NC State heading in right direction for O'Brien

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."