Reader beware!

The What Critics? technical staff is monkeying with the blog layout this weekend, so you may run across some pages that look a bit off. Fear not, the dust should be settled by Monday.

Reading list: 8/19

When things are slow at What Critics?, we like to see what our fellow bloggers and more professional media types have been up to. Here are a few items that caught our attention this week:

  • There were lots of great reactions to NCAA president-elect Mark Emmert’s recently announced plans to redesign the NBA age limit. Two of our favorite reads were from Deadspin and Rush the Court.
  • Tar Heel Fan offers opinion on why Tennessee backed out of an upcoming home-and-home football series. [link]
  • Shakin’ The Southland posted a fantastic analysis of rushing options from the pistol — a formation expected to be featured frequently in the Tiger offense this season. [link]
  • FSU blog Scalp ‘Em predicts the Noles’ results. Spoiler alert: they’re picking against State. [link]
  • Unsurprisingly, Clemson blog Block C has similar feelings about the Tiger’s game in Raleigh. [link]
  • Over at the N&O’s ACC Now, Ken Tysiac reports that What Critics? blogfather Chuck Amato dropped in on Wolfpack practice today. [link]
  • Backing the Pack has given the once-over to Cincinnati’s very scary offense. Death Machine! [link]
  • Riddick & Reynolds gives brief profile of Debbie Yow’s recent hires, including senior associate AD, Chris Kingston. [link]

Dissecting the depth chart, pt. V: DL

The fifth entry in our eight-part positional breakdown focuses on the Wolfpack’s rebuilt defensive line. Last week, we discussed quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and the o-line. Tomorrow we’ll talk linebackers, with the secondary and special teams due up later this week.

ETHAN HYMAN - EHYMAN@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

Pos Player Ht/Wt Class Starts Notes
Projected Starters
DE M. Lemon 6-4, 267 RS Sr 1 Started last yr. v. Clem.
DT B. Slay 6-3, 290 So 0 Saw 115 snaps in ’09
DT N. Mageo 6-3, 285 Sr 0 Played from scrim. in all 12 last yr.
DE D. Akinniyi 6-4, 255 RS Sr 0 Started 34 at Northeastern
Reserves
DE A. Augustin 6-2, 260 RS Sr 1 Played in all but one gm. of career
DE D. Cato-Bishop 6-4, 281 Fr 0 Five sacks in spring
DT M. Kuhn 6-4, 303 RS Sr 3 Missed last yr
DE J. Rieskamp 6-3, 235 RS Jr 2 Missed last yr & spring

The 2009 Wolfpack defense was, by all accounts, not very good. It was the squad’s inability to stop the pass that drew the most contention from pundits and fans — and deservedly so.

State allowed 222 yards per game through the air last year year (9th in the conference) and 7.91 yards per attempt (10th). Interestingly, no defense in the conference saw fewer pass attempts than the Wolfpack’s (337) and no group allowed more accurate passing than that very same defense (62.6%).

It was the very inexperienced and very injured secondary that bore the brunt of the criticism last year, mostly because of statistics like those in the preceding paragraph. But it’s almost impossible to pin responsibility on a single player or unit. Without a reliable pass rush and without consistent rush defense, a team’s secondary is left exposed to well-protected QB and an unpredictable offensive gameplan. And that’s a combination that’s difficult to stop for any team.

Last season’s defensive line — built around seniors Shea McKeen, LeRoy Burgess, Alan-Michael Cash and Willie Young — ranked sixth in the conference in both rushing yards-per-game (139) and yards-per-attempt (3.93); not terrible numbers, but not enough to take the pressure off the weak-link secondary. The defense combined for just six recovered fumbles (last in the ACC), helping to drop the team’s turnover margin to -11 (also last). Getting into the backfield was also a difficult task for the front four. The unit combined for 2.0 sacks per game (5th in the ACC) and 5.4 TFL per game (8th). But both sacks and backfield tackles came in bunches (4 sacks, 10 TFL vs. FCS Murray St., 6 sacks, 8 TFL vs. WF).

Like so much of the last year’s team, the 2010 defensive line is brand spanking new. The consequences of a complete overhaul on a unit as tightly bound as the defensive line are manifold; hope, as always, springs eternal, but with so little experience, mental errors are sure to be a factor.

