RALEIGH, N.C. – The first year had the typical bumps of a coaching transition. The second ended with a bowl loss that secured a losing season. The third was an injury-riddled mess.
Coach Tom O'Brien knows this season at North Carolina State had better offer something more.
"You have to win. That shows progress," he said. "That's what we haven't been able to do. ... We've got to go on and have a winning season and go to a bowl game."
When O'Brien arrived in Raleigh, it seemed the program that had offered plenty of bluster under Chuck Amato — despite never finishing higher than fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference — was hiring the perfect substance-over-style guy. Yet N.C. State has been mediocre, losing seven games in each of the past three seasons.
N.C. State boasts a former all-ACC quarterback in Russell Wilson and has linebacker Nate Irving back after he missed all of last year with injuries suffered in a car wreck. The offense has been good enough to win games, but the defense last year was a disaster.
So far, the Wolfpack's only real accomplishment under O'Brien has been to win all three meetings with rival North Carolina and its coach, Butch Davis, whose hiring about a month before O'Brien in late 2006 generated a lot more buzz.
Then again, the Tar Heels have won eight games and reached a bowl game the past two seasons — a fact Wolfpack fans have noticed and only increases the pressure on O'Brien.
Staying healthy would certainly help. Last year, 12 players went down to season-ending injuries.
Wilson was first-team all-ACC as a freshman and threw 31 touchdown passes last year to lead an offense that averaged 30 points per game. But Wilson missed spring drills while concentrating on baseball and spent the summer playing in the minors in the Colorado Rockies organization, allowing talented reserve Mike Glennon to get all the snaps in spring.
O'Brien has said he expects Glennon to push to take Wilson's starting job. He also said Wilson was rusty to start training camp and has to play better before the opener against Western Carolina on Sept. 4.
"I'm physically ready, conditioning-wise and strength-wise," Wilson said. "I'm the same weight I was when I left the last game. I'm definitely excited about it and working hard."
He has his top receiving threats in Owen Spencer (team-high 765 yards, six touchdowns) and Jarvis Williams (11 touchdowns). But the top two rushers from last season are gone and they're running behind an offensive line that lost three starters.
And yet, those issues can't compare to what faces a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league by allowing 31 points per game.
Irving's return should help. He was the team's top defensive player coming out of spring drills in 2009 before the accident that left him with a collapsed lung and a compound fracture in his left leg among numerous injuries.
He's moving to middle linebacker under new position coach Jon Tenuta. He will play alongside Audie Cole (team-high 85 tackles) and Dwayne Maddox and Terrell Manning — two players who got more snaps in Irving's absence.
"Usually I'm able to draw plays up in a notebook, give it a once over and I learn the plays that quick," Irving said. "But with Coach Tenuta, we have an abundance of plays out of different formations, so I've got to sit down and really look at that and study that real good."
As for the rest of the defense, the entire starting line is gone and projected starter at cornerback Rashard Smith is already out for the season following recent knee surgery. N.C. State hopes that's not an early indication that the secondary will remain the revolving door it was last season, when the Wolfpack started eight different combinations in 12 games.
"You feel pressure every year," O'Brien said. "It's not any different this season than it was last season or the season before. If you don't feel pressure as a coach to have a winning football team and get to bowl games, you're not bleeding or breathing."