There are games from the 2009 season that Tom O'Brien will never pull out of the film library. They might sit there, unwatched, forever. It would be too painful for the N.C. State football coach to watch all those raw freshmen and sophomores, particularly on defense, thrown into roles for which they were nowhere near ready - with disastrous results.
"I would never go back and watch that," O'Brien said this summer. "I wiped it from the memory bank and moved on. Have good thoughts."
As the first day of the new season arrived Tuesday, the Wolfpack is all grown up. The same players who featured in those horror films two years ago are in starring roles now. The secondary, once as vulnerable as a litter of puppies, now has teeth. The lines are older, the linebackers veteran. Nate Irving graduates, and senior Audie Cole pops into the middle, just like that.
With eight returning starters on defense and six on offense, experience should be the least of N.C. State's problems this season. There were many familiar faces on the field Tuesday, most of whom had been through this before.
"It just feels different being out here," Cole said. "It's kind of weird looking back. You see these (new) freshmen who don't know where they're going, have no idea what's going on, we get a little chuckle out of it now. A lot of people have grown up. Our DBs, almost all of them got thrown into the fire two years ago, and they're out there making plays and doing what they need to do."
It's a pleasant change for O'Brien, whose first four years at N.C. State were characterized largely by two main themes: Russell Wilson and growing pains as the Wolfpack struggled through injuries and a lack of depth provoked by the exodus of Chuck Amato players.
Wilson is gone. So are the growing pains.
The latter, at least, is enough to make a coach smile.
"A lot of guys were forced to play before their time, and it was a detriment a few years ago because they were playing," O'Brien said Tuesday. "Certainly we thought they'd be good in the future. ... If you've played for two years now, there's a certain sense of confidence."
There's still one area in particular that needs to grow up in a hurry: N.C. State's wide receivers are young and largely inexperienced. The new guy throwing to them, though, thinks he's ready. That's good, because no one will be under more pressure.
"As a true freshman, the first day of practice was complete chaos," said Mike Glennon, the redshirt junior taking over for Wilson at quarterback. "Three years later, it's a totally different game for me."
As pleasant as all this might be on the first day of practice, it also raises expectations for the program. With what should be a reasonably easy early-season schedule, nothing less than a 5-1 start will be acceptable. It gets tougher after that, with a trip to Florida State during October the biggest hurdle.
After posting nine wins last year and coming one win away from the ACC championship game, that's where the bar is set - even with the changeover at quarterback.
"It's a much more mature team," O'Brien said, "and they know what they need to do."
For perhaps the first time in O'Brien's tenure, the players have been around long enough to know without being told.