Pack faces questions as football camp set to start

jgiglio@newsobserver.comJuly 30, 2012 

N.C. State senior Earl Wolff wishes he could fast forward to the opener against Tennessee on Aug. 31 in Atlanta.

"The players are excited, the coaches are excited and the fans are excited," said Wolff, a three-year starter at safety.

But first things first; before the first game there has to be the first practice. N.C. State begins its 2012 season today with its first practice at 4:30 p.m.

Over the next four weeks, the Wolfpack will address these five questions before it faces the Volunteers in the first game by an ACC team this season.

1. Will the Wolfpack be ready?

With 14 starters back from an 8-5 team, coach Tom O’Brien is quietly confident his sixth team can be his best.

"This is by far the most experienced and deepest team we’ve had," O’Brien said.

But will it be his most consistent? The Pack was in binary mode late last season, with strong wins over North Carolina and Clemson, balanced by bad losses to Florida State and Boston College — in alternating weeks.

Senior Mike Glennon believes this team can win at least 10 games, a feat only reached once in school history (2002), but the team has to be more consistent.

"We have to figure out some way to start strong and finish strong," Glennon said. "That will be something we focus on in camp."

A point of emphasis? Winning the opener. In his first five seasons, O’Brien is 2-0 against FCS teams and 0-3 against FBS opponents in the opener.

2. Who are the starting linebackers?

The Pack needs three new starters at linebacker. The preseason depth chart lists fifth-year senior Sterling Lucas, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, as the starter in the middle with sophomore Rodman Noel on the strong side and junior Rickey Dowdy on the weakside.

Junior Dontae Johnson, a safety who played situationally on the outside late last season, and junior Robert Caldwell, a junior college transfer, also figure to be prominently in the mix.

Going back to Nate Irving in 2010, and continuing with Terrell Manning and Audie Cole last season, the linebackers have been a strength. There is work to be done to prove it can be again.

3. Will the running game improve?

N.C. State ranked 109th nationally last season in rushing average (104.8 yards per game). The Pack averaged fewer than 3.1 yards per carry.

Running backs James Washington and Tony Creecy combined for 1,279 yards and eight touchdowns. They will be joined by sophomore Mustafa Greene, who missed last season with a foot injury and most of spring practice with disciplinary issues with O’Brien.

Typically, O’Brien doesn’t employ three running backs in a game, but he’s adamant all three will be given a chance this season.

"You need three running backs," O’Brien said.

Greene led the Pack in rushing as a true freshman in 2010, with 597 yards, and he caught 30 passes for 272 yards.

Glennon said the key to a better running game will be the maturity of the offensive line, which has six returnees with starting experience.

4. How will David Amerson stay busy?

As a relative unknown, the cornerback set an ACC record with 13 interceptions last season. Since a two-pick performance against Louisville in the Belk Bowl, the junior has shot up NFL draft boards and likely the scouting report of every opponent on the Wolfpack’s schedule.

The design of N.C. State’s defensive scheme will keep Amerson from being totally ignored, but he should expect less traffic this season.

For the record, UNC’s Dre Bly followed his record-setting 11-interception season in 1996 with five in ’97.

5. Who will Mike Glennon throw to?

N.C. State’s top two receivers from a year ago, T.J. Graham and Jay Smith, are gone, so is tight end George Bryan.

Glennon, who threw for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, can still rely on senior Tobais Palmer (37 catches, 496 yards) and his running backs, but new targets will have to emerge, particularly ones that can work the middle of the field.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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