ACC: Clem Johnson

Wolfpack dealt 'bad hand' ... again

November, 6, 2009
11/06/09
3:30
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich

NC State coach Tom O’Brien has had it with the injuries.

“We thought it was bad last year,” O’Brien said. “It's three times as bad this year as it was last year. It's got to end sometime before I die here. I don't know, one or the other. I hope I'm the next one hurt the way we're going. I'll take a hit for the team if it'll keep somebody else healthy.”

He’s about the only one on the Pack’s roster who hasn’t taken a hit this year.

For the third straight season, NC State (3-5, 0-4 ACC) can point to injuries as a legitimate excuse for a lack of production on the field. No coach will ever call it an “excuse,” but it’s impossible to deny it’s been a factor, just like it was at North Carolina earlier this season.

The latest player to be added to the list of season-ending injuries was wide receiver T.J. Graham, who was added to Thursday's injury report with a stress fracture in his leg. That knews came on the heels of a season-ending injury to freshman offensive guard R.J Mattes, who had started all eight games before he suffered a torn ACL and MCL just five plays into the Florida State game. Andy Barbee will start in his place at guard in Saturday’s game against Maryland.

“Yeah, he was our best first-year guy, a guy we were really excited about,” O’Brien said of Mattes. “He's a natural tackle which is where he'll go back next year, but he helped at guard and he stepped in there, accepted the challenge and kept getting better and better every game. That's another one of those tough losses for us.”

Another one? How about another dozen?

Over O’Brien’s first three seasons, a total of 38 starters have missed a total of 151 games:
  • In 2007, 13 starters missed 44 total games.
  • During the 2008 regular season, 13 starters missed a total of 75 games.
  • This season, 12 (current, projected or past) starters have missed a total of 32 games due to injuries. That number will go up after this weekend without Mattes and Graham.

The defense has been hit the hardest, with six starters missing a total of 23 games and three now out for the season. Most notable is linebacker Nate Irving, who has missed the entire season with injuries he suffered in a horrific automobile accident this summer.

Jeff Rieskamp, who started two games at defensive end a year ago and was expected to battle for a spot this season, has missed every game this year. Ray Michel, who had started 21 straight games at middle linebacker, missed last week’s game with an ankle injury. Cornerback Rashard Smith, a rookie who had moved into the starting lineup, is out of the season with a knee injury. The other starting corner, DeAndre Morgan, missed the first two games of 2009, while safety Clem Johnson also missed a game.

Those numbers don’t even include safety Javon Walker, who sat out last season with a knee injury and has also missed the entire season.

“You can't work around it,” O’Brien said. “You have to understand what's going on. The kids are fine. I think they are excited about the opportunity to come back home and play a football game. That's who you worry about the most. I think they've kind of accepted the fact they've been dealt a bad hand. There's nothing they can do but fight their way out of it, so we are going to continue to fight and play hard and be the best team we can.”

ACC injury reports: Week 9

October, 30, 2009
10/30/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

I think I actually have them all this week ...

BOSTON COLLEGE

Questionable

DE Alex Albright (ankle)

Doubtful

OT Rich Lapham (shoulder)

LB Mike McLaughlin (leg)

Out

WR Ifeanyi Momah (knee)

RB Rolandan Finch (illness)

CLEMSON

Out for Season

J.K. Jay, OT, back

Probable

Scotty Cooper, LB, Concussion

Doubtful

Michael Palmer, TE, Concussion

Out

Kantrell Brown, S, Concussion

DUKE

RB Re'quan Boyette (knee) -- Questionable

CB Lee Butler (leg) -- Doubtful

LB Abraham Kromah (leg) -- OUT

WR Tyree Watkins (leg) -- OUT

RB Kyle Griswould (leg) -- OUT FOR SEASON

S Anthony Young-Wiseman (knee) -- OUT FOR SEASON

FLORIDA STATE

Out for the season

44 LB Maurice Harris (neck)

81 TE Caz Piurowski (knee)

Out

28 CB Dionte Allen (thumb)

76 OT Garrett Faircloth (hip)

70 OT Antwane Greenlee (knee)

51 LB Aaron Gresham (knee)

97 DT Demonte McAllister (knee)

74 OT John Prior (knee)

72 DT Budd Thacker (knee)

11 LB Vince Williams (back)

Questionable

27 CB Xavier Rhodes (thumb)

21 CB Patrick Robinson (ankle)

Probable

9 WR Richard Goodman (groin)

26 RV Korey Mangum (shoulder)

94 DT Justin Mincey (knee)

36 LB Dekoda Watson (groin)

GEORGIA TECH

Out

Kevin Cone, r-Jr., WR (ankle)

Robert Hall, r-Jr., DE (knee)

Cooper Taylor, So., S (undisclosed)

Questionable

Julian Burnett, Fr., LB (knee)

