RALEIGH — Everette Sands, N.C. State's new running backs coach, grades players based on the yards they gain after contact.
In the Wolfpack's first spring scrimmage, sophomore Mustafa Greene's performance, as measured by that benchmark, caught Sands' eye.
A player who gains 2.5 yards per carry after contact is above average, according to Sands.
"And three is really, really good," Sands said. "And he was averaging over four. So we've got to see if he can continue to do that."
As a freshman, Greene was N.C. State's leading rusher with 597 yards on 134 carries last season and entered spring practice in a key role. The team is looking for players who can excel when given opportunities with the ball, especially with quarterback Russell Wilson's status for the fall uncertain.
Coach Tom O'Brien has said the team is moving on without Wilson, the runner-up for ACC player of the year honors in 2010. But the Wolfpack has not closed the door on Wilson, who will spend his second straight summer playing pro baseball.
With less-mobile Mike Glennon at quarterback in Wilson's absence, Sands said N.C. State's running backs need to make up for Wilson's lost rushing yards. With three senior wideouts who combined for 1,952 receiving yards in 2010 also gone, the running backs will need to catch the ball out of the backfield as well.
Greene demonstrated in N.C. State's opening scrimmage that he is ready to make bigger contributions. He rushed seven times for 61 yards and one touchdown and caught a pass for 10 yards.
Although more than 25 of those yards came after contact, Greene humbly credited the offensive line for his performance.
"The line got off the ball," Greene said. "Their first series was amazing. Guys were pulling and knocking them out, and we weren't even cutting. So there's just more to come."
Greene did say he has made improvements during the offseason, though. His strength coming in as a freshman, O'Brien often mentioned, was his vision and natural ability to make people miss when he carried the ball.
Those skills were critical in Greene's best game of the season, as he ran for 76 yards on 17 carries against a talented Florida State defensive front in a 28-24 win on Oct. 28.
Greene said he has worked in the weight room, though, to improve his speed, lateral movement and flexibility so that he will be able to do more with the ball.
But as with many freshmen, the mental part of Greene's game needed the most improvement last season. He said he has worked on that as well and has gotten better.
"I know the playbook a lot better than I did last year," Greene said. "I know my blitzes and my reads now."
Greene is part of a backfield that has a lot of backs getting opportunities this spring. Junior James Washington, who started the final four games last season, returns.
Junior Brandon Barnes, once rated a top-100 recruit nationally at Bunn High, finally is healthy and getting carries. Redshirt freshman Tony Creecy of Durham also has been getting reps with the first team along with Greene.
The ability to pass protect will be a key for each of them, Sands said.
"Everybody needs to work on pass 'pro,' and that's the one thing [Greene] has got to work on," Sands said. "And the other thing for him is to learn the little details of the running back position. Because he has a general idea, but the difference between the good ones and the great ones is the guys who really learn the details."
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