Reading the 2012 pre-season previews, NC State fans are chomping at the bit, waiting for their August 31st tip-off and praying for an ACC Championship season. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it likely? Well, that depends who you speak to. Fans will tell you that we have an experienced team and Coach O’Brien is as good as anyone else in the ACC. O’Brien himself will tell you (and I am paraphrasing) that we have beaten everyone in our division over the last two seasons, so we just have to do it in the same year for 2012. Neither the fans nor the coach would be incorrect. NC State does have an experienced team and Coach O’Brien is one of the best in the ACC. However, Clemson and FSU are always going to be ACC Title contenders. What makes NC State so different from either of them? Why can’t NC State make the jump from “ACC Title dark-horse” to ACC Title contender? We have experience, a great quarterback, a solid game day coach and staff. If you are looking for a flaw, it has to be recruiting and NC State’s roster provides ample evidence. O’Brien is very blunt about his style of recruiting and the merits of having a program built for long-term success. The question becomes whether “long term success” and “ACC Title contender” can co-exist under O’Brien’s recruiting strategy.
LOOKING AT LINEBACKERS
NC State currently has 15 players listed at linebacker, some of which were moved there from previous positions, and 7 of whom are juniors and seniors. The juniors and seniors account for a mere 50 career tackles. DJ Green owns 31 of those tackles and Zach Gentry owns another 11. That means that between the remaining 5 juniors and seniors at linebacker, NC State boasts a total of 8 career tackles. For comparison, Clemson had a “young” linebacking corp last year and they boasted a junior with over 70 tackles as well as a redshirt junior with 69 tackles. That is phenomenal, but for Clemson it is young and inexperienced. NC State actually has a fairly mature linebacking unit this season with 4 of their 6 linebackers listed on the depth chart being juniors and seniors. That said, our impressive “experience” is all for naught if “experience” doesn’t translate into “refined talent”.
What you see with NC State under the direction of Tom O’Brien is a program that looks for talent in places that others might not be looking. You ignore the stars and instead scout for players that fit your program. O’Brien has landed some gems with players like Glennon and Amerson, but how many players that don’t pan out do you have to recruit before you get a solid one? I can’t tell you how often we get a “quality player” through O’Brien’s methods compared to how often we get a mediocre player, but I can tell you that at linebacker, six years into O’Brien’s system, we have 7 upperclassmen at linebacker who have less game day experience, combined, then other rising juniors in the ACC do by themselves.
Stars typically are designed to translate into “how ready for game-day are these athletes”. Three star players are suppose to be solid athletes, with some development, at the FBS level. Athletes with 5 stars are gameday ready straight out of high school (in theory). The problem with recruiting a large amount of 2-star and 3-star athletes is that they typically take longer to refine into game-ready athletes. In NC State’s case, it would appear that we have a bunch of juniors and seniors who haven’t seen the light of day 3 years into their career. Part of that is likely because they simply haven’t been needed. A greater concern for Wolfpack fans should be how many of those seniors don’t have one tackle because they simply haven’t made the cut compared to how many aren’t playing because they weren’t ready for FBS football until just recently. Recruiting lower ranked players means time-lost from their college careers while the staff coaches them up. It also means time spent by the staff training “lesser players” to become “great players”.
UPDATE (8/22/2012 @ 2:45PM): I wanted to add to the discussion of linebackers that the “game-ready” status of our linebackers is directly related to why the position is weak starting the 2012 season… not the fact that we suffered from attrition to the NFL. Programs like FSU, Clemson, and Virginia Tech are competitive year-in and year-out even during periods of high player turn-over. Why? Because many of the players they recruit are highly rated individuals that can make an impact shortly after leaving high school. The excuse that it’s somehow acceptable to have an entire position on defense that is unprepared for the next season because we had players leave for the NFL highlights where NC State football is right now… and it’s not neck-and-neck with other ACC crown favorites.