Out For Season

Kyle Jackson, r-So., LB (foot)

MIAMI

Probable

OL Joel Figueroa – Upper Extremity

K Matt Bosher - Illness

Out

DB Ray-Ray Armstrong – Lower Extremity

FB Patrick Hill – Lower Extremity

RB Javarris James – Lower Extremity

DL Eric Moncur – Lower Extremity

DB JoJo Nicolas – Lower Extremity

LB Sean Spence – Lower Extremity

Surgery and Out for the Season

DL Dyron Dye – Lower Extremity

DL Marcus Forston – Lower Extremity

LB Jordan Futch – Lower Extremity

TE Richard Gordon – Upper Extremity

LB Shayon Green – Lower Extremity

DE Gavin Hardin – Upper Extremity

DB Ryan Hill – Upper Extremity

DE Adewale Ojomo – Jaw

NC STATE

OUT FOR SEASON

Mario Carter, TE - knee

Ryan Cheek, LB - hip

Denzelle Good, OL - shoulder

Nate Irving, LB - leg

Colby Jackson, FB - knee

Everett Proctor, QB – shoulder

Jeff Rieskamp, DE – sports hernia

Rashard Smith, CB - knee

Javon Walker, S – knee

James Washington, HB - knee

OUT

T.J. Graham, WR/RET – leg

Ray Michel, LB - ankle

Jesse Riley, DB - knee

Dwayne Maddox will start at middle linebacker in place of Michel; Clem Johnson, Jamelle Eugene and Donald Bowens will return punts/kicks.

VIRGINIA

Out

Aaron Clark (knee)

Matt Conrath (ankle)

Probable

Oday Aboushi (knee)

Landon Bradey (knee)

Darren Childs (leg)

Nate Collins (leg)

Cam Johnson (knee)

Corey Mosley (shoulder)

Brandon Woods (shoulder)

WAKE FOREST

Out for Season

WR Terence Davis (knee)

Questionable

DE Kyle Wilber

Pack's secondary finally facing an inexperienced quarterback

October, 14, 2009
10/14/09
5:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich


Despite NC State’s 0-2 start in conference play, coach Tom O’Brien still believes his football team is better than it was a year ago when it began the season with the same record against ACC opponents.

“Most of the mistakes we’ve made are self-inflicted,” O’Brien said. “A year ago we had all the injuries, and different situations. Our quarterback wasn’t experienced. … Certainly we’ve made strides. The problem we’ve had from the start is not being able to get people on the ground, poor tackling. It’s repetition we continue to do at practice, but when they’re on the field, they have to get the guy down.”

There’s no question the bulk of the concerns have been on defense, particularly in what has been an injury-riddled secondary where the lineup has been routinely switched. A variety of injuries, abilities and experience have forced the staff to use five different starting secondary lineups in the first six games.

Cornerbacks DeAndre Morgan and Rashard Smith and safety Clem Johnson have all missed time due to injuries this season. Some players have started at different positions, including Koyal George at field and boundary corner, Johnson at field and boundary safety and Justin Byers at field safety and boundary corner. This week could mark the sixth new lineup in the backfield, as Smith is slated to be back.

“This is basically the way we are,” O’Brien said.

Thanks in large part to Johnson being healthy, O’Brien said NC State got what it needed from the safety position in last week’s loss to Duke, but at field corner, neither Morgan nor C.J. Wilson have seized the opportunity. In the past two weeks, Wake Forest and Duke averaged 410 passing yards and 39.5 points against the Pack.

Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said there’s no reason to think this should be a game in which the Eagles will pick apart NC State’s pass defense as easily as the Pack’s past two opponents have, especially considering their inexperience at quarterback.

“First of all, I think NC State has a very good defense,” Spaziani said. “Very good. They lost to South Carolina, 7-3, and South Carolina is 5-1. Then they ran into the Skinner/Lewis buzz saw. Riley Skinner has done that to everybody I believe. … And Thaddeus Lewis had one of the best games that I’ve seen in a long while of any quarterback anywhere. He just had a fantastic game. We are who we are, and we certainly don’t have Thaddeus Lewis and Riley Skinner.”

And that might be the best news on the Pack’s scouting report this week.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 6

October, 8, 2009
10/08/09
8:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich


You know the drill. Keep an eye on …

1. Interceptions in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor showed significant progress in the passing game last weekend against Duke, and didn't throw any interceptions in the process, but the Eagles have picked off five passes this year. Both teams have a knack for interceptions. Virginia Tech, in fact, has registered more interceptions (182) since the start of the 2000 season than any program in the country. Oklahoma (174) is second, and BC (173) is third during that time span.

