Countdown to kickoff: Bold predictions for 2012

NC State's first practice of the football season will take place on Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. In preparation for the start of the year, The Wolfpacker has made some bold predictions for the Wolfpack's 2012 campaign.
James Washington receives the heaviest workload at running back
Let's start with what may be the boldest prediction of all - the Pack's senior running back receiving the heaviest backfield workload despite the presence of an emerging Tony Creecy and 2010 leading rusher Mustafa Greene. Greene may have the most natural talent out of the trio, but he had to redshirt last season due to injury and then missed most of this spring with off-the-field issues.
Washington seems to be overlooked for whatever reason, but there is no denying that last year, he had one of the finest seasons for a Pack runner in a long time. Consider this - only ten times in school history has a back eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground in a season, the last time being T.A. McLendon in 2002. The back to come the closest to that landmark in the last nine years? Washington, with 897 yards last year, in addition to his seven rushing scores. The speedster's ground total was the 12th highest total ever for a NC State rusher, and he also tallied 315 yards on receptions.
That's not to say Washington will rush for 1,000 yards this year - in fact, that might be highly unlikely with a crowded backfield, but Washington had a solid year last season, and deserves some respect for totaling 1,212 all-purpose yards in 2011. Creecy, who coaches have had high praise for this offseason, and Greene, who has all the makings of a stud back, will get their fair share, as well, but I would not be surprised in the least bit to see Washington open every game at running back and receive the most carries out of the trio because he's also a valuable asset in the receiving game and solid in pass protection, a necessity for a back hoping to see the playing field under coach Tom O'Brien.
Dontae Johnson sees significant time on defense
Defensive coordinator Mike Archer said it best in his exclusive Q&A with The Wolfpacker, "Dontae is one of our best players; we've got to get Dontae on the field more, other than in the nickel package."
Johnson moved to cornerback in the spring, and should get plenty of opportunity to play in his customary nickel back spot with a plethora of pass-oriented offenses populating the Pack's slate of opponents this fall. However, even if the defense isn't playing in sub packages, I could see Johnson on the field despite the presence of cornerback C.J. Wilson, a two-and-a-half year starter. He will at least push for the starting gig, and could wrestle it from Wilson's grip, while also contributing at his original position, safety, and maybe even linebacker.
Johnson, who has started three games over the past two years and appeared in 25 of the team's 26 contests, would give the Pack something that every team would envy if he lined up on the outside opposite of star David Amerson - a pair of athletic 6-foot-3 cornerbacks - while the speedy 5-11 Wilson could slide into the slot.
There's a lot of options for the Pack, in terms of its secondary, and chances are high that the staff will experiment with different combinations. No matter how it shakes out, expect Johnson to play a big role in the defense - he could come close to equaling the number of snaps he played in his first two years on campus (641) in the fall of 2012 alone.
Mike Glennon has a season to put himself in position to be a first-round draft pick
It's tough to say that Glennon will be able to challenge any of former star Philip Rivers' single-season passing records. Those marks include 4,491 passing yards, 348 completions, 72.1 completion percentage, nine 300-yard passing games and a passer rating of 170.49; Rivers' 34 touchdown passes seems to be the record most within reach after Glennon's debut campaign as the starter that featured 31 scoring throws.
However, the 6-6, 232-pounder doesn't need to break Rivers' records to put himself in position to be a high draft pick next April. Given his unproven pass catchers, Glennon will deserve to be one of the first quarterbacks off the board if he is able to put up similar numbers to last season (3,054 yards, 31 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) with T.J. Graham, George Bryan and Jay Smith out of eligibility. Rivers and Russell Wilson are the only other Pack quarterbacks to ever record 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns passing in the same season - Rivers was a first-round pick and Wilson, despite his lack of ideal NFL quarterback height - a problem Glennon won't face - was a third rounder.
The media who cover the NFL draft don't seem to be very high on Glennon at this point, but NFL scouts know about him, and that's what matters. Tennessee's Tyler Bray is being hyped up by many outlets as one of the best available quarterbacks in the draft next year (should he declare early), but Glennon has a heavier frame, better numbers, less interceptions and probably a stronger arm. ESPN's Chris Mortensen and others that were in attendance have been very complimentary of Glennon while covering the Manning Passsing Academy, where both Glennon and Bray participated. He also received rave reviews from Rivals' Mike Farrell for his work at the Elite 11 camp, where he served as a counselor.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. lists Glennon as the No. 4 senior quarterback in the land heading into the 2012 campaign, but the pocket passer should improve his stock even further this fall and prove why O'Brien and offensive coordinator Dana Bible liken their pupil to former Boston College standout Matt Ryan.
Of course, the NFL draft is more than just how a player performs on the field with off-the-field testing playing a large role, among a few other factors. After the 2012 campaign, Glennon will be a fringe first-rounder heading into the combine circuit, and the rest is up to how he performs in the combine and interviews with pro teams; there should be no off-the-field questions about the tall pocket passer.
