by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

There aren’t many secrets in college football anymore, although we all like to think that we might be the only ones on to something special. That certainly includes us at TGS, hardly the only ones in this industry who are sensitive to positive and negative pointspread trends, which in truth are awfully hard to camouflage these days.

What the heck, we'll go ahead and blurt it out: NC State HC Tom O’Brien has long been one of our aces in the hole. We’re certainly not the only ones who have picked up the same scent. And now that we’re divulging this info, maybe the days of O’Brien as a stealth pointspread force are about to end.

Don’t count on it.

The Wolfpack, and O’Brien, continue to occupy a unique niche, a relatively-successful program and a relatively-successful coach stuck in a slightly-more shallow orbit than the familiar powerhouse entries, just beneath the elite tier of squads. O’Brien’s NC State has also rarely been the team to beat in the ACC, but the Wolfpack are usually in the chase, close behind the leaders.

The performance pattern of O’Brien’s Wolfpack squads has been repeating rather consistently as the ex-Annapolis grad and Marine enters his sixth season in Raleigh. Overall, O’Brien’s NCS has provided great pointspread value since midway in his first season with the Pack in 2007, standing 35-19 vs. the number in NC State’s last 54 games on the board. More specifically, O’Brien’s teams usually close with a rush; the time to jump on board has usually been after the fifth game each season, as the Wolfpack is 26-9 vs. the number for O’Brien down the stretch in his five years in charge at Raleigh.

The fact O’Brien’s NC State teams always seem to improve as the season endures is perhaps the ultimate compliment to this most underrated of coaches, whose Boston College teams between 1999-2006 performed in a somewhat similar manner. It’s no wonder, then, that O’Brien’s Eagle and Wolfpack sides have also won 8 of their last 9 bowl games and covered the number in all of those nine as well.

O’Brien’s success has mirrored that of mentor George Welsh, the legendary former Navy and Virginia coach under whom O’Brien worked at Annapolis and Charlottesville from 1975-96. Earlier, after a prep career at Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High, O’Brien received his appointment to Navy, where he played DE for Midshipmen teams coached by Bill Elias and Rick Forzano between 1968-70. Those years at Annapolis, and his subsequent term in the armed forces, likely helped instill the sort of discipline that have also long been reflected in O'Brien's teams.

O’Brien’s name has also occasionally surfaced in connection for prime-time jobs; his name was briefly on Notre Dame’s radar before Brian Kelly was hired a couple of years ago. Mostly, however, O’Brien has done just enough to keep his employers (and handicappers) very happy, while not quite drawing enough attention to himself or his teams for the ESPN sorts to gush or for the Ohio States and Michigans of the college football worlds to come calling when they might have their own coaching openings.

Indeed, NC State has usually been pretty competitive over the past 45 or so years, usually doing enough to qualify for a bowl invitation and rarely being overrun. In the modern era, the Pack first began to gain some traction in the early ’60s for HC Earle Edwards, who endured a couple of rough campaigns after his hiring in 1954, but began to ascend in the early ‘60s with teams featuring QB Roman Gabriel (left). Edwards took a pair of entries to the Liberty Bowl in the ‘60s, his best the 1967 side that stayed unbeaten until mid-November and advanced as high as number three in the polls featuring a rugged defense and a QB named Jim Donnan, who would later in his life become a well-recognized college coach at Marshall and Georgia.

The only real dry patch for the Wolfpack over the past half century came in the early ‘80s, when teams coached by Monte Kiffin (yes, that Monte Kiffin) and Tom Reed missed bowls for six straight seasons, the longest postseason drought in Raleigh over the past fifty years. Kiffin and Reed, each three years on the job, are also the only NC State coaches to finish under .500 for their Wolfpack coaching careers since Al Michaels (no, not the play-by-play Al Michaels!) finished 3-8 in his only season in 1971.

The arrival of Lou Holtz (right) from William & Mary the following year in '72 signaled a renaissance in Raleigh, as Lou’s teams became bowl regulars and routinely appeared in the rankings. The success continued under ill-fated successor Bo Rein, who won a pair of bowls (‘77 Peach over Iowa State, ‘78 Citrus over Pitt), although the Pack didn’t return to prominence, or a bowl, until Dick Sheridan’s arrival in 1986. Six of Sheridan’s seven Raleigh teams made it to the postseason before he retired following the ‘92 campaign.

Ironically, Holtz’s ‘73 side and Rein’s ‘79 team are the only NC State entries to win the ACC title since 1969. The Wolfpack has also missed (a couple of times just narrowly) each ACC title game since the league split into two divisions in 2005.

This good-but-not-quite-good-enough theme is likely to repeat in the fall as O’Brien looks to have another bowl-caliber squad on his hands, although the Pack is being rated at best as the third choice behind Clemson and Florida State in most of this year’s Atlantic Division forecasts.

At least O’Brien endured a rather quiet offseason regarding his QB position after an awkward time a summer ago trying to explain how he could let do-everything QB Russell Wilson leave for Wisconsin with one year of eligibility remaining in Raleigh. The old Marine in O’Brien didn’t want Wilson dabbling any longer with a pro baseball career and Wilson simply decided the angst wasn’t worth it. And when replacement QB Mike Glennon started slowly last season, O’Brien was certainly hearing about if from the Wolfpack faithful, who feared a rare non-bowl year after NCS opened the season 2-3, with humbling losses to Wake Forest and Cincinnati en route.

Glennon (left), however, began to get the hang of things by midseason and finished with 3054 YP and 31 TD passes as the Pack won five of its last seven, including a 37-13 rout of Clemson, to qualify for the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, where NCS beat Louisville for yet another O’Brien bowl win. Although O’Brien might not have gotten the last laugh in the Wilson matter (after all, Wilson ended up leading Wisconsin to the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl), Glennon’s performance certainly took a lot of heat off of the old Navy grad.