The new-look line is highlighted by three seniors with a sum of one start at the FBS level. DE Michael Lemon replaced Shea McKeen in the Clemson game last year, recording three tackles, one for a loss. Lemon played in all 12 games and was responsible for an interception that led to State’s only score in the South Carolina game. His counterpart on the other side of the line is end David Akinniyi, a redshirt senior who transfered from Northeastern when their program was shut down. Akinniyi was a three year starter at Northeastern at both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’s potentially the smallest member of the line, but should be the best athlete and a persistent pass-rushing threat. His ability to adjust to a higher level of competition is what will determine whether he gets the nod over RS Jr Jeff Rieskamp, who is recovering from a sports hernia that kept him out all of last season.

Up the middle are tackles Natanu Mageo and Brian Slay. Mageo played in all 12 contests in ’09 after transferring from junior college. He recorded 10 tackles last year, including three for a loss and a sack, and had an interception in the FSU game. Though a few pounds heavier than Mageo, sophomore Brian Slay, has likewise shown good skill at reaching the backfield. In ten games off the bench, he picked up eight QB hurries and a half dozen tackles for loss.

After a few weeks of practice, the aforementioned Rieskamp looks to be the only player battling for a starting spot — and it’s just as likely that he could be on the field early against Western Carolina as Lemon or Akinniyi.

Others expected to contribute include redshirt junior DT J.R. Sweezy (who started last year against Murray State), redshirt junior Markus Kuhn (started three games in ’08), redshirt senior DE Audi Augstin (started bowl game in ’08, has seen action in all but one game of his career) and pass-rushing redshirt freshman DE Darryl Cato-Bishop.

Dissecting the depth chart, pt. IV: OL

The fourth entry in our eight-part positional breakdown focuses on the Wolfpack’s rebuilt offensive line. Last week, we discussed quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. The d-line is up later today, with the rest of the defense and special teams following later this week.

Credit: ETHAN HYMAN - EHYMAN@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

Pos Player Ht/Wt Class Starts Notes
Projected Starters
LT Jake Vermiglio 6-6, 220 Jr 20 Started 3 as Tr Fr (’07), leg inj. (’09) missed two games
LG Andrew Wallace 6-5, 299 RS So 2 Both starts in ’09 at LT
C Camden Wentz 6-3, 290 So 0 Played in five games (’09), #13 C per Scout.com
RG Zach Allen 6-3, 314 So 0 Played both G and T last season as reserve
RT Mikel Overgaard 6-6, 280 RS Jr 0 Orig. walk-on TE at Wash St., transf. from JuCo in Utah
Reserves
C Torian Box 6-3, 295 Fr 0 Played LG/RG/C in HS, #15 C per Rivals.com
OL Tyson Chandler 6-6, 340 Fr 0 Converted DT, spent ’09 at Fork Union Military Academy
C Wayne Crawford 6-3, 303 RS Jr 0 1 GP (’09), 6 GP (’08), converted DT
T Robert Crisp 6-7, 299 Fr 0 Five-star recruit, top-5 tackle nationally, could win job
T Duran Cristophe 6-6, 287 RS Fr 0 Three-star recruit (Scout.com/Rivals.com)
G Gary Gregory 6-4, 325 RS Sr 0 4 GP (’09), missed spring practice
T Sam Jones 6-7, 321 RS Fr 0 Played G and T at Hargrave in ’09
G Henry Lawson 6-3, 290 RS Jr 0 Played line in two games (’08), 25 GP on ST
RG R.J. Mattes 6-6, 303 RS So 8 Tore ACL v. FSU in ’09, expected back mid-September

The 2009 Wolfpack offensive line was built around several veteran players. LG Julian Williams, C Ted Larsen and RT Jeraill McCuller — all seniors — were, if nothing else, dependable, combining for just one missed start. But joined by sophomore LT Jake Vermiglio and RG R.J. Mattes and Andy Barbee, the group failed to improve much on middling 2008 numbers. Rushing offense in ’09 held steady at 120 ypg (87th nationally) and sacks allowed per game numbers increased to an even 2.0 (53rd).

With everyone from the preceding paragraph not named Vermiglio unavailable for the opener at Western Carolina, Tom O’Brien has no problem admitting that the arrangement of the line is, as of now, to be determined. Replacing three veteran starters on the line is never an easy task, but it’s made even more difficult when injuries and dismissals add to the the attrition. The very hush-hush booting of four-star guard Denzelle Good last week plus the injury to R.J. Mattes puts a lot of names in the hat for O’Brien.

The hinge on which the entire lineup swings is the recovery of sophomore right guard R.J. Mattes. Mattes, who went down with an ACL tear and missed the last four games of 2009, is expected back by the second or third game and should retake his starting role despite missing nearly a year.

