Aug. 27, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. -
Game week arrived for NC State on Monday, with five days remaining before the 2012 football season opener vs. Tennessee in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome.
The Wolfpack, 8-5 a year ago, and Volunteers, 5-7, will kick things off Friday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU, with the Pack looking to pick up where it ended the 2011 campaign, when it won six of its last eight games, including a 31-24 victory over Louisville in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. NC State has a 17-9 record the last two seasons, third-best mark in the ACC, and returns a veteran squad that lists 11 seniors and six juniors as starters in the pregame two-deep chart.
Having that level of experience on the depth chart was a goal Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien set when he came to NC State in 2007, and is a major source of confidence for O’Brien as he heads into his sixth season in Raleigh.
“That’s where you have to be,” O’Brien said Monday afternoon during his first weekly press conference of 2012. “We’ve fought hard to get to that point in this program, to have fourth- and fifth-year seniors playing. When we talk about depth and experience and those things coming back, that’s huge for a football program. You’re going into a domed stadium and you’re playing an SEC team in front of a big crowd. Those guys won’t be as affected as much as some of those younger guys will.”
NC State has played some significant non-conference opponents in recent opening games, including South Carolina in both 2008 and 2009, making this the Wolfpack’s third season-opening matchup in five years against an SEC opponent. The matchup with Tennessee is different, however, a national showcase game billed as an official kickoff to the 2012 season.
The last time the Pack opened the season on a stage this large was the 1992 Kickoff Classic against No. 15 Iowa at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. NC State won that game 24-14 and went on to a 9-3-1 record in Dick Sheridan’s final season as the Wolfpack’s head coach.
Like almost all coaches, O’Brien never likes to put too much emphasis on one game, especially a season opener. Unlike many coaches, however, he understands the magnitude of certain games and doesn’t shy away from talking about it. And yes, O’Brien said, Friday’s game is special.
“The first game isn’t the end-all game that you’re going to play,” O’Brien said, “but there are always special games no matter what month it is, and this certainly is a special game to play in because of the stage and because of the opponent and the conference affiliation. It’s a great opportunity for us. We’re looking at it that way. We’re going against a brand name in college football. Tennessee’s got the second-most wins in Southeastern Conference history, so it’s a chance to do something special with our program and we’re looking at it in that light.”
In discussing his team, O’Brien noted that his secondary was the most experienced he’s coached at NC State, that sophomore Brandon Pittman had emerged as the starter at strongside linebacker, and that all three of his running backs and all four tight ends would likely see game action against the Vols.
O’Brien said that freshmen Manny Stocker, Charlie Hegedus and Quincy McKinney all had a chance to play on offense. And he said that we’ll all find out together on Friday about the newcomers at wide receiver. The Wolfpack lost receivers T.J. Graham, Jay Smith and Steven Howard from a year ago. Those three accounted for 102 catches, 1,269 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns. Those are some big and fast shoes to fill.
“I think the two key guys would be the two redshirt freshmen, Hakeem Flowers and Maurice Morgan,” O’Brien said. “They’re both talented guys. They’ve had good camps. You never really know until they get out there and play. That’s one of the things about opening games, especially with guys who’ve never been on the field and you happen to be on the road in that type of atmosphere. You don’t know they’re going to react.
“Tobais Palmer’s had a good camp. Quintin Payton’s had a good camp. We like Charlie Hegedus a lot. So there are some guys there we feel can make some plays, and [quarterback] Mike [Glennon] will feel comfortable with them.”
Having Glennon back helps, of course. The fifth-year senior passed for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago, tying him for fifth-most passing yards and second-most passing TDs in a season in school history.
The matchup between the Wolfpack and Volunteers will be a reunion for O’Brien and Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. Dooley was a walk-on wide receiver as a player at Virginia when O’Brien coached the Cavaliers’ offensive line under George Welsh. Dooley went on to earn a scholarship and win a starting job before he graduated and went on to law school at the University of Georgia.
“In those days we had a pretty good football team [at UVa], and he earned his scholarship,” O’Brien said. “It wasn’t given to him. He had to earn it and ended up starting for us. He’s always been really intelligent. He’s a guy who went to law school, and then I tell him he lost his mind and went into coaching after he got his law degree. He hooked up with Nick Saban at LSU and went to the Dolphins before getting a head job. He’s the only guy in the country who serves as football coach and AD, which is pretty rare. He’s done a great job. I have fun being around Derek.”