NC State coach Tom O'Brien was full of pride in unveiling his fifth full recruiting class in Raleigh.
NC State signed 22 players Wednesday - including 17 Rivals.com three-star prospects and five two stars - to help the Wolfpack rank No. 9 in the ACC, and No. 11 in the league in average stars per player (2.77).
The Wolfpack didn't crack Rivals.com's national top 50, but the team rankings will get altered prior to the college football season to take into account players that don't make it to campus. NC State landed 17 three-star prospects and five two stars.
"Certainly we are excited about today," O'Brien said. "This is a really talented group of young men that have decided to come to NC State. It's a long, athletic and talented group of kids, and I think the thing that stands out at you is the size of them and the length they have, and the fact that they can run."
Seven of the players picked NC State after originally committing to other colleges, while the Wolfpack lost four players to other colleges during the recruiting cycle. NC State signed players from seven different states, highlighted by eight players with ties to North Carolina high schools and six from Georgia.
NC State landed four players in the Rivals.com top 30 in the state, with No. 22-ranked K'Hadree Hooker, a defensive tackle from Deep Run South Lenoir High, leading the way. O'Brien hopes to continue to make in-roads throughout the state and build off winning 17 games the last two years.
"I don't think we'll be satisfied until we sign everybody in state," O'Brien said. "That's the goal. We are proving more and more each and every year.
"Everybody wants to come to a place where you can win football games and have the opportunity to play in bowls and big games. The best thing is to choose one of the state schools. Stay in-state and there is no reason to go anywhere out of state."
The Peach State has been kind to NC State over the years.
"Georgia has always been a great place for football players," O'Brien said. "It's a good academic situation too. The kids know how to play the game and are well coached. I think our coaches again did a great job in the state of Georgia."
The well-balanced class has a little bit of everything on offense and defense. NCSU addressed its special teams needs in 2011. NC State also has four sets of prep teammates:
• Cornerback Niles Clark and wide receiver Charlie Hegedus played at Marietta (Ga.) Lassiter, which produced current NC State junior center Camden Wentz.
• Defensive end Kenderius Whitehead and safety Jarnor Jones were teammates at Martin Luther King High in Lithonia, Ga.
• Offensive linemen John Tu'uta and Quincy McKinney both spent a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. McKinney was on the post-graduate team, while Tu'uta was on the regular prep squad.
"I think for them sometimes that is important," said O'Brien about the four sets of prep teammates. "Then when they travel, they know somebody and have roommates. They have the opportunity of playing with a teammate. I think those things help in the decision making process for some kids."
NC State was able to amp up its competition at quarterback after Mike Glennon graduates this season. Signee Manny Stocker of Coatesville (Pa.) High and Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas both come in highly regarded. Thomas, who started 21 games at Colorado State, isn't included in the Rivals.com team rankings as a transfer.
The quarterback duo will push returning quarterbacks Tyler Brosius, a redshirt freshman, and true freshman Brian Taylor, who have yet to play for NC State. Stocker emerged at NC State's June camp and has already enrolled for the spring semester and will take part in practice starting March 23.
"The thing we go on a lot at camp is arm strength," O'Brien said. "The ability to throw the ball and make throws that have to be made if you are going to succeed at this level. With him being an athlete helped a lot. He might be a better athlete than we thought he was."
NC State signed four offensive linemen to help protect its future quarterback, to go along with two wide receivers, one tight end and one running back.
The offensive line quartet of Tu'uta, McKinney, Bryce Kennedy of Pinecrest High in Southern Pines, N.C., and Eddie Gordon of Boiling Springs, S.C., will likely end up redshirting if past history with offensive linemen is any indication. McKinney and Kennedy have already enrolled at NC State for the spring semester.
The addition of running back Shadrach Thornton of Hinesville, Ga., was particularly important after not signing one last year. Ole Miss made a late run to sign Thornton, but he declined the Rebels' advances.
"Probably the most important thing is to get Mustafa [Greene] healthy for this football team, but to add another running back to the mix, and we certainly fell in love with Shadrach," O'Brien said. "He's a great kid. He's going to be a great leader for this football team, and he's a really good football player."
Wide receivers Hegedus and Griffin could both challenge for playing time next fall. The Wolfpack lost senior wide receivers T.J. Graham, Jay Smith and Steven Howard.
"When Charlie came up to camp and ran for us, it was pretty evident he had the speed to get where he has to go," O'Brien said. "Working through camp, running routes and doing those kind of things, he really is a good receiver. The same thing happened with Xavier."
Grinnage will get groomed at tight end for the day when rising redshirt senior Mario Carter and rising redshirt junior Asa Watson move on.
"Grinnage is another guy who is growing into his body," O'Brien said. "He's going to be a big man and has great hands. The question was whether he was tough enough to play tight end for us, but him playing defense [outside linebacker] and those kind of things kind of answered that question for you. He won't be afraid to block."
Two junior college transfers have a chance to immediately plug some gaps on the defensive side.
