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March 20, 2009

N.C. State looking to build around Wilson

North Carolina State was a case study in how topsy-turvy the ACC was last season. The Wolfpack started 2-6 overall and 0-4 in conference play. But thanks to redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Wilson, N.C. State rallied to win its last four games of the regular season and earn a PapaJohns.com Bowl berth.

With Wilson, the Wolfpack will enter spring practice with a settled quarterback situation for the first time since Philip Rivers' departure after the 2003 season.

Behind Wilson and junior linebacker Nate Irving, coach Tom O'Brien's team is starting to make noise in the ACC. The next step is a winning overall record and N.C. State's first winning record in the conference since 2002.

Here's a look at N.C. State as it prepares for spring ball.

N.C. STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Quarterback Russell Wilson emerged and led N.C. State to a bowl after a slow start.
THE BASICS
Coach: Tom O'Brien
Last season: 6-7, 4-4 ACC. Lost to Rutgers in the Papajohns.com Bowl.
Spring dates: March 20-April 18
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (7): TE George Bryan, C Ted Larsen, T Jeraill McCuller, WR Owen Spencer, T Jake Vermiglio, QB Russell Wilson, WR Jarvis Williams.
Defense (7): FS Justin Byers, T Alan-Michael Cash, LB Nate Irving, E Shea McKeen, LB Ray Michel, CB DeAndre Morgan, E Willie Young.
Special teams (1): K Josh Czajkowski.
Positions of strength

Wilson was the first freshman to be named first-team All-ACC at quarterback. He threw an interception in September against Clemson, but he ended the season on a streak of 249 consecutive passes without a pick. His health will be a concern during the spring after he suffered a torn knee tendon in the bowl loss to Rutgers. He passed on surgery in January, opting for rehabilitation. Defensively, the line should set the tone. The Pack expect to have three senior starters, including end Willie Young - who led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss last season.

Help is needed

N.C. State needs to improve its 96th-ranked pass defense, staring at cornerback. DeAndre Morgan (two interceptions, 10 pass breakups) is the only one assured of playing time. Wolfpack coaches expect sophomore Dominique Ellis, who played sparingly last season, to make an impact. Though the Wolfpack loses leading rusher Andre Brown, they do return Jamelle Eugene - the team MVP from 2007 - and injury-riddled senior Toney Baker. Both have shown flashes in the past. Between those two and Wilson, N.C. State should rank higher than 87th in the country in rushing.

Keep an eye on

QB Mike Glennon: After struggling to find a replacement for Rivers, the Wolfpack suddenly have Wilson and Glennon - a redshirt freshman and former Rivals100 prospect - as his backup. If Wilson is limited during spring practice, Glennon will get more snaps. That could make things interesting heading into the fall.

LB Terrell Manning: Manning redshirted as a true freshman last season after injuring his knee during his senior season in high school. He could move into the starting strong side linebacker spot this spring.

WR Jay Smith: Smith, a sophomore, gradually improved over the course of the 2008 season. However, he still needs to do some work to get into a receiver rotation that didn't lose anyone off the two-deep.

His time is now

Senior defensive end Shea McKeen has seen his share of ups and downs. He started his career at South Carolina and transferred to a junior college before he landed in Raleigh. McKeen earned a starting job last season but missed the last three games with a broken ankle. He needs to show coaches he has recovered from his injury and can be a steadying force on the line.

The buzz

After rallying for its first bowl appearance since 2005, N.C. State is optimistic this spring. Wilson's status will be a story line, especially when it comes to the highly touted Glennon. More than anything, N.C. State needs to find players who can win with or without Wilson under center. When Wilson was hurt during parts of last season, the offense was lost without him.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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