NC State had to replace Phillip Rivers in 2004. Jay Davis appeared ready to handle the roll of replacing the Wolfpack icon. Davis struggled down the stretch after getting off to a nice start. Marcus Stone will push Davis. Both quarterbacks will have a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach to work with. Marc Trestman was hired to fix the quarterback problems. Trestman must adjust to the college game after spending 21 years away from college football, while coaching in the NFL. Davis could blossom under Trestman after throwing 15 interceptions last year. Stone is more of a threat with his legs, and last year he showed no one he could be successful through the air. True freshman Mike Greco comes in with the athleticism of Stone, but he as well leaves something to desire in throwing accuracy.
Whoever plays quarterback will have the benefit of several talented running backs to hand the ball to. Bobby Washington left spring practice as the starter. Washington is talented enough to erase memories of T.A. McClendon, but he must learn to protect the football. His hands are not quite what Trestman is looking for in his west coast offense. Darrell Blackman finished spring right on Washinton’s heels. Blackman showed good speed and agility as a freshman, but he struggled running through the tackles. Blackman is capable of coming out of the backfield and catching the football. True freshmen Toney Baker and Andre Brown will make their claim for carries early on. Baker rushed for over 10,000 yards in his high school career. Baker looked the part at the Shrine Bowl, and it could be sooner rather than later when he sits atop the depth chart.
The receivers will miss Richard Washington, but they are not without talent. Tramain Hall loves to work off the bubble screen. Hall will be the featured receiver this year, and he must prove he is capable of carrying the load. Tight end TJ Williams will once again be the favorite target. Williams emerged as one of the ACC’s top tight ends last season. He is a difficult match up for any opposing defense. John Dunlap showed the capabilities of being a reliable deep threat last season. Dunlap must recover from torn knee ligaments he suffered in the spring. Lamart Barrett is has the second most receiving yards of returning players behind Williams. Barrett showed flashes, and he could be the key to the Wolfpack’s passing game in 2005. True freshmen Levin Neal and JC Neal will look to see the field early.
No unit suffered more injuries than the Wolfpack’s offensive line last season. NC State has a talented and experienced offensive line returning. Center Leroy Harris and right tackle Derek Morris are the strong points. Morris has the look of an NFL tackle, and Harris is a bulldozer in the middle. Two juniors will battle at left tackle. James Newby has the current edge over Merci Falaise. Newby has played all three positions on the offensive line. He may not be overpowering like Morris, but he is effective. Senior John McKeon and sophomore Luke Lathan give the Wolfpack solid guard play.
There may not be a better defensive line in the country. Mario Williams and Manny Lawson are mainstays in opposing backfields. The tandem was the key to Wolfpack’s defensive success in 2004. The bad news for the ACC, the two could be even more dangerous this season. Williams and Lawson will have the benefit of juniors John McCargo and DeMarcus “Tank” Tyler in the middle. McCargo and Tyler would draw headlines on almost any other defense. Their presence in the middle makes it very difficult if teams choose to double team Lawson or Williams. The only concern could be depth, but if the starters stay healthy, the Wolfpack will be very difficult to contain.
Middle linebacker Oliver Hoyte and weakside linebacker Stephen Tulloch return after combining for 26 tackles for loss in 2004. The linebackers thrived on the aggressiveness of defensive coordinator Reggie Herring. Herring is gone, but the more importantly the front four returns to free up Hoyte and Tulloch. Sophomore LeRue Rumph will start at strongside linebacker.
The Wolfpack must replace all four starters in the secondary. Marcus Hudson and AJ Davis will step in at cornerback. This is not where the problem will be, as the Wolfpack could see improvement in the play of the cornerbacks. Safeties Andre Maddox and Troy Graham will be difficult to replace. There is very little in the way of experience at safety. Miguel Scott and JJ Jones are athletic, but they have yet to prove dependable. Garland Heath brings the physical presence of Maddox, but he lacks in athleticism. There are no room for injuries at any position in the secondary. Once again the talented front four stand a good chance of making this transition easier.
John Deraney returns to handle placekicking and punting. Deraney almost averaged 42 yards per punt, but he was inconsistent on field goals. He made 13 of 22 field goals with a long of 53 yards. His power is not in question, but his accuracy does need improvement, as he was only 4 of 8 from 30-39 yards.
The Wolfpack are not hurting in the return game. Darrell Blackman will handle kickoffs and Tramain Hall will take care of punts. Blackman could see action on punt returns as he returned 12 punts with a 17.8-yard average and one touchdown.
NC State is talented enough to bounce back and win the Atlantic division. If Davis steps up at quarterback, this team may be very difficult to beat. Head Coach Chuck Amato is beginning to receive criticism for his 20-20 ACC record. Another disappointing season and the faithful in Raleigh could begin to grow restless. Some will question the Wolfpack’s linebackers, but offenses will look at the secondary in hopes of a crack in the armor. New defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap will have much more talent to work with than he had at Syracuse last year, where his defense gave up 28.7 points per game. NC State will find out quickly how they measure up as they open the year at home against Virginia Tech on a Sunday night. This defense is good enough to compete for a conference title, but question marks on offense limit expectations for the Wolfpack.