But in the opener, expect to see a lot players rotated in. Unless much changes between now and September 4, the starting five should be what’s listed above. The guy probably getting the longest look in that game will be top recruit Robert Crisp. O’Brien and others have raved about his physical skills in camp, saying it’s the mental adjustments that he’s working on most. Expect Crisp to spend time on the field with both the first and second-team offense. With his primary position of left tackle occupied by the only experienced lineman in Vermiglio, little has been said about whether Crisp can make the move to the other side — but it’s a move that may be necessitated by O’Brien’s desire to line up the best five guys.

Dissecting the depth chart, pt. III: WR/TE

The third entry in our eight-part positional breakdown focuses on the well-aged bevy of receiving options at Russell Wilson’s disposal this year. Earlier this week, we discussed quarterbacks and running backs. Tomorrow we wrap up the offensive conversation by breaking down the linemen.

Credit: ETHAN HYMAN - EHYMAN@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

If you haven’t yet realized, experience (or the lack thereof) is a pervasive factor in evaluating each of the 2010 NC State offensive and defensive units. And no unit on either side of the ball brings as much across-the-board experience as the Wolfpack receiving corps.

The only pieces missing from State’s 2009 top ten receptions list are backs Toney Baker (28 rec, 355 yd, 12.7 ypc, 3 TD, #4) and Jamelle Eugene (16, 120, 7.5, #6) and wideout Donald Bowens (12, 175, 14.6, 1, #7).

Returning are a trio of seniors: Jarvis Williams (45, 547, 12.2, 11, #1), Owen Spencer (30, 765, 25.5, 6, #3), and Darrell Davis (25, 380, 15.2, 1, #5); junior return specialist T.J. Graham (12, 129, 10.8, 1 #8); redshirt junior Steven Howard (11, 112, 10.2, #9); and redshirt junior tight end George Bryan (40, 422, 10.6, 6, #2).

State’s two-deep features what is certainly the most veteran gang of receiving options in the conference. Williams, Spencer, Graham, Davis and Bryan have combined for 80 career starts and more than 4100 receiving yards.

Williams and Spencer are third-year starters and provide QB Russell Wilson dependable passing targets over the middle and on the edge. “Dependable” isn’t a superlative lost on the drop-prone Spencer, who overcame his issues with tactility late in 2009. Both were recently named to the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list.

Spencer is slighter of frame and speedier than Williams and can line up wide for sideline streaks or in the slot to cause matchup issues with third-string corners and linebackers. His 25.5 yards-per-catch last season led the nation and broke his own single-season ACC record set a season earlier. Along with T.J. Graham, Spencer’s speed makes him a serious zone-buster on crossing and slant routes.

Williams’ bulkier build makes him a trusty possession-type receiver and a persistent threat near the end zone. His eleven touchdown receptions last season led the conference and his 15 career receiving scores are best among current players and the fourth highest total in Wolfpack history.

Tight end George Bryan is more athletic than anyone should be at 6’5”, 265 lbs., which makes him not just a key component in the passing game, but also a counter to blitzing linebackers. His 40 receptions last year was a conference best for tight ends and landed him a spot on the All-ACC first team. A darkhorse All-America and Mackey Trophy candidate this season, Bryan could lead the team in receptions due to a combination of his superb ability to catch the ball in traffic and the likelihood that Russell Wilson will spend a lot of time running from pursuit and looking for receivers underneath the coverage.

A former basketball player, both in high school and with the Wolfpack, Darrell Davis has shown signs of being the most dazzling receiver on the roster. He’s spent most of his receiving career as a fourth or fifth option, but should carry an increased load this season after catching 25 balls in 2009. He lacks breakaway speed, but his height (6’4”) and play-making ability create an attractive option much like with Bryant.

Others likely to see more balls come their direction include sophomore tight ends Asa Watson (ranked in the top ten at his position coming out of high school, but caught just one pass in 2009) and Mario Carter (another top ten high school TE, but suffered an ACL tear before last season), and wideout Steven Howard (suffered a season-ending knee injury late last year, also missed spring practice).

Newcomer Morgan Alexander redshirted last season after being converted from halfback. At 5’11”, 180, he’s small, but 4.4 speed could be dangerous from the slot.

Dissecting the depth chart, pt. II: RBs

The second entry in our eight-part positional breakdown examines NC State’s new-look backfield. Yesterday we discussed quarterbacks, tomorrow it’s receivers, and the offensive line is due up on Friday. Next week we flip to defense and special teams.