2. Miami running back Javarris James moving up the charts. He’s coming off a career-best 150 yards rushing against Oklahoma and needs just 13 yards to pass Frank Gore for seventh place all-time on Miami’s rushing list and 37 more yards to become just the seventh player in school history to amass 2,000 career rushing yards. With 19 more carries, James (456 career attempts) will pass his cousin Edgerrin (474) to move into sole possession of third place on the school’s all-time rushing attempts list.

3. Maryland’s offensive line. It will make a significant difference if left tackle Bruce Campbell is able to play against Wake Forest’s sturdy defensive line after injuring his MCL against Clemson last week. Campbell has missed practice time this week, but hasn’t been declared “out” for this game. Paul Pinegar has been taking the reps at left tackle, though.

4. Upset alerts. It’s an odd weekend in the ACC, where even the most heavily favored teams -- like, say, No. 5-ranked Virginia Tech -- could lose and it wouldn’t exactly be a shock. So far the home teams have had the advantages, and that works in Florida State’s favor against No. 22 Georgia Tech. Can NC State hold off a feisty Duke team, though, that just played four quarters of competitive football against the Hokies?

5. Another record-setting weekend for Skinner. Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner needs just 81 passing yards to become the school's all-time leader. Skinner has thrown for 1,004 yards over his past three games and has thrown at least one touchdown pass in six straight games, dating back to last season.

6. Virginia’s passing defense against Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell. He threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State last weekend, and the Hoosiers are averaging 233.2 passing yards per game. The Cavaliers pass defense, though, is No. 8 in the country, holding opponents to 156.5 yards per game.

7. Running quarterbacks who are starting to throw. Tyrod Taylor earned his first-ever 300-yard passing game last weekend at Duke, the first time a Hokie quarterback has met that mark since Sean Glennon in 2006. Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt is coming off a career-high 266 passing yards against Mississippi State. Was it just a passing fancy, or can they keep it up?

8. NC State’s new secondary lineup. Tom O’Brien said this week he’s swapping potential for experience at both safety positions, as senior Clem Johnson will replace freshman Brandan Bishop, and senior Bobby Floyd will take over for redshirt freshman Earl Wolff. That’s a smart move against accomplished Duke passer Thaddeus Lewis.

9. Carolina’s quarterback of the future. UNC coach Butch Davis told the Raleigh News & Observer he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of playing true freshman Bryn Renner, who was expected to redshirt this season. Renner hasn’t taken a snap yet, but if he’s going to burn his redshirt, Georgia Southern would probably be a good time to do it.

10. Florida State’s will to win. If the Seminoles are going to turn this season around, now is the time. A win at home would stop a two-game losing skid and give them some positive momentum heading into the bye week. Georgia Tech will require their full attention and focus, though, and that’s something that might have been tough to gather amidst the controversy surrounding the program this week.

Injuries again make consistency tough for NC State

September, 22, 2009
9/22/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich


In three games, NC State has had three different combinations of starters on its offensive line, and three different starting lineups in the secondary. When the Wolfpack hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday, it will make the fourth different look for both units.

It’s the third season under coach Tom O’Brien, and once again, the Wolfpack has been in the all-too familiar situation of juggling the lineup to adjust to injuries. Not even O’Brien, though, has had to shuffle a lineup like this before.

“I don’t remember any injuries since I’ve been here like this,” he said.

Heading into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, the status of left tackle Jake Vermiglio (lower leg), safety Clem Johnson (thigh) and corner Rashard Smith, who was on crutches last Saturday with an ankle injury, are still uncertain and expect to be updated in Thursday’s injury report.

“We really haven’t gotten the continuity at the two most important positions on our team, especially the last two weeks,” said O’Brien. “The only thing we have gained is we’ve gotten some young guys in the football game, which is down the road stuff, but for immediately getting better as a football team, with your fourth different offensive line, and your fourth different secondary, that’s not a good situation to be in.”

The left side of the offensive line is where the problems have been. Vermiglio injured his calf in the season opener against South Carolina, and that forced Julian Williams to slide over from guard. Williams, who had the flu last week, is back and is listed as the starter at left guard on the depth chart for Pitt. When Williams caught the flu last week, Andrew Wallace became the third player this season to start at left tackle.

That doesn’t bode well against a Big East defense that just limited Navy’s option attack to 2.8 yards per carry and 129 total yards in a 27-14 win last weekend.

“They’re at the top of their league in rush defense,” O’Brien said of Pitt. “Especially when you shut out a team like Navy, you ought to be the best there is. We have to work hard to run the football. They lead in sacks, so we’re going to have to work hard to throw the football, too.”

The secondary has been an even bigger carousel.

Starting corner DeAndre Morgan was hurt and missed the first two games. He returned last week against Gardner Webb, is back at 100 percent, and is expected to start against Pitt. Safety Clem Johnson, who was a returning starter, hurt his hip and missed the last game. Justin Byers, who graded out as the best safety in the season opener against South Carolina, was also injured and missed a game. Rashard Smith, who started the second game because he played so well against South Carolina, was hurt last weekend.

