.J. Graham said in the spring. "He has a pretty strong arm. He's just an all-around good quarterback."
If Wilson doesn't return, N.C. State with Glennon will switch to more of a pocket-passing attack and likely will count on promising backs James Washington and Mustafa Greene more in the running game.
Tight ends George Bryan, Mario Carter and Asa Watson will be asked to carry a heavier load with top wide receivers Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams departing. And reserve wideouts such as Graham, Steven Howard, Jay Smith and Quinton Payton will have to step into larger roles.
But with just three senior starters each on offense and defense, N.C. State won nine games in 2010 with a young team. That's why O'Brien is so eager to receive what seems to be a likely top 25 national ranking in the final polls.
"It shows progress," O'Brien said, "and it shows people not only in our state but across the nation that our football team is definitely on the rise and heading in the right direction."
N.C. State's nine wins - tied for the second-highest total in school history - appear to establish that on their own. Now Irving is looking forward to watching from afar to see if the Wolfpack can build on the foundation he helped establish with 20.5 tackles for loss this season.
"It's just a dream come true for myself, to go through what I went through last year and be able to win a game like this, this year, and be remembered as one of the seniors who turned this program around," Irving said.
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