RALEIGH | Coach Tom O'Brien's second preseason practices at N.C. State start today with modest expectations for the football season ahead, at least from the media.
The Wolfpack, 5-7 last season, was picked last in the ACC's Atlantic Division by the media who cover the conference. N.C. State has a challenging opener at South Carolina on Thursday, Aug. 28, and a difficult schedule that also includes East Carolina and South Florida.
But the players and staff are optimistic that they will be more cohesive and effective with a year under their belts in O'Brien's system.
There are a number of questions O'Brien wants to answered before the first game, among them:
WHO WILL BE THE QUARTERBACK? The Wolfpack Sports Network could produce a fascinating TV reality show if it put the five characters contending for the starting quarterback job in one cramped apartment during training camp.
Daniel Evans is the son of a former All-American (Johnny Evans could also star in the TV show) with visions of regaining his starting spot after shoulder surgery. Swashbuckling, rifle-armed Nebraska transfer Harrison Beck started four games last season before suffering a shoulder injury and displayed a tendency for risky throws that could make the coaches wary.
Freshman Mike Glennon arrives as a statuesque, strong-armed phenom who has a lot to learn if he's going to avoid a redshirt season. Cerebral Justin Burke has the intelligence for the job and needs to continue demonstrating the athletic ability showcased in a last-minute, winning drive in the team's spring game.
The player who seems in front of the others, redshirt freshman Russell Wilson, is the popular class president type, a favorite of his teammates and Tom O'Brien's coaching staff. Wilson is a solid pocket passer and dangerous scrambler who performed well in spring practice before struggling in the spring game.
O'Brien might favor Evans' experience, especially with the opener set in front of a hostile crowd at South Carolina. But Wilson has an irrepressible, upbeat personality that would be an asset in the huddle.
CAN THREE ACC-CALIBER LINEBACKERS EMERGE IN TIME FOR THE OPENER? Last year's starters -- Ernest Jones, James Martin and LeRue Rumph -- all were seniors, so there's not a lot of experience returning.
Sophomore weakside linebacker Nate Irving started four games late in the season, and the staff is confident he will be dependable. The rest of the crew is largely untested.
Senior Robbie Leonard is a converted safety who is the first-team strongside linebacker. At about 210 pounds, he might struggle to get off blocks against tight ends, but the coaches believe his speed will be an asset against the many opponents that use three- and four-wide receiver sets.
Ray Michel has played mostly as a backup the last two seasons and needs to prove himself at middle linebacker. Defensive coordinator Mike Archer believes he has promising underclassmen in sophomore Thomas Barnes, redshirt freshman Audie Cole and freshman Dwayne Maddox (who went through spring practice).
All these players need to be ready to perform right away.
IS THERE ANOTHER HAUSCHKA ON THE ROSTER? First-year kicker Steven Hauschka made 16 of 18 field-goal attempts last season, including a game-winner in overtime at Miami.
Hauschka was a senior transfer student with just one year of eligibility, so N.C. State is working with a new place-kicker again. That probably will be Josh Czajkowski, a sophomore who made all his attempts under 40 yards during the spring.
O'Brien has a history of finding successful kickers in unusual places. Steve Aponavicius had never kicked in high school but became a walk-on at Boston College after an O'Brien staffer noticed him kicking at Alumni Stadium as a freshman.
Hauschka was a transfer from Division III Middlebury College in Vermont. If Czajkowski can't do the job, O'Brien is capable of finding someone who can.