"People have gotten on the field," O'Brien said, "but certainly the areas that can cause you the biggest damage the quickest, we're still unsettled in."

ACC injury reports

September, 18, 2009
9/18/09
8:41
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich


The weekly injury reports have all come in (some come in much later than others, which is why I wait until Friday mornings to do this). If you don't see 'em, they weren't sent. Maryland will miss Bruce Campbell again, Duke has a handful of key players who could miss the game at Kansas, including Vince Oghobaasse, Virginia is likely to be without Vic Hall, and Boston College will be without defensive tackle Damik Scafe. Not good news for any of those teams. It looks like UNC might -- might -- get Jonathan Cooper back on the offensive line. That would be a huge help.

Here are the full reports:

BOSTON COLLEGE

FB James McCluskey (Achilles) – OUT

LB Will Thompson (shoulder) – DOUBTFUL

WR Ifeanyi Momah (knee) – DOUBTFUL

LB Mike McLaughlin (Achilles) – DOUBTFUL

DT Damik Scafe (Neck/Shoulder) – DOUBTFUL

CLEMSON

Out for the Season

J.K. Jay, OT, back

Probable

Michael Palmer, TE, hip

DUKE

RB Re'quan Boyette (ankle) -- Probable

TE Danny Parker (ankle) -- Probable

RB Jay Hollingsworth (ankle) -- Questionable

DT Vince Oghobaase (leg) -- Questionable

WR Conner Vernon (ankle) -- Doubtful

RB Kyle Griswould (leg) -- OUT

CB Randez James (hand) -- OUT

S Anthony Young-Wiseman (knee) -- OUT FOR SEASON

FLORIDA STATE

OUT

OT Antwane Greenlee (knee)

LB Aaron Gresham (knee)

DT Demonte McAllister (knee)

DT Justin Mincey (knee)

OT John Prior (knee)

LB Vince Williams (back)

QUESTIONABLE

RV Korey Mangum (shoulder)

MARYLAND

Out for season:

Nolan Carroll (leg)

Out:

Louis Berman (leg)

Bruce Campbell (foot)

Jamari McCollough (foot)

Caleb Porzel (leg)

Joe Vellano (foot)

Probable:

Tony Logan (shoulder)

NORTH CAROLINA

Out (Season)

Carl Gaskins OL Knee

Matt Merletti S Knee

Out (Game)

Lowell Dyer C Shoulder

Dwight Jones WR Knee

Zack Pianalto TE Foot

Ryan Taylor TE Knee

Doubtful

Linwan Euwell LB Ankle

LeCount Fantroy CB Thigh

Questionable

Jonathan Cooper OG Ankle

Devon Ramsay RB Thigh

NC STATE

OUT FOR SEASON

Mario Carter, TE - knee

Denzelle Good, OL - shoulder

Nate Irving, LB - leg

Colby Jackson, FB - knee

Everett Proctor, QB - shoulder

OUT

Jamelle Eugene, HB - knee

Clem Johnson, S - thigh

Jeff Rieskamp, DE - hip

Jay Smith, WR - flu

Jake Vermiglio, OT - lower leg

Javon Walker, DB - knee

Julian Williams, OG/OT - flu

Johnson will be replaced by either Brandan Bishop or Justin Byers; Williams will be replaced by Andrew Wallace.

VIRGINIA

Out

Bobby Smith (knee)

Doubtful

Vic Hall (hip)

Questionable

Mikell Simpson (leg)

Probable

Denzel Burrell (hip)

BJ Cabbell (ankle)

Nate Collins (knee)

Matt Conrath (spine)

Chris Cook (hip)

John-Kevin Dolce (foot)

Ausar Walcott (knee)

VIRGINIA TECH

Greg Boone (SC joint sprain) - probable

Stephan Virgil (knee) - questionable

NC State's secondary has 'something to prove'

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich


It’s not that NC State coach Tom O’Brien is concerned about his secondary, he just doesn’t quite know what to expect.

He’s not the only one.

The starting lineup for tonight’s game against South Carolina is comprised of redshirt freshman C.J. Wilson at field corner, redshirt sophomore free safety Justin Byers, senior safety Clem Johnson and redshirt senior Koyal George. They have combined for 14 starts, one former walk-on receiver and one formerly broken jaw. While much attention has been paid -- and deservedly so -- to the huge void left at linebacker by the loss of Nate Irving, the Pack’s unproven secondary might be the bigger question for NC State’s defense.

They’ll be without injured cornerback DeAndre Morgan, who is the most experienced of the group, but lost the job to Wilson this summer and has an ankle injury. Also missing from the group is strong safety Javon Walker, who tore his ACL in 2007 and missed 2008 as he continued to rehab from reconstructive knee surgery. And sophomore cornerback Dominique Ellis, who played mainly on special teams, decided to transfer in July.

