Two weeks from right now hopefully we’re all waking up happy about the previous night’s score.
Three years ago, NC State’s secondary was in shambles. His hand forced by injuries and departures, coach Tom O’Brien plugged a pair of first-year players in at safety: true freshman Brandan Bishop and redshirt freshman Earl Wolff. Another redshirt freshman, C.J. Wilson, consistently saw the field and started twice at corner. “They got their brains beat out early,” said O’Brien. “They were thrust into a situation they shouldn’t have been in.”
In 2012, much has changed. Now that trio, joined by junior All-America cornerback David Amerson and nickelback Dontae Johnson, give the Wolfpack one of the nation’s premier secondaries. “They lived through it,” O’Brien added. “They’ve grown from it and gotten better.”
It’s a situation similar to the one facing O’Brien’s linebacking corps this season, which lost starter Audie Cole and top reserve Darryl Maddox to graduation, Terrell Manning to early NFL draft entry and D.J. Green to a year-long suspension after he tested positive for a banned substance. Their replacements are not quite as inexperienced as the Wolfpack’s 2009 secondary: Sophomores Brandon Pittman and Rodman Neal, juniors Rickey Dowdy and Ryan Cheek and senior Sterling Lucas, a two-year regular who missed last season with a knee injury, are in the mix for playing time. But they are still untested as starters, meaning struggles — especially early in the season — should be expected. “They’re gonna be thrown into the fire right away,” O’Brien said, “so hopefully they don’t get discouraged and we can help them be successful.”
Luckily for the Wolfpack, the rest of the lineup is heavy on experience. In addition to the secondary, the defensive line returns upperclassmen and part-time starters Brian Slay (three sacks in 2011) and Darryl Cato-Bishop (five) at defensive end, along with sophomore Art Norman, whose breakout freshman season featured a team-best seven sacks and 30 quarterback pressures. The offense brings back the deepest and most experienced line of O’Brien’s six-year tenure to block for last season’s leading rusher, senior James Washington (897 yards, 4.0 yards per carry), and junior Mustafa Greene, the program’s top rusher from 2010 (597 yards, 4.5 per carry) who missed last season with an injured foot. Leading the attack will be senior Mike Glennon, a 6-foot-6 slinger who shook off the constant Russell Wilson comparisons to throw 31 touchdowns last season — tied for second-most in NC State history — while competing 62.5 percent of his passes.
The pieces are in place for O’Brien to lead his best squad yet, but the importance of the most unproven players is impossible to ignore. “It’s gonna come down to the linebackers,” O’Brien said. They’ll have to grow up quickly. For the rest of this Wolfpack — not least of all a standout secondary — the time to win is now.