N.C. State Wolfpack (2000: 8-4)
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Coach and programNow, in his second season at his alma mater, Chuck Amato is the school’s football version of Jim Valvano, a fast-talking, successful Italian who can make the farmers and engineers laugh while winning lots of close games.
But he also knows just how close his Wolfpack was from a disastrous debut that could have featured losses to Arkansas State, Wake Forest and Duke. The Pack needed fourth-quarter comebacks in six of its eight victories, including a spectacular rally to beat Minnesota, 38-30, in the Micron PC.com Bowl.
The biggest problem, it turns out, was that Amato’s debut season might have been too successful. That’s because three key components of that success cashed in, leaving the program with big holes to fill in the coach’s sophomore effort.
The first to depart was All-America wide receiver Koren Robinson. He caught 62 passes for 1,061 yards and seven touchdowns during his spectacular sophomore season, then opted to enter the NFL draft.
Not long afterward, hard-hitting strong safety Adrian Wilson decided to forego his senior season and enter the draft also.
Then, in February, Amato received what some people regard as an even bigger blow when USC hired away offensive coordinator Norm Chow after only one season in Raleigh.
Chow, who spent nearly two decades at BYU before following Amato to Raleigh, quickly taught the basic tenets to the Wolfpack’s young quarterback, Philip Rivers, who graduated from high school early and arrived on campus in January, 2000, to get an early start to his football career.
Rivers, barely 18 when the season started, developed a quick bond with Robinson and the offense was an immediate success. Rivers became the first freshman in ACC history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in his rookie season, finishing with 3,054 yards, 25 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions.
Amato turned the offense over to offensive line coach Marty Galbraith, with instructions to run the offense just like Chow did last year. He hired Michael Canales from South Florida to be the quarterback coach, with strict instructions not to change Rivers’ odd throwing motion.
“This is our offense,” Amato said. “We will tweak it and change it however we need to this year, but it will be basically the same.”
OffenseThis year, Rivers will be the biggest quarterback in the ACC, having added about 15 pounds during the off-season training program. Canales helped him improve his footwork in the pocket and Rivers will probably move around even more back there, with several different drops, rollouts and bootlegs.
One of the best things about Rivers is that he speaks the truth. Probably, he’s so young he doesn’t know better. But the young quarterback thinks that the Wolfpack will have a better receiving corps this year, even without Robinson and the departed Eric Leak.
“The ball will probably get spread around more this year and I think that will be good for us because the defense will have to cover the whole field.” Amato agrees, thanks to a deep and talented recruiting class that featured five freshmen receivers -- Dovonte Edwards (6-0, 180), Sterling Hicks (6-1, 165), Tramain Hall (5-11, 180), Chris Murray (6-4, 194) and Fred Span (6-1, 175).
New ocoordinator Galbraith admits that the Wolfpack needs to be a little more balanced this year, which means senior running back Ray Robinson (5-10, 212) could have a big season.
Robinson, the 1998 ACC Rookie of the Year, was hampered by several injuries as a sophomore but made a strong comeback as a junior. He played in all 11 games and was second to Koren Robinson with 41 receptions for 366 yards.
Defense and special teamsAmato hopes three junior college linemen will help improve the Wolfpack’s pressure up front. State was fifth in the ACC with a total of 32 sacks last season. Defensive ends Brian Jamison (seven) and Corey Smith (six) lead the team in sacks. Linebacker Levar Fisher had five.
Jamison (6-1, 224) was moved in the spring to join Fisher (6-1, 229) at linebacker, but Smith (6-2, 245) returns at one defensive end, where he hopes to continue his climb up the school records in tackles for loss. His 22 tackles for loss in three years ranks eighth in school history.
With a bona fide All-American returning, the Wolfpack would seemingly be in good shape at linebacker. But Fisher, a senior who led the nation in tackles last year with 166, can’t make every tackle on the field, though it seems that way at times.
However, because of the graduation of senior Clayton White, the legal trouble of junior Corey Lyons and the decision by Edrick Smith to leave the team, the Wolfpack is dangerously thin at linebacker.
The secondary is one of the few places where the Wolfpack has some depth and is already stockpiling talent for later on. Three starters return from last year. The Pack has several talented players ready to join junior Terrence Holt (6-2, 199), the younger brother of Wolfpack All-American Torry Holt, who has turned into a big-play specialist on defense.
Julius Patterson and Ray Robinson are the only returning players that had a kickoff return last year, getting nine between them for an average of 20.3 yards per return.
Bottom lineThe Wolfpack doesn’t have nearly the depth necessary to challenge either Clemson or Georgia Tech as Florida State’s top challenger. But if Amato has a few more recruiting classes like this year’s, the Pack won’t be too far behind, especially when all the new facilities are in place.
What the coach and his team need to do this year is be less exciting. Sure, it’s nice to win games with fourth-quarter comebacks, but the Wolfpack frequently played down to its competition, nearly losing to Duke and Wake Forest and falling in overtime to Maryland, a team it should have beaten.
This year, Amato would be happier to grind out a few impressive wins without all the beat-skipping heroics.