“I think our depth is OK,” O’Brien said. “The inexperience is what we’re going to have to play with. C.J. Wilson earned the right to start in the game. He would’ve started whether Morgan was healthy or not. Rashard Smith is a freshman that’s come in and he’ll be our starting nickelback. He’s earned that position. He’s very capable, but along with those freshmen you just don’t know what’s going to happen Thursday night. If they continue to play like they practiced and continue to play like they did in scrimmage situations, I think they’ll be fine.”

The players are well aware of the questions outsiders have about them. Johnson said even he considered the defensive line to be the strength of the defense right now.

“We definitely do have something to prove, just for the simple fact that everyone expects us to be the weakest link of the defense,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and try to focus on what we’re supposed to be doing, executing and making plays.”

Johnson, a senior who played in just eight games last year after transferring from Valley Forge Military College and suffering a broken jaw in the preseason, is suddenly the veteran of the group. He showed the potential to be an impact player when he was healthy with two pass breakups and two interceptions. He returned from his broken jaw against Boston College on Oct. 4, and was playing well before he injured his ankle in the first half against North Carolina.

George, formerly a walk-on wide receiver, moved to the secondary and earned a scholarship last spring. He earned the starting job at corner last year against Florida State and Miami, but played just one snap against the Hurricanes.

“Me and Koyal are both on the boundary side, and right now I have no worries about him playing well on Thursday,” Johnson said. “He just has the natural ability of a corner. I think he has an edge on understanding routes. I feel really comfortable with him as the boundary corner on my side.”

Wilson said he thinks they’ll match up well against sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia, who has been inconsistent during his career so far but is the only quarterback on the Gamecocks’ roster with any experience. He started three games last year and was 1-2 with a win over Tennessee.

“We’re very talented back here,” Wilson said. “We might not be as experienced as them, but we have good enough athletes and our coaches know the game real well. Listening to them and their coaching points, we should be fine come Thursday.”

SOS in the ACC

May, 26, 2009
5/26/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Each team is going to need a little bit of help this fall (some more than others). Here's a look at where everyone in the ACC needs the most help heading into summer camp:

BOSTON COLLEGE -- Quarterback. It's easily the biggest question mark in Chestnut Hill, and it will also be one of Frank Spaziani's first major decisions as head coach. Regardless of whom he picks -- Dominique Davis, Codi Boek or Justin Tuggle -- experience will be at a minimum.

CLEMSON -- Wide receivers. Somebody needs to help Jacoby Ford, and Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham are no longer around to do it. Xavier Dye didn't quite have the consistency he'd hoped for this spring. Marquan Jones and Terrence Ashe could also be factors.

DUKE -- Offensive line. The Blue Devils lost three starters there and moved a fourth (Kyle Hill from left guard to left tackle), so it will have an entirely new look. The one player back in his original position is center Bryan Morgan.

FLORIDA STATE -- Receivers. FSU is waiting until the legal process unfolds to determine the length of Rod Owens' suspension, and it's uncertain how quickly Taiwan Easterling will be cleared to play after an injury to his Achilles. Bert Reed, Louis Givens and Jarmon Fortson will be heavily depended upon.

GEORGIA TECH -- Linemen. The Yellow Jackets have to replace three of four starters on the defensive line, and injuries to Cord Howard, Dan Voss and Nick Claytor slowed the progress on the offensive line this spring.

MARYLAND -- Offensive line. The Terps lost three starters and will have four players in new positions. Phil Costa should be the leader of an otherwise inexperienced group.

MIAMI -- Linebacker depth. There were a few position changes, and Colin McCarthy missed the spring. Sean Spence is proven, but depth remains a concern.

NORTH CAROLINA -- Receivers. This group had to be completely rebuilt, as UNC lost players who accounted for 17 of 21 receiving touchdowns last year. Greg Little had a good spring and should be the leader now, and freshman Joshua Adams benefitted from enrolling early.

NC STATE -- Safety. This is coach Tom O'Brien's biggest concern, and the Pack need Javon Walker, who tore his ACL and missed the spring, back and healthy. Clem Johnson played well last year despite being hindered by several injuries. O'Brien is looking for more from Jimmaul Simmons and Justin Byers.

VIRGINIA -- Linebackers. The backups to Antonio Appleby, Jon Copper and Clint Sintim rarely played, as Al Groh wanted to keep his best players on the field. Darren Childs, Steve Greer, Aaron Taliaferro, Cam Johnson, and Darnell Carter will have to grow up quickly.

VIRGINIA TECH -- Kicker. For the third straight year, Frank Beamer is in search of a new kicker, this time to replace Dustin Keys. Matt Waldron was the leading candidate out of the spring, but the competition is wide open.