Credit: ETHAN HYMAN - ehyman@newsobserver.com

Projected Staters
Pos Player Ht/Wt Class Starts Notes
HB Curtis Underwood 5-11, 220 RS Jr 0 ’08: 32 Att, 116 Yds, 3.6 YPA, 1 TD / Missed spring
FB Taylor Gentry 6-2, 250 Jr ’09: 0 Att, 10 Rec, 83 Yds, 8.3 YPC, 1 TD
Reserves

Projected Starter (HB): C. Underwood, 5-11 220, RS Jr, ’08: 32 Att., 116 Yd., 3.6 YPA, 1 TD

Reserves (HB): B. Barnes, 6-0 209, RS So, ’09: 25 Att., 79 Yd., 3.2 YPA, 1 TD
J. Washington, 6-0 180, So, ’09: 21 Att., 76 Yd., 3.6 YPA, 2 TD

Projected Starter (FB): T. Gentry, 6-2 250, Jr, ’09: 0 Att.,  10 Rec., 83 Yd., 8.3 YPC, 1 TD

Practically every unit on both sides of the ball for the Wolfpack can be squeezed neatly in one of two groups: stocked with veteran talent or flush with the wet-behind-ear types; there is little middle ground to be found. And no offensive squad is as unproven as the running back corps. For the first time in half a decade, NC State enters the season without an experienced #1 back on the roster.

It was way back in 2005 when State last had to dramatically refresh its running game. That season the team welcomed high school All-Americans Toney Baker and Andre Brown to campus. The duo (teamed with Jamelle Eugene beginning in 2006) led productive, if unspectacular, careers, pacing an offense plagued by weak blocking and poor quarterback play.

The Baker-Brown-Eugene stable replaced what was essentially a one-back offense under the much maligned T.A. McClendon. The trio was often beset by injuries – notably Baker who missed almost two full seasons after suffering a knee injury in the 2007 opener – and the shuffling lineup led to no one back leading the team in carries in any two consecutive seasons. In fact, over the five years the Wolfpack backfield was occupied by some combination of the three backs, their production steadily declined. Baker and Brown split carries evenly in 2005 to the tune of 101.1 yards per game, 4.79 yards per carry, and 11 touchdowns. By last season, Baker and Eugene combined for just 90.2 yards per game, 4.18 yards per carry, and nine rushing touchdowns.

Brown, Baker and Eugene combined rushing stats
Attempts Yds/Gm Yds/Att TD
Brown Baker Eugene
2005 129 124 101.1 4.79 11
2006 124 157 17 117.2 4.72 11
2007 95 10 172 96.0 4.16 10
2008 175 95 93.0 4.48 9
2009 160 99 90.2 4.18 9

With these three now gone (Brown graduated in 2009, Eugene in 2010, and Baker opted out of an NCAA-granted sixth season this spring), it’s time to press the reset button again as a new trio of backs are fighting for position on the depth chart.

Redshirt junior Curtis Underwood is the most experienced of the bunch, though he missed all of 2009 after suffering a knee injury in spring workouts. Underwood carried the ball 19 times for 84 yards (4.4 y/att) in five games as a true freshman and saw action in another five games in 2008, picking up 116 yards (3.6) on 32 carries. His only career score came on a 10-yard carry in the fourth quarter of the ’08 opener against William & Mary. Underwood has a good build at 5’11”, 220, but is probably undersized for the bruiser back role he plays.

Complementing Underwood in the backfield is a pair of sophomores, Brandon Barnes and James Washington. Both Barnes (6’0” 209) and Washington (6’0” 180) are more oriented toward speed and finesse, but either could win out top billing.

Barnes entered college as a high school All-American and one of the top 50 recruits in the nation according to most recruiting services. He redshirted his freshman season in 2008 and only saw action in three games last year, mostly in a rout of Murray State. Barnes played both sides of the ball in high school and like Andre Brown is a receiving threat in the backfield. His 2009 numbers provide an insufficient sample size of what he can do. If he recovers fully from an ankle injury that kept him out of spring practice, expect his 3.2 yards-per-carry to increase behind an experienced offensive line.

The third primary piece of the Wolfpack backfield in true sophomore James Washington. Washington is the smallest back on the roster but could be the most dangerous. He put up gaudy numbers playing high school ball at the 6-A level in Florida, but his size seems to have kept away most big name suitors. He saw good action in the first three games last season, picking up 76 yards (3.6) and two touchdowns on 21 carries, before going down with a season-ending knee injury. Like Barnes, he is a promising receiving target out of the backfield, but his injury recovery raises more questions about his ability to separate from defenders.

