N.C. State has developed a knack for finishing strong under coach Tom O'Brien. It's getting started that has been the problem.
After lackluster losses in both of his season openers in Raleigh, O'Brien is hoping to begin his third year with a win for a change.
Calling Thursday's opener against South Carolina "a measuring stick" for his program, the N.C. State coach said Friday that he's eager to see how far his Wolfpack have come since starting last season with a blowout loss in Columbia.
He bristled at suggestions that N.C. State is out to avenge last year's embarrassment, insisting that "there's no such thing as revenge. It's our fault we lost 34-0."
But at the very least, it's clear the Wolfpack still have something left to prove.
The biggest reason why things could be different this time: His team has plenty of proven answers at its most important positions — at quarterback and along both lines.
"We've got a couple questions at a couple different spots, but we don't have questions at key spots," O'Brien said. "Those are things where we've won football games. We've won because we're good up front and have good quarterback play. In that, we're a lot more experienced than we were a year ago."
The depth chart unveiled Friday seems to confirm that.
ACC rookie of the year Russell Wilson is back at quarterback, as expected. Now injury-free seniors Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene are listed as 1-2 at tailback. The Wolfpack will start three seniors and a junior on the offensive line.
And all four starters on the defensive line are in their fourth season of eligibility, including Willie Young — a graduate student, four-year starter at defensive end and the unquestioned leader of the group.
"Last year has nothing to do with this year," Young said.
Perhaps not, but the Wolfpack certainly can't afford another slow start if it wants to take advantage of the momentum it generated with last year's late surge. Wilson's emergence as one of the ACC's most electrifying playmakers has thrust N.C. State among the contenders in the there-for-the-taking Atlantic Division.
They didn't have that kind of star power in 2007, when they were sloppy in dropping O'Brien's debut against Central Florida, started 1-5 and failed to beat a Football Bowl Subdivision team until late October before winning four in a row to move to the verge of bowl eligibility.
They followed a similar blueprint last season, opening with that blowout loss to South Carolina marred by a concussion to Wilson in his first college start. A 2-6 start followed, before another late-season four-game winning streak catapulted them into their first bowl game since 2005.
"It's a new year. Who knows what it's going to bring?" O'Brien said. "We have to be ready to play from the outset."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun