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It would be a bit unfair to say that the honeymoon coach Chuck Amato has enjoyed with N.C. State fans ended after a 5-6 record last season. However, the Wolfpack's trajectory toward the upper echelon of the ACC was handed an Enron-like jolt of reality when they failed to qualify for a bowl for the first time under Amato -- despite having the nation's top-ranked defense.
It didn't help that someone other than Philip Rivers was taking snaps under center. This season, along with having to find an answer at quarterback, Amato will also have to deal with the departure of the successful-when-healthy T.A. McLendon, who left early for the NFL (but went undrafted).
There is still plenty of talent in Raleigh. If the pieces fall into place and the defense continues to excel, N.C. State could be back on the escalator to the top of the ACC.
"Last season did not turn out the way we wanted it to, but sometimes a step backwards can help you take three steps forward," Amato said.
Jay Davis started every game at quarterback last season and threw for more than 2,100 yards. But 'Pack fans had been spoiled by the remarkably consistent Rivers, and it was easy to blame the team's offensive inconsistencies on Davis, though an injury-riddled line played a major part. Backup QB Marcus Stone's own inconsistencies prevented him from seizing the job when Davis struggled. Nonetheless, Amato has said that Davis, who had more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12) in '04, is his guy, and new coordinator Marc Trestman will hopefully help reverse that statistic.
McLendon may be gone, but the stable is still full. Reggie Davis, a bruising junior, emerged from the spring atop the depth chart. He rushed for 227 yards on 46 attempts as a sophomore, including an 11-carry, 72-yard effort in a loss to North Carolina.
Behind Reggie Davis are two sophomores with game-changing ability, Darrell Blackman and Bobby Washington. Blackman racked up more than 200 yards in spot duty last season, while Washington, a former Miami signee and Parade All-American, was one of the stars of the spring game.
Brian Clark brings sure hands to the flanker position, and LaMart Barrett and Sterling Hicks are both capable of being consistent performers. Tramain Hall returns at halfback. He will look to get back to his form from two seasons ago when he snagged 69 passes; last season he caught just 28. Tight end T.J. Williams led the team with 382 receiving yards.
One of the Pack's biggest liabilities last season was the lack of a healthy line to protect the signal-callers. Three starters from last season return; their health will once again be vital to offensive success.
All four D-line starters return from last year's top-ranked defense. Mario Williams is a superstar in the making at defensive end, while on the other side Manny Lawson was the team leader last season with seven sacks.
The Pack's top four tacklers last year were linebackers, and two of those players are back. Weak-side backer Oliver Hoyte is the undisputed leader of the corps. The big senior (6-foot-3, 252 pounds) led the team in tackles last year as a middle linebacker despite missing two games with an injury. Stephen Tulloch missed spring drills but should see plenty of action when he returns in the fall.
The secondary, which will have three first-time starters, is the biggest question for the 'Pack heading into the 2005 season. Marcus Hudson, a former starter at free safety, will take over at right corner. Hudson had 70 stops last season, good enough for fifth on the team. A.J. Davis will step into the starting spot at left corner.
John Deraney was the subject of some derision by 'Pack fans last season as both kicker and punter. Deraney was just 13-for-22 on field goals, with five of his misses from inside 40 yards.
Amato's team will once again rely on a strong defense to alleviate any offensive growing pains caused by the presence of a new coordinator.
The 'Pack caught a break from the schedule-makers. They don't have to play Miami or Virginia from the Coastal Division -- though they don't play Duke, either. Florida State is the strong favorite in the Atlantic, but there is no reason N.C. State can't compete for second place with league newcomer Boston College.