WAKE FOREST -- Linebackers. Gone are Aaron Curry, Stanley Arnoux and Chantz McClinic. Introducing Gelo Orange. Yes, that's his name. Orange, along with Hunter Haynes, Jonathan Jones and a host of others have some big shoes to fill.

NC State's improved defense other half of winning equation

May, 4, 2009
5/04/09
4:45
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

NC State is going to be a legitimate contender to win the Atlantic Division and it's not just because the Wolfpack has the best quarterback in the league in Russell Wilson.

It's also because the defense should be one of the deepest, most productive units the program has seen in recent years, starting up front with Shea McKeen, Alan-Michael Cash, Leroy Burgess and Willie Young.

"I think our strength of our defense will be our defensive line," defensive coordinator Mike Archer said. "Our first four guys ... it will be the best defensive line they've had here since Mario Williams and [John] McCargo. Those guys were No. 1 picks. I'm not saying they're as good as them, but they're comparable in the sense they've got talent and they really have gotten better and developed."

NC State is confident in its two-deep at both defensive line and at linebacker. The secondary is where some lingering competition will remain this summer, but there are plenty of options. The players are much more comfortable with the staff and the system now that it's Tom O'Brien's third season, and the familiarity, communication and trust has made a difference.

This spring, Archer said he's heard the players talking about something they haven't before -- playing in the ACC championship game.

"We feel like we have as good a chance as anybody," Archer said. "If you don't believe it and you don't dream it, it's never going to happen."

It's a significant transformation from mid-way through last fall, when Archer had to challenge his defense because it ranked last in the ACC in nearly every relevant statistical category.

"The last half of the season, during practice, I very seldom had to raise my voice, I very seldom got upset because they learned how to practice, they went about their business, they got their work done and they got off the field," Archer said. "... To me, that was the biggest thing they learned, how to prepare in practice and how to go out and play on Saturday."

The latter half of the season also showed how good NC State's defense could be when everyone is healthy. Linebacker Nate Irving missed three games, Cash missed three games, and safety Clem Johnson was also out for a few. It was no coincidence that when they returned, NC State started to win.

Despite the loss in the Papajohns.com Bowl, NC State ended the 2008 season with its best defensive performance of the year. At the time, Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel was on a hot streak, but the Pack was still able to get to him numerous times.

"I don't want to be overboard with the confidence," Archer said, "but I feel much better going into this season than I did the previous two."

NC State's O'Brien reflects on third spring in Raleigh

April, 15, 2009
4/15/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

NC State coach Tom O'Brien is facing higher expectations as he heads into his third season with the program. The Pack finished 2008 as one of the hottest teams in the country, as quarterback Russell Wilson helped lead NC State to a 6-7 record. The Pack will wrap up its spring at 1 p.m. on Saturday with the Kay Yow Spring Game. O'Brien gave his thoughts recently on his third spring in Raleigh:

 
  Andrew Synowiez/US PRESSWIRE
  Tom O'Brien knows expectations are higher for his team in 2009.

One of the things I wanted to ask you is what you're looking for out of the spring game, if there are any areas you'll be paying particular attention to?

Tom O'Brien: No, we play a game because something always pops up that even though you try to practice it, it's not the same. It's different when you have people in the stands and coaches aren't on the field telling you what to do. My experience in the past is something happens in the spring game you really can't coach. It's a good learning experience for the team to be put in that situation.

What have you been most pleased with in terms of progress this spring?

TOB: We try to make individuals better, and as we count up the number of guys that we think have improved, it's more than the guys who have stayed the same. We've made strides in a lot of different areas. We'll worry more about team offense, team defense, team special teams as we get into August. We're looking for individuals to become better football players and we've accomplished that.

As far as entering your third season, where do see the program's need for the most improvement?

TOB: I think the whole program, we should be improved. We've had enough injuries the previous two years to last us, so if we stay healthy, then we're in a situation that offensively, defensively and special teams we should be a much better football team.

(Read full post)

NC State's Johnson ready for leading role in secondary

February, 24, 2009
2/24/09
5:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Clem Johnson's time at Valley Forge Military College wasn't all that different from the structured environment he's found at NC State.

Considering coach Tom O'Brien has a military background, Johnson said he felt right at home when he transferred last summer.

"He definitely does not play," Johnson said. " ... That's one of the reasons the transformation was so smooth."

Still, it could have been a little smoother had Johnson not broken his jaw before the season even began, and sprained his ankle on Nov. 22 at North Carolina just when he was starting to make a comeback. With the loss of two starters in the secondary who were among the top five tacklers on the team -- boundary corner Jeremy Gray and safety J.C. Neal -- the Pack needs Johnson to stay healthy in his final year of eligibility, as he is expected to be a starter in an otherwise inexperienced secondary.

"With me being a senior, I guess some people are expecting me to do a lot better than what I did last year," he said. "A lot of people saw what I can do, coming off my injury, being able to perform as a transfer ... I think a lot of people have higher expectations for me since I'm going through the winter workouts this year, and I'm able to learn the playbook and have better preparation than I did last year."

