Sometime after 6:30 on Friday evening, the grind begins for NC State football. The first practice of fall camp will start, just a day over four weeks until the opening kickoff against Louisiana Tech in Carter-Finley Stadium Aug. 31.
Every team begins camp with a blank canvas and an undefeated record. Thus perspectives tend to be optimistic and upbeat. Discussions on message boards and around the water cooler are about what the possibilities may hold for the upcoming football season.
On a deeper context, there are other storylines that fans will be following, and for Wolfpack nation here are a few that will likely define NC State's fall camp.
Who will be the starting quarterback?
The Wolfpacker staff went on the record with its picks Thursday. The possibilities have been discussed endlessly since Arkansas reserve signal caller Brandon Mitchell transferred to NC State over the summer.
Based on a very unscientific and informal poll conducted on The Wolfpacker's message board The Wolves' Den, Mitchell is the favorite over former Colorado State two-year starter Pete Thomas, who left spring practices as the frontrunner for the position.
As of 10:30 a.m., when asked who will be the starting quarterback, 43.20 percent of respondents picked Mitchell. Another 26.63 percent were going with some form of a two-quarterback system, presumably to include Thomas and Mitchell. Thomas received 25.44 percent of the votes.
The answer to that question will not likely come until the end of fall camp at the earliest, no matter how many times first-year head coach Dave Doeren is asked about it.
What about the other position battles?
They are littered all over the depth chart, so the two-deep that was released in the preseason media guide could look vastly different from the one that will be unveiled at the end of fall camp.
Among the notable position battles:
- Running back between the talented but fumble-prone sophomore Shadrach Thornton and the more reliable but less flashy redshirt junior Tony Creecy.
- Right guard between Alex Barr, a slimmed down redshirt sophomore, and Cameron Fordham, a redshirt junior and former LSU transfer.
- The defensive end spots, where four guys are in line for the two starting jobs. At the field end it's a battle between a pair of pass rushers in redshirt junior Art Norman and Forrest West, a fifth-year senior and former Colorado transfer. At the boundary end, improving redshirt sophomore Mike Rose and two-year starter Darryl Cato-Bishop, a fifth-year senior, are battling.
- Reserve spots at linebacker and defensive back, where there are openings after the starters who seemed decently entrenched entering fall camp. That's particularly true in the secondary, where senior Dontae Johnson and redshirt sophomore Juston Burris are lining up at corner and fifth-year senior Jarvis Byrd and redshirt sophomore Hakim Jones at safety. Their potential backups though are a collection of inexperienced and unproven young players.
- Kickoff returner could be another wide-open battle. Fifth-year senior receiver Rashard Smith did a good job returning punts last season, averaging 9.3 yards a return and taking one back for a score. He may be the leading candidate to return kickoffs as well, but there are other options, including sophomore Travares Copeland, a transfer from West Virginia who is eligible this season.
How much can they get in?
The headlines from the first day of practice at UNC, which was Thursday, was how much faster and comfortable they look compared to a year ago in their first fall camp under head coach Larry Fedora. Perhaps that's a sign that you cannot expect a team to get up to speed too quickly when installing a new system.
That's the case for NC State's offense. The Pack will try to implement a unique new look on offense that Doeren said borrows from Texas Christian, Wisconsin, Oregon and Nevada. In other words, a fast-paced, no-huddle attack that will mix some option, some power and some spread concepts to make the defense uncomfortable.
That seems like a lot to get in during one spring and fall camp as well, especially when it's not certain who will be the starting quarterback.
Defensively though, the Pack is maintaining its 4-3 base scheme, and with an experienced front four and talented tackle duo to help control the line of scrimmage, the adjustment may not be as steep on that side of the ball.
What newcomers will emerge?
There will be several that will probably see the field in the fall. Newcomers Mitchell and Copeland are eligible right away and should play quickly. JUCO transfer Quinton Schooley was brought in over the summer and could help provide depth on the offensive line. True freshman Cole Blankenship also made a good first impression on the o-line after enrolling early.
The most likely positions to see a true freshman (or two) are running back, where State added three players included a highly touted duo in Matt Dayes and Josh Mercer; receiver, where five recruits signed plus Copeland; and linebacker and safety on defense. Both positions will have three freshmen competing to land a spot on the depth chart and special teams.