Glennon thus enters 2012 as the unquestioned leader of the NCS pro-style offense and continues to draw interest from NFL scouts, who love the arm strength and size (6'6 and 232 lbs.) that allows big Mike (whose older brother Sean is a former Virginia Tech QB) to easily see over opposing pass rushers. But the Pack was hardly dynamic on attack last season (94th-ranked in total offense), and in one extended sluggish episode managed just 23 points over a three-game stretch, losing two of those games at Florida State and BC. ACC sources also are in unanimous agreement that NCS must uncover an improved ground diversion to have a legitimate shot at overtaking Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles and Dabo Swinney’s Tigers in the Atlantic half of the ACC.

O’Brien and veteran o.c. Dana Bible believe the OL showed signs of progress in the spring, but there’s a long way to go after the Pack ranked a sorry 109th (and a puny 104.9 ypg) in national rush stats a year ago and also allowed Glennon, no dancer he in the pocket, to be under siege too often, allowing a whopping 34 sacks and ranking a poor 98th in the country in that category. Senior anchors C Cam Wertz and LT R.J. Mattes are two of four starters returning up front, and it is also hoped they can open some new lanes for slashing sr. RB James Washington (right), who picked and popped for 897 YR a year ago. More could also be expected from electric soph Tony Creecy, who gained 383 YR in limited work as a frosh in 2011.

Three of the Pack’s top four receivers have also departed from last season, and Glennon needs to get comfy with some new faces in a hurry, especially after last year’s top target, T.J. Graham, left a year early for the NFL, where he was a third-round pick by the Bills last April at Radio City Music Hall. Another all-ACC target, TE George Bryan, will also have to be replaced. At the outset, look for Glennon to be looking first for sr. WR Tobais Palmer (left), the only returning starter wideout from last fall who caught 37 passes for 5 TDs a year ago. But now that Graham is gone, Glennon could use another deep threat; perhaps it will be soph Bryan Underwood, who gained over 22 yards per catch on his 14 receptions as a frosh last season. The multi-dimensional RB Washington is also a capable receiver out of the backfield, catching 40 passes a year ago.

The early departure of Graham (who had four career-kick return TDs) also leaves a gaping hole in the return game that Palmer and do-everything DB David Amerson will try to fill.

Speaking of Amerson (right), he’s the Pack’s defensive equivalent of Glennon, and maybe then some, after leading the nation with 13 interceptions a year ago and keying a veteran secondary that might be one of the nation’s best, and certainly the strength of the Pack’s 2012 platoon. The four returning starters, led by Mike Haynes-like jr. Amerson, have a combined 114 starts between them. Hard-hitting senior safeties Earl Wolff and Brandon Bishop are also both on NFL radar screens.

Overall, the Pack led the nation with a whopping 27 picks a year ago, and O’Brien admitted after spring that his stop unit was further progressed than his offense heading into fall practice. “The defense jumps back ahead,” said O’Brien after spring drills concluded.

Still, vet d.c. Mike Archer (once upon a time the LSU head coach) has some shuffling to do, especially at the LB spots that figured to be another strength entering the fall. But maybe not now; a year after Nate Irving’s departure for the NFL Denver Broncos, the Wolfpack lost 2011 starters Audie Cole, Terrell Manning, and D.J. Green all at once. Not that it was expected as only Cole (drafted in the 7th round by the Vikings) had exhausted his eligibility after 2011. But Manning opted to bolt a year early for the NFL (where he was taken by the Packers in the 5th round) and Green has been suspended for the 2012 campaign due to a positive test for a banned substance.

Archer could have a couple of answers, however if OLB Sterling Lucas (a starter in 2010) is fully recovered from the knee injury that KO’d him for all of 2011, and if juco MLB Robert Caldwell is as good as advertised. Caldwell was one of the highest-rated JC LBs in the country and is already penciled into the starting lineup. Caldwell, who seemed ticketed for Iowa, had a late change of heart when realizing how much of a priority he had become in Raleigh after the premature departure of Manning.

Archer is also hoping that the various injuries that ravaged the defensive front in 2011 will now prove a benefit with improved depth and experience for some of the returnees, including soph DTs Thomas Teal and D.Y. McGill (left) and DE Art Norman (who tied for the team lead with 5 ½ sacks), all thrown into the fire prematurely last fall. Despite the injuries last season, the pass rush consistently harassed opposing QBs and generated a whopping 40 sacks (tied for 8th best in the nation), although departed LBs Manning & Cole (11 ½ between them) were major contributors in that regard.

The schedule is going to test the Pack early; the opener is at Atlanta in the first half of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome vs. Tennessee and its desperate HC Derek Dooley on Friday, August 31 (Clemson and Auburn tangle in an all-Tiger battle at the same venue the next night). And by mid-October, NCS will have also faced Miami and Florida State, which throttled the Pack 34-0 a year ago. The Pack could also stand to improve its road performance after winning just one of five times away from Raleigh in the regular season in 2011. O’Brien’s past pointspread prowess, however, must be acknowledged.

Summary...History doesn’t always repeat itself, but this looks to be shaping up as another typical Tom O’Brien season at NC State. There are enough question marks on offense (such as jazzing up the infantry and uncovering new receiving targets) and defense (where all of last year’s starting LB crew must be replaced) to cause some early bumps in the road. But expect the Pack, as usual, to overcome most of these issues by midseason, and as long as Glennon stays healthy, NC State probably closes fast once more. It might not be enough to get the Pack over the hump in the ACC Atlantic, but it likely gets O’Brien back to another bowl...with us riding NC State down the stretch once more as O’Brien looks to continue his remarkable late-season pointspread magic.


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