Fullback Taylor Gentry has yet to carry the ball entering his third season after walking on, but remains a solid short-yardage receiver and an excellent downfield blocker. He caught 10 passes in seven games last season (8.3 y/c), one for a score. His size (6’2” 250) may hint at a future in goal line situations.

Newcomers looking to join the fray include speedy former receiver Anthony Creecy and powerful but undersized Mustafa Greene. Creecy has a chance to see some action this year, but it’ll likely be a redshirt campaign for Greene.

Dissecting the depth chart, pt. I: QBs

The first entry in our eight-part positional breakdown examines NC State’s two divisions of quarterbacks: Russell Wilson, and everyone else. Tomorrow we’ll talk about running the ball in a backfield without Toney Baker or Jamelle Eugene. Receivers and the offensive line will follow in short order; defense and special teams write-ups are due next week.

Credit: ETHAN HYMAN - ehyman@newsobserver.com

Pos Player Ht/Wt Class Starts Notes
Projected Starter
QB Russell Wilson 5-11, 201 RS Jr 23 ’09: 378 Att (59.3%), 8.01 YPA, 3027, 31/11
Reserves
QB Tyler Brosius 6-3, 233 Fr 0 Three-star recruit (Scout.com)
QB Mike Glennon 6-6, 217 RS So 0 ’09: 39 Att (61.5%), 6.36 YPA, 248, 1/2
QB Daniel Imhoff 6-0, 202 Sr 0 ’09: 1 Att

In Russell Wilson, NC State enters the 2010 season with a dependable, experienced signal caller for the first time since Philip Rivers’ senior campaign, seven years ago. After winning the 2008 ACC Rookie of the Year award and a nod as the All-ACC first team QB, Wilson’s passing stats were all upped significantly in 2009, with the exception of an impossible-to-top interception rate.

Helped by an experienced receiving duo in Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams, and a breakout season from tight end George Bryan, Wilson’s yards-per-attempt average of 8.01 yards was an increase of a full yard from his freshman season — Jacory Harris was the only QB in the conference with more attempts and a higher average. Likewise, Wilson’s completion percentage jumped nearly five points to 59.3%, good for 6th in the ACC.

A professional baseball player in his free time, Wilson’s athleticism has led him to be known as much for escaping the pocket as for throwing from within it. His rushing statistics were hindered a bit last season by an unreliable offensive line that allowed 30 sacks and lacked the athleticism to make downfield blocks. Still, he found the end zone four times on the ground, matching his 2008 total.

The biggest question facing Wilson in his third and likely final season in Raleigh is how well he adjusts to full-speed football after spending his spring and summer focusing on baseball. Following a previously agreed-to plan with Tom O’Brien, Wilson concentrated his efforts on the Wolfpack baseball team (and subsequently the Colorado Rockies short-season Tri-City club), missing all of spring practice. Having missed part of the previous spring due to baseball without showing any ill effects, the concerns don’t lie on learning the offense (he has) or establishing a rapport with his teammates (he has), but rather on the consequences of playing two sports at a very high level for nearly three calendar years. Any cummulative fatigue or nagging injuries could be realized at the most inopportune of times.

Should Wilson find himself unfit to play at any point this season, the Wolfpack have the highly-rated but still untested Mike Glennon waiting on the sidelines. Glennon saw limited action last season, almost exclusively in a mop-up role. His steady but unspectacular progression in practice has left us with little news to report. Known for his height, his plus accuracy, and his cannon arm, Glennon represents an entirely different flavor of quarterback than Wilson — and, with limited mobility, one that is much more reliant on a solid offensive line. If things go according to plan, he should get a significant number of snaps in the opener against Western Carolina (along with career third-stringer Daniel Imhoff) before returning to clipboard duty.

There’s no doubt that Glennon has been groomed to take over the role in the future — whenever that may come — but he appears to have the physical attributes and skills to ease into the spot if needed. The time he spent taking snaps with the first team offense during Wilson’s time on the diamond can’t be neglected, either.

The last man on the depth chart is freshman Tyler Brosius. At 6′ 3″, 233 lbs., he’s a big-frame guy out of Waynesville, rated at three stars by Scout.com. Notably, he had offers from Maryland, Pittsburgh, UCF and Virginia. With three experienced QBs ahead of him, a redshirt isn’t out of the question.