With hopes that 2012 will bring an ACC crown, it’s hard to fathom that one position could be O’Brien’s downfall. All of the other pieces are in place to stage a surprisingly impressive season on offense and on defense. O’Brien’s staff is seasoned and know what they are doing when game day rolls around. The death of O’Brien’s ACC Title hopes, if there is one, will be the fact that he recruited players that need far too much work to be game-ready at the linebacker position. Rather than aiming for a couple players that could be ready to play in 1 or 2 seasons, he opted for the lower-rated players that needed 2 to 3 seasons before they could be trained up. Now we have a single position… a fairly important position… on defense that is a big question mark and risks blowing NC State’s “best hopes for an ACC Title in decades”.
The Good News Is…
Being “solid” for long enough will plug all of your holes, it’s just a matter of how long it takes. Obviously at LB, six years hasn’t been enough time to solve all of NC State’s roster issues. However, O’Brien has a lot of depth in a lot of areas and because of that has put NC State in a comfortable position where having a stand-out star at any one particular position isn’t necessary to have a decent season. O’Brien doesn’t have any “RGIII” type players, but he’s managed to jam his roster with a solid amount of “pretty good talent” and sometimes having enough “pretty good” under a solid coach is enough. Have enough “pretty good” on your roster and you can spread the burden across the team of landing a win rather than praying that Russell Wilson pulls another rabbit out of the hat.
There is also the other team’s roster to consider. When NC State met Clemson in 2012, a team that few would argue was worse on the season that NC State, Clemson had a young, inexperienced linebacker position. NC State having a quarterback that was catching his stride and an offensive line that was continually improving was able to take advantage of Clemson’s gap by having a “pretty good” overall offense. The result: an unexpected win. Having a solid roster allows smart coaches like O’Brien to take advantage of their opponents by ‘out-strategizing’ them. While other teams may take the Butch Davis approach of stacking their rosters and watching them play, O’Brien has a brilliant in-game coach and can take a ”pretty good team” and take advantage of lesser coaches that might not be paying attention. Under this system, NC State can always be better than enough teams to make a bowl and come out of the ACC with an even or winning record.
The question now becomes this: can “pretty good” get NC State to an ACC crown? As long as programs like Clemson and FSU are sitting in our division with “pretty good” players sitting in the 2nd and 3rd spots in the depth chart, NC State will always be little more than a “dark horse”. Programs that contend for conference titles, at some point in time, have to chase after a couple stars. Sometimes all a “pretty good team” needs to break through their glass ceiling is a few stand-outs to overpower their opponents. You aren’t going to get that recruiting 2 and 3 star players.
Sow Mediocrity, Reap Mediocrity
A recent review of the ACC by Opposing Views highlighted the “gaping hole” at linebacker. One author wrote this…
The question is, can the defense make enough stops? I don’t think so. The linebacking corps, in particular, looks like a gaping wound. You can’t be that defective on an entire level of your defense and be any good. The whole thing will just collapse in on itself. And that’s why I can’t get behind the idea of them breaking out of the middle of the pack.
Another author, being far more optimistic about the Pack in their review, also predicted NC State to be in the same mediocre situation as the first author…
If there is a team that can win the Atlantic over Clemson and FSU, it’s NC State. It’s a longshot but if they play to their full potential and other teams don’t, it’s possible. That being said, I think we are looking at a bowl-eligible team that will be a very tough team to beat this season.
Fair enough. NC State isn’t in a position to beat Clemson or FSU, but we aren’t in a position where it’s impossible either. A “solid” team should be able to compete against any opponent and have the opportunity to come away with a win. That being said, “be able to compete” and “favored to win” are two very different things and highlight two different desired outcomes for NC State football. If Wolfpackers want to be relevant within the ACC, it is going to have to do more than compete for an ACC title once in a blue moon. (Remember, not too long ago Wake Forest won an ACC title, but few people consider them a perennial ACC powerhouse.) On the contrary, if Wolfpackers are happy with simply coming away from the regular season with 7-8 wins and going to a mediocre bowl each season, then they have probably already stopped reading this article and begun preparations for their Belk Bowl celebration in December.
If O’Brien wants to bring things to the next level, he is going to need to decide that he has successfully filled the stalls with “pretty good” horses and now needs to procure a few prized stallions. One thing is for sure: if NC State can have 15 players, 7 of them upperclassmen, at the linebacker position and still call it a “gaping hole”, then we aren’t recruiting effective enough players to begin with.