Johnson recovered from his broken jaw sooner than expected, and started five of the final six games last year. His return gave the defense a much-needed boost and helped propel the Pack to their four-game winning streak. Johnson missed the Nov. 29 win over Miami because of his ankle, but started in the Papajohns.com Bowl.

Johnson has had a strong winter so far and said he's getting closer to being 100 percent. Despite his injuries, Johnson still played in eight games and made 40 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups. Safety Jimmaul Simmons and cornerback Dominique Ellis were the backups at their respective positions last year and will compete for starting jobs. Safety Javon Walker, who was a starter before he tore his ACL, will be back in the fall and add to the competition.

Johnson was a running, athletic quarterback who also played defensive back at Valley Forge because he said he didn't want to play quarterback in college. Because he joined NC State late, he was forced to compensate for what he didn't know in the playbook with his athleticism. This year, he said he's much more comfortable knowing the defense.

"That's pretty much all I'm worried about, besides academics and school," he said. "I'm really excited about getting everything started back up with spring ball, and hitting the weights. I'm just trying to prepare myself and give 100 percent through winter workouts and get ready for the season."

What to watch in the ACC this spring

February, 11, 2009
2/11/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

With Miami kicking off spring practice on Feb. 24, it's never too early to start thinking about spring football in the ACC. There are plenty of story lines heading into the 2009 season -- like backup quarterbacks and new coordinators.

Here are a few things to watch for each team in the ACC this spring:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

BOSTON COLLEGE
Spring practice starts:
March 17
Spring game: April 25

What to watch

  • Replacing 325-pound defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace will be a large challenge -- literally. Damik Scafe could be a starter, but beyond him it's anybody's guess.
  • Quarterback Dominique Davis only has three games of experience over everyone else, so it's definitely not a given that it's his job to lose. Davis was thrown into the fire at the end of 2008, but former coach Jeff Jagodzinski and former offensive coordinator Steve Logan liked freshman Justin Tuggle, who redshirted this past season. Whether the new staff is as high on Tuggle remains to be seen.
  • Including former defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, who was promoted to head coach, the Eagles will have six coaches in new positions this spring. With two new coordinators, a new offensive line coach, tight ends coach and a linebackers coach, this spring will be a chance for a few introductions.

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NC State heading in right direction for O'Brien

January, 30, 2009
1/30/09
5:12
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

At one point last season, around the start of October, NC State was down to 43 scholarship players as a result of 13 injured starters and other players who redshirted.

Coach Tom O'Brien will never use that as an excuse, but it would be hard to blame him if he did.

The football gods couldn't have thrown more obstacles in O'Brien's way the past two seasons, but there were plenty of things for the Wolfpack to build on in the second half of the season and the first half of the Papajohns.com Bowl that point to signs of positive change for the program. Don't be surprised if this team wins eight games next season. Florida State isn't the only team with a shot of winning the Atlantic Division.

As NC State heads into 2009, it does so with arguably the league's best quarterback and is the closest the program has been to the 85 scholarship limit since O'Brien took over. The Wolfpack has also recruited a solid class that will help add some depth the roster has been sorely missing. To put it into perspective, this staff has done in three years at NC State what it took a decade to accomplish on the recruiting trail at Boston College.

"The building process continues, everything is headed in the right direction, and hopefully we can make all these young players better," O'Brien said. "That was the one good thing of the bowl practices, certainly we used our bowl practices to become a better football team. There were some things we did in the bowl game that was a great step forward."

Like hitting Rutgers' quarterback Mike Teel 18 times. With linebacker Nate Irving, defensive tackle Alan-Michael Cash and safety Clem Johnson healthy, NC State's defense had an entirely different look. When they were hurt, the Pack's depth issues were exposed, and it took until November for some of the younger backups to truly learn the defense.

As for the plethora of injuries, O'Brien said the strength and conditioning program is not at the root of the problem, rather it's the solution to it.

"What we're concerned with is what we inherited," O'Brien said. "The strength and conditioning program is turning it around."

The biggest difference in 2009 might be the addition of redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Glennon into the competition -- a pleasant predicament for O'Brien. Russell Wilson is the starter, and Glennon will be the backup, but both will compete for the job this spring and summer, and O'Brien isn't the type to hesitate if a change needs to be made.

"There's no hatred there or anything like that," Wilson said with a laugh. "We're Virginia boys. He's a good guy and he works hard. During the season we watched film together, and I would talk to him about what I see out there on the field. We would room together, so ... I'd try to help him understand what was going on, and if he'd see something he'd talk to me and try to help me."

One thing is for sure -- if Wilson, who has already been injured three times -- is injured again, there shouldn't be as much drop-off behind him.