Wolfpack leads the country in interceptions once again
NC State paced the FBS with a school-record 27 interceptions last fall, and that mark was the second-best in ACC history. 23 of those picks return to the lineup this fall (22 from the defensive backs) and the secondary should be among the best in the country with a trio of senior starters and junior All-American David Amerson back in the fold. Safety/nickel back Dontae Johnson is also back, and the coaches are intent on expanding his role in the defense after he emerged as a playmaker last season.
Amerson and safety Brandan Bishop, owner of nine career interceptions, are both ball hawks who ranked in the nation's top 10 for picks last year. Safety Earl Wolff and C.J. Wilson are likely to receive even more opportunities to get their hands on some passes this year, with teams trying to avoid Amerson and those two have four and three career interceptions, respectively.
The experienced fivesome has recorded another 30 pass breakups during their careers, as well, with Wilson leading the way at nine.
The group is pretty effective at forcing and recovering fumbles, as well. Wolff is the leader in that category with seven forced fumbles and a recovered fumble during his career. Meanwhile, Bishop recovered three loose balls last year alone, and has forced two more fumbles in his career, while Amerson has jarred one ball loose in his career. This group will lead the way to NC State ranking among the teams with the most caused turnovers once again this fall.
David Amerson becomes one of the nation's most dangerous punt returners
NC State fans saw how dangerous the star cornerback can be with the ball in his hands when he returned two of his ACC record 13 interceptions for touchdowns. Amerson totaled an FBS-best 205 yards on his interception returns last year, and the coaching staff has talked this offseason about how he'll be a factor in the competition for the punt returning job.
In his exclusive Q&A with The Wolfpacker earlier this summer, special teams coordinator Jerry Petercuskie said in relation to the possibility of Amerson, one of the team's top players, returning kicks: "you are going to put the guy who can make the plays for you back there. I remember in our days back at Virginia, we had Tiki Barber. He returned punts, he returned kickoffs and he was our starting tailback."
Although Amerson has great size at 6-3, 194 pounds, he'll be able to showcase his phenomenal athleticism and speed as a returner. He might not be the guy put back deep at every opportunity, but expect the coaches to give him a chance to make his impact felt on more than just defense.
The Pack cracks the top 25 by midseason, probably sooner
Provided NC State gets past Tennessee in week one, the Pack should start out of the gate on fire. A winnable game - although one that still can't be overlooked - at Connecticut is next, followed by home tune-ups against South Alabama and the Citadel.
One would think a 2-0 start would place the Pack in the nation's polls, but if wins over Tennessee and UConn aren't enough to put the Pack among the top 25, a victory at Miami at the end of September should do the trick, with a record of 5-0.
The last time NC State cracked the polls this early was 2010, when State, at 4-0, checked in at No. 23 before the Virginia Tech contest, which was on Oct. 2. They dropped that game to the Hokies, 41-30, and fell out of the rankings. Staying in the top 25 won't be easy in 2012, either, with Florida State traveling to Raleigh following the tilt with the Hurricanes, although the Seminoles will be one of the nation's top-ranked squads, provided they take care of business. On paper, they are among the most talented teams in the land.
Just as an interesting note, the last time the Pack cracked the rankings by their sixth game, besides 2010, was 2003, when the AP ranked Chuck Amato's squad No. 16 to start the campaign. That year, the team fell out of the top 25 following losses to Wake Forest and Ohio State.
NC State wins nine regular season games
In terms of crossover division scheduling, the Wolfpack's slate is a favorable one in 2012. NC State misses Coastal Division favorite Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech, whose strong rushing attack would likely give the Yellow Jackets an advantage over the Red and White's unproven linebacking corps.
The other good news is that the squad gets its toughest opponent - on paper, at least - at home when Florida State travels to Carter-Finley Stadium on Oct. 6. The schedule would have shaped up perfectly for State if the bye week had come before the tilt with the Seminoles - the Pack is 6-2 (including bowls) with extra time to prepare under O'Brien - but it is about as favorable as a schedule can be when a squad must face Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina every year.
The Pack should take advantage of its wealth of experience this season. The squad boasts 13 seniors with prior starting experience who are expected to start, including eight on offense. Those fourth-years have combined for 242 career starts (average of 18.6 starts per senior) and blows the number of seniors starters out of the water for any of the previous five years under O'Brien. In addition, four other players return to the lineup with at least eight starts under their belt, including Amerson (22) and offensive lineman Duran Christophe (13). Defensive ends Darryl Cato-Bishop and Art Norman have each opened nine and eight contests in their careers, respectively.
Nine wins might not be enough to give NC State a berth in the ACC Championship game, but it should land the Pack in a nice bowl game. Based on O'Brien's postseason success in the past, the Red and White could enjoy just the second double-digit win campaign in program history with a bowl victory.
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