When the first organizational chart of the spring was released, something was off about the offensive line. The offense's only three-year starter on the roster, redshirt senior tackle R.J. Mattes, was not anywhere to be found in the positional listings because he was still recovering from a foot injury suffered in last year's win over North Carolina. Although Mattes toughed it out and played the last four games of 2011, including a start in the Belk Bowl, he was limited to open this spring.
However, when NC State updated its organizational chart in preparations for this weekend's spring game, the offensive line returned to normal and Mattes was listed as the first-string left tackle, the position where he started 12 times last year and appeared in every contest.
"It feels good, I'm just glad to be back out," he said. "They told me I was going to be out for the spring, but rehab picked up quicker than expected and I was out there by practice No. 5. It was just a minor injury - we're not supposed to really talk about all that stuff - but it wasn't too bad. It was a quick rehab and now I'm back out there."
This isn't the first time that the 6-foot-6, 313-pounder has had to recover from an injury suffered during the season - he also tore his ACL after starting the first eight games at right guard during the 2009 campaign. However, Mattes said it's impossible to even compare the two setbacks.
"It wasn't as major as an ACL injury, that's for sure," he noted. "Thank God I didn't have to go through that again. It was just like a short oil change, I guess you could say."
Mattes, who is tied for the second-most experienced player on the team in terms of starts, has settled in as the blindside protector for quarterback Mike Glennon after playing at right guard in his debut season. That year, he became the youngest player to start on NC State's offensive since 2003 and he kicked out to right tackle the following year. This spring, the coaching staff continues to bounce the front line protectors around to different positions so that they are prepared for any situation.
"They've got us shuffling around all over the place," Mattes noted. "It helps because if someone goes down, we can all play different positions. If one guy goes down, we can slide around and put different guys at guard and tackle because we all know both positions. That way, we can always put the best five out on the field."
In 32 appearances, including 30 starts and 2,044 plays from scrimmage, Mattes has allowed just nine sacks. However, he and his teammates have not been able to push a running back over the 1,000-yard mark on the ground yet. James Washington totaled 1,212 all-purpose yards last year, but 315 of it came off of receptions; and NC State has not produced a 1,000-yard rusher since T.A. McLendon totaled 1,101 yards on the ground in 2002.
"As an offensive line, we want a 1,000-yard rusher, that's always been our goal," he said. "We didn't achieve that goal last year, so hopefully we achieve it this year. As an offensive line, we try to give up minimal sacks, hopefully none, but there's always a few. We hope to protect Mike. Coach [Jim] Bridge always compares him to Tom Brady, who he calls Tom Terrific, so we call him Mike Terrific. We can't have anyone get near him, otherwise we'll be hearing it from Coach Bridge."
One advantage that Mattes, Washington and the rest of the gang will have in their quest to 1,000 is the seniority that populates the front line. Four of the top five most experienced offensive players, in terms of college games started, reside on the line, which is expected to boast four senior starters. The group has combined for 112 college starts.
"Obviously, we all have grown up together on the line with myself, Camden [Wentz], Andrew [Wallace], Rob [Crisp] and Zach [Allen]. We've all been together for a while. We're executing the offense more and we know what we're doing, so we're not studying now. We're just working on becoming more physical. Coach [Corey] Edmond, our strength coach, is getting us a lot more physical, you can see the results from the weight room out there on the field. We really appreciate all the hard work he's put in for us and it's been showing."
The amount of the time that the group has spent on the field playing together makes for easier communication, according to Mattes.
"We don't even have to makes calls now," he said. "We can just look at each other and know what we want to call. Sometimes, the defense can pick up on calls and they'll know what's coming, especially on double teams calls, but now we just get to the line and we know what we have to do. Since we don't have to make calls, defenses can't pick up on it."