"That's definitely important," Wilson said. "As a quarterback you want to win, so you've got to have guys behind you who want to play well as well."

The next step for Wilson to improve as a player this spring will be making the throws he needs to make on time -- a natural progression for a first-year quarterback.

"That's the thing we really have to work on at spring practice," O'Brien said. "He now has game film and game tape to look at, to learn from. What we have to do is be able to make those throws so he doesn't have to run around as much and open himself up to some of those hits he's been taking. That's where he has to get better to protect his body and protect himself."

Wilson said he is still rehabbing his knee, and the standout second baseman is getting ready for baseball practice on Feb. 1. He said he isn't sure yet how he'll work out the details of splitting time between baseball and spring football.

"I'm doing well, and I'm working hard," he said. "I think I came a long way. I think I learned a lot about understanding the game as a quarterback, and perspective and mindset of a quarterback, and understanding what I had to do to help our team win, and help our team be smart and successful and salvage plays when they weren't there, and take advantage of plays when they were there, and understanding what defenses were trying to bring at me and understanding why. I learned from week to week. I understand what we're trying to get out of each play."

NC State can't escape injuries, or Rutgers

December, 29, 2008
12/29/08
7:43
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

For two consecutive seasons, injuries have been the story of NC State football under Tom O'Brien, and the Papajohns.com Bowl was a microcosm of that frustration.

 
 Marvin Gentry/US Presswire
 Without Russell Wilson in the second half, the Wolfpack's offense sputtered.

Quarterback Russell Wilson, arguably the most valuable player on NC State's roster and the best quarterback in the ACC, sprained his knee in the first half of a 29-23 loss to Rutgers, and NC State fans once again were left to wonder what might have been.

Those who have been paying attention to NC State this season know how valuable Wilson was to his team -- he was the catalyst behind the Wolfpack's remarkable second-half surge -- but football fans catching him for the first time witnessed the dramatic drop-off in NC State's offense without him. (Mike Glennon should help the position's depth next year).

Wilson entered the bowl game having thrown 226 passes without an interception. His backups, Harrison Beck and Daniel Evans, combined to throw three interceptions in the second half of the Papajohns.com Bowl.

It's been a long season for Wilson, who began preseason camp as one of five quarterbacks competing for the starting job. He was also dealing with the illness of his father, who suffered a stroke in early August. Still, Wilson won the starting job, but suffered a concussion in the first game. He missed the following game and was reinjured while leading the Pack to an upset of East Carolina and missed another game.

This is the trend at NC State.

In 2007, O'Brien's first season in Raleigh, 13 starters missed time because of injuries, including six starters who missed multiple games. This year, Wilson was one of 13 starters again who missed multiple games because of injuries. It's a big reason why NC State started the season 2-4.

A healthy NC State, though, is a very good NC State. Just ask Rutgers, who was trailing 17-6 in the first half after Wilson completed 11 of 23 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown. He also finished as the team's leading rusher with eight carries for 46 yards. (And no, that's not necessarily a good thing).

Even when opposing defenses are disciplined against NC State, Wilson gives them headaches with his ability to make things happen with his feet. He is tremendous at improvising outside the pocket, and got his team out of jams against Rutgers on a few third-and-long situations.

NC State's defense did a good job of putting pressure on Mike Teel and mixing up coverages, but Rutgers adjusted in the second half and became more effective as the Wolfpack began to unravel offensively. Even when NC State's defense did its job, though -- like Clem Johnson's interception -- the offense threw it right back to Rutgers.

The four turnovers were the difference in the game, but so was the injury to Wilson. Then again, who knows what might have been?

Had everyone stayed healthy, NC State's entire season might have been different. If Wilson can stay healthy, NC State's 2009 season will be different.

NC State's secondary gets some help

October, 3, 2008
10/03/08
6:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

NC State cornerbacks Jeremy Gray and DeAndre Morgan each played 81 snaps last weekend against South Florida, more than anyone else on the roster. Safety JC Neal played 77 snaps, the second most of anyone on defense. And safety Justin Byers was in on 74 plays, the third-most on defense.

It's safe to say NC State's starting secondary could use a break.

Enter Clem Johnson.

The junior college transfer broke his jaw in the third scrimmage of the season, just as he was moving into a starting role, and wasn't expected to return. He lost between 15-20 pounds, but within 48 hours after his braces were removed, Johnson gained eight of it back. He has since fully recovered and played sparingly for the first time last weekend against South Florida.

Now the staff is hoping to gradually work him back into the rotation over the next few weeks.

"It's a whole new process for him," NC state coach Tom O'Brien said. "We're starting all over with him. He played a little bit last Saturday and hopefully we'll be able to play him a little bit more this Saturday. So it's part of a process now to get him back. ... If we had an open week we could speed the process up, but it's rather difficult going game to game."

Odds are it would've gotten even more difficult, though, without him.

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