Linebacker Robert Caldwell brings good size at 6-3 and 245 pounds from the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., and will immediately get thrown into the mix due to the graduation of middle linebacker Audie Cole and outside linebacker Dwayne Maddox, along with redshirt junior outside linebacker Terrell Manning entering the NFL Draft. Caldwell had 41 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last year.
"The Manning situation changed our thinking in a lot of respects," O'Brien said. "To get a mature body in here, a guy that has played at the college level, at the J.C. level, it was important to get somebody with that maturity level in here to be able to hopefully play right away."
Defensive tackle Deylan Buntyn was on NC State's radar coming out of Havelock, N.C., but he spent two years at New Mexico Military Institute, which is where former NCSU defensive tackle Natanu Mageo attended. The massive 6-4, 335-pound Buntyn had 16 tackles, three tackles for loss, one blocked kick and one fumble recovery for his 9-3 squad. Rivals.com ranked him the No. 22 junior college recruit in the country. Buntyn was able to enroll at NC State for the spring semester, but Caldwell wasn't able to.
"Buntyn is a lot bigger man than he was in high school," O'Brien said. "He looks a lot like [defensive tackle] Ron Brace did at Boston College - a big chesty, deep guy. Another guy that looks like he is pretty light on his feet. Balance is a big thing when we look at lineman."
Caldwell and Buntyn were two of 13 defensive players signed by the Wolfpack. Defensive ends Whitehead, Desmond Owino, Tyler Knox and Joe Wright, along with defensive tackle K'Hadree Hooker, represent NC State's future on the line.
Whitehead and Knox were recruited by numerous ACC and SEC colleges, but proved to be coups for the Wolfpack coaching staff. The 6-5, 210-pound Whitehead picked NC State over Georgia and Clemson in the end, while the 6-4, 225-pound Knox of Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High comes in highly regarded for his athletic ability.
O'Brien joked about how a SEC coaching friend called Tuesday night and was amazed that NC State and defensive backs coach Mike Reed were able to get Whitehead out of Georgia.
"I think Mike did a fabulous job," O'Brien said. "When the kid came, something clicked with the kid with this school and this staff from the start. He made the Georgia visit, and when I went down to visit the school, he showed up in Wolfpack colors and was howling like a wolf. We knew we had a chance at that point.
"Same with Tyler Knox and Owino, they are all pass-rushers. We've just increased our ability to have a dominant guy come off the edge and beat a guy one-on-one without having to blitz every time."
Owino, Wright and Hooker are all from North Carolina high schools. Owino is originally from Nairobi, Kenya, but has attended Sanderson High in Raleigh the last two years. Wright and Hooker are from the eastern part of the state, with the former a standout at Greenville Rose High.
"We are looking for some guys that have size and length," O'Brien said. "When you look at the kids that are pass-rushers now on the outside that we signed, that is a whole different breed than we brought in before.
"We finally are getting to look like our guys did at Boston College. Guys that are still playing in the Super Bowl this weekend."
Kennedy and Owino were two original North Carolina commits, who later switched to NC State. O'Brien is excited to mold Owino's future.
"[Owino] is one of those guys no telling how talented he could be," O'Brien said. "He hasn't even scratched the surface of what his talents are. We are really excited about him and he's a guy that will learn the game the right way from the moment he gets here."
Caldwell joins prep linebackers Drew Davis and M.J. Salahuddin, who are both in-state products. Davis, who originally committed to Minnesota, played with freshman defensive back Juston Burris at Raleigh Broughton High. Davis projects toward the inside at 6-3 and 240 pounds, and Salahuddin played safety and outside linebacker during his career at Fayetteville (N.C.) Jack Britt High.
O'Brien said Davis will have the advantage of coming to practices in the spring because of his proximity to campus.
"If you look at the linebacker situation, [Davis] has a chance," O'Brien said. "We don't promise anybody that they are going to play, but we promise we'll give them the opportunity to play. He knows that we gave him some things that we think he needs to work on."
Cornerbacks Clark and Marchez Coates and safeties Jones and Josh Sessoms, will help fortify the Wolfpack's secondary for the future. NCSU has three senior returning starters next year and record-setting junior cornerback David Amerson could be a candidate for next year's NFL Draft.
Jones, who also hopes to be a walk-on for the NCSU basketball team, is tall and rangy at 6-4 and 190 pounds, while Sessoms is 6-3 and 186. Sessoms, who attended Bailey (N.C.) Southern Nash, is cousins with NC State freshman wide receiver Maurice Morgan.
Sessoms and Clark were the first two commitments in the class for the Wolfpack. Sessoms grew up a die-hard NC State fan, while Clark has been a regular at the June camps the last two years.
Now that the recruiting class is in the books, the Wolfpack could be flattered by the recent interest of other power conference schools in Thornton, Jones, Whitehead and Hegedus, but also frustrated by a few late defections.
NC State had a few tense moments Wednesday until the letter of intents all arrived.
"As in years past, guys don't understand the word commitment, they are just making a reservation," O'Brien said. "Sometimes it can get a little dicey [waiting for LOIs]. The more you deal with people of character and people of their word, then it's not a problem."