North Carolina State is hoping new coach Dave Doeren can provide a jolt to a program struggling to sustain momentum in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The school hired Doeren away from Northern Illinois after firing Tom O'Brien. N.C. State went to four bowls in six years under O'Brien and nearly reached the ACC title game in 2010, yet the on-field results often fell short of expectations — including last year's 7-6 season that began with hopes of contending for the league title.
Now it's up to the 41-year-old coach, who went 23-4 in two seasons at Northern Illinois, to change things in 2013 and beyond.
"He's never rattled," receiver Rashard Smith said. "He's the upbeat, smiling guy. He's ready for any situation. With Coach Doeren, you can tell he's ready for anything to happen."
The day he was hired, Doeren said he thought he could make a difference for a program that seemed "very close to getting to the next step." His staff has installed a no-huddle offense that Doeren said blends elements from Wisconsin — where Doeren spent five seasons as an assistant — and Oregon. The defense stayed with a 4-3 scheme, but the coaches have pushed both units to work at a faster pace.
"I feel like there's a lot of bright eyes," Doeren said. "There's good energy. ... The up-tempo offense and the up-tempo practice style we have requires a certain mindset and the guys are working through that really well."
N.C. State must find a new quarterback after Mike Glennon headed to the NFL and three new starters on the offensive line, while the defense has lost its top four tacklers.
But Doeren is hoping the buzz that comes with all the changes keeps his players engaged as they work to solve those problems.
"I think everywhere you go in fall camp, spirits are renewed," Doeren said. "They're all undefeated right now. You can see certain seniors have a look in their eyes that you like to see, knowing that they're out of time and they've got to get it done now."
Here are five things to watch with the Wolfpack this season:
1. OFFENSIVE LEADER: The battle for quarterback is focused on Colorado State junior transfer Pete Thomas and Arkansas graduate transfer Brandon Mitchell, who played receiver last year. Doeren has said he'll let the competition go as long as necessary. Mitchell said the Wolfpack need both guys no matter who wins the starting job against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 31. "The better we both are," Mitchell said, "the better the team is going to be."
2. PROTECTION UP FRONT: N.C. State lost R.J. Mattes, Zach Allen and Cam Wentz — who had a combined 113 career starts — from the interior of the offensive line. Tackle Rob Crisp is back to lead this year's group, but it's going to take time for the new unit to build chemistry.
3. PUSHING THE PACE: N.C. State's new offense will be a work in progress, as evidenced by the turnover-prone spring game in April. But if the Wolfpack successfully speeds up the pace, things could get easier as the game goes on. "One of our strengths as an offense and an offensive line is that we're going to wear people out," offensive line coach Mike Uremovich said. "That's part of our style of play."
4. HOME SWEET HOME: The Wolfpack will have the chance to build early confidence in friendly surroundings. N.C. State opens with four straight home games and leaves the state only twice all year, the first time coming Oct. 26 at Florida State. In all, N.C. State will play eight home games, including a visit from preseason ACC favorite Clemson on Sept. 19, along with trips to instate foes Duke and Wake Forest.
5. DEFENSIVE STOPPERS: N.C. State has lost its top four tacklers, including safeties Earl Wolff and Brendan Bishop, so it's looking for reliable stoppers. Linebacker D.J. Green is back after missing last season after testing positive for using a banned substance, while Doeren has praised Zach Gentry and M.J. Salahuddin at the position early in training camp. "We're swarming to the ball," Green said. "It's tough to tell who's getting there first. That's how much we're swarming to the ball."
Predicted finish in the ACC: Third in the Atlantic Division.
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