NC State enters the upcoming off-season with more excitement surrounding its football program in years following a 9-4 campaign that includes a 3-1 mark against teams currently ranked in the BCS top 25. The Wolfpack soundly defeated No. 22 West Virginia 23-7 in the Champs Sports Bowl Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla.
The Pack will return at least 15 starters from the bowl game, perhaps 16 depending on what rising fifth-year senior quarterback Russell Wilson decides to do. State will have to replace both kickers from the bowl game however.
Here are five questions that will dominate NC State football between now and spring practices.
What will Russell Wilson do?
That is the million-dollar question around NC State's campus, and the answer usually depends on who you ask and when you do. Wilson has a year left in football eligibility, but he may decide to forgo that season and focus on his professional baseball career. He was drafted in the fourth round of the MLB Draft last year by the Colorado Rockies.
If Wilson goes, then NC State will begin the transition to rising redshirt junior quarterback Mike Glennon, one of the most highly touted quarterback recruits to have ever signed with NC State. Glennon completed 9 of 13 passes for 78 yards in spot duty in three games this year. Freshman Tyler Brosius, who redshirted this year, would likely back up Glennon.
If Wilson stays, then there are other questions that then must be answered. Will Glennon continue to serve as Wilson's backup or would he transfer to another school with eyes on becoming a two-year starter? Would Wilson be willing to go through spring practices or would he focus exclusively on baseball until returning to preseason camp, presumably in late-July or early-August?
Who is catching the passes?
NC State has a proven commodity at quarterback in Wilson, and a strong-armed, highly-regarded option in Glennon if Wilson does not return. The offensive line will return four starters, and two-time first-team All-ACC tight end George Bryan would be a fifth-year senior next fall if he does not turn pro. All of the running backs on the roster will be back as well.
The one big question mark on offense will be at receiver. Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams, the starting duo for the last three years, are gone. Spencer led the Pack with 60 catches for a team-best 912 yards and four touchdowns this year while Williams added 52 receptions for 713 yards and a team-high five scores. The third leading pass-catcher among receivers was departing senior Darrell Davis, who caught 26 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns.
Finding new receivers will be a top priority for the offense in the spring. Rising senior T.J. Graham caught 25 passes for 316 yards and four scores in 2010, but he has also struggled with drops some during his career. Rising fifth-year seniors Steven Howard (12 catches for 114 yards and a score in 2010) and Jay Smith (10 receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown in 2010) also return. Rising redshirt sophomore Quintin Payton showed some promise in his rookie campaign and caught four passes for 38 yards.
NC State will also add junior Tobais Palmer and freshman Bryan Underwood to the fold in the spring. They are a pair of smaller but speedy slot-receiver types that redshirted this past season.
Who is rushing the passer at defensive end?
Defensive end is clearly the biggest question mark on defense next year. The cupboard is not completely bare as rising fifth-year senior Jeff Rieskamp comes back after making 23 tackles, including 4.5 for losses and two sacks, and five quarterback hurries, second best on the team.
NC State used a four-player rotation at defensive end this past year, three of whom - Michael Lemon, David Akinniyi and Audi Augustin - were seniors. That threesome combined for nine sacks and 16.5 overall tackles for losses.
The wildcards could be rising redshirt sophomore Darryl Cato-Bishop and sophomore A.J. Ferguson. Both are versatile defensive linemen who could play inside or out. Cato-Bishop had 13 tackles, including two for losses, and a quarterback hurry in limited snaps last year. Ferguson added three tackles in very limited action.
Who replaces Nate Irving?
The back seven returns six of its seven starters, but the one player not coming back is Nate Irving, unquestionably the heart and soul of the Wolfpack's 2010 defense. Irving was second on the team with 92 tackles, and he led the Pack with 21.5 tackles for losses, seven sacks, nine quarterback hurries and he tied for team-best with six pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
On the depth chart, rising senior Sterling Lucas was Irving's backup. Lucas had 15 tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup this year. NC State could also move one of their two talented outside linebackers - rising fifth-year senior Audie Cole and rising redshirt junior Terrell Manning - to the middle.
NC State also will get their first real look this spring at rising redshirt sophomore E.J. Carter, a Syracuse transfer who made the All-Big East Freshman Team in 2009, but he played mainly outside linebacker for the Orange.
Leffler, a rising fifth-year senior, actually has extensive experience punting. He replaced the inconsistent Ruiz at times this season, and Leffler averaged 38.7 yards per punt in 31 tries and landing 15 inside the 20-yard line. That was better than Ruiz's 36.9-yard average in the same amount of punts.
Hawthorne, a rising sophomore, filled in for an injured Czajkowski against Wake Forest and made his lone field goal attempt, a 25-yarder, and all five extra point tries. He also kicked off 20 times last season for an average of 62.7 yards per attempt, including one touchback.
Both will need to be impressive this spring because NC State is set to sign two highly touted kickers. Punter Wil Baumann from Wilmington (N.C.) Hoggard High and kicker Niklas Sade from Raleigh (N.C.) Wakefield High are ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 4 punter and No. 3 kicker respectively in the 2011 class.