The three perceived weaknesses of NC State's football team all took a significant step forward according to the statistics provided from Sunday's first scrimmage at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.
NC State's inexperienced secondary was credited with three interceptions, with true freshman backup free safety Rashard Smith returning one of them 77 yards for a touchdown. Backup redshirt freshman cornerback C.J. Wilson also snagged an interception in the end zone to prevent a score, and starting fifth-year senior cornerback Koyal George also added a pick, which he returned 33 yards for a touchdown.
Defensive backs coach Mike Reed said George had several interceptions in the spring, but the former wide receiver dropped most of them. Sunday's pick was encouraging. The Wolfpack passing game averaged 8.4 yards per completion, going 20 of 31 for 168 yards and a touchdown.
NC State coach Tom O'Brien said one major difference between action in scrimmages and in practice is that the players don't have a coach right there to instruct them on what to do. He gets to see how players react and how they perform on their own.
"A couple of the young kids made some plays today, which was very positive for us, especially Rashard Smith returning one for a touchdown," O'Brien said. "The guys are fighting for jobs. It wasn't a scrimmage where we tried to trick anybody. We tried to be basic and fundamental, and be sound and execute or base offense and base defense. It's just a matter of guys performing."
The second area of concern entering fall camp was the play of the offensive line, which struggled in the Red-White spring game. The Wolfpack rushing attack totaled 130 yards on 27 carries, for an averaged of 3.8 yards per carry. The line is trying to replace both starting guards from a year ago.
"They [the offensive line] are still a work in progress, like everybody else," O'Brien said. "They have a lot of work to do, and I don't think they were particularly sharp. They had a couple of false starts, which are unacceptable. You can't have that, pre-snap penalties. One of them was in the red-zone segment where we had a first down and had to start five yards deeper. We have some work to do there."
O'Brien didn't think any of the running backs stood out, but did single out fifth-year senior Toney Baker's efforts on the day.
"He ran the ball pretty decently, so that was encouraging," O'Brien said.
True freshman punter Chris Ward showed he might rectify the third area of concern after booting twice for an average of 48.5 yards per attempt. The Wolfpack didn't kickoff any in the scrimmage, but Ward is also battling kicker redshirt junior Josh Czajkowski for that spot.
Czajkowski's field-goal kicking proved to be a concern, going 2 of 5, which equaled the amount of misses he had all last year on 19 attempts.
"He's trying something different, which he thinks will be better for him," O'Brien said. "Like a golfer, he has to work through his swing and get it in gear. He's been kicking great in practice. We put him back in spots he has had trouble with, and he still had trouble."
O'Brien was also encouraged by what he saw of the new field that redone this offseason to get rid of the crown in the middle at Carter-Finley Stadium.
"I think the field stood up," O'Brien said. "It's like the injury report where you have to wait until tomorrow. I have to see how it comes out tomorrow once we come off the field tonight. I don't think there was any slips or slides. It was a firm field. We finally have a level playing surface, and that's encouraging.
"We practice on one [that's level] and everyone else plays on one, and it helps you execute, especially in the passing game. You are throwing the ball to the perimeter, and it's important that you don't have the arc to contend with."
O'Brien anticipates that the surface could be a fast one, but joked that the Wolfpack will need fast players for that to be true.
"I don't know if we were today [a fast team], but the boys were hot and were slugging it out," O'Brien said. "We have to get tougher, more physical and more mentally tough."
The Wolfpack had a morning practice, followed by the late afternoon scrimmage. Temperatures were soaring in Raleigh on Sunday.
"The positive today was that it was hot and we made it through," O'Brien said. "Guys hustled around, and there was some enthusiasm. We have a long ways to go. There are a lot of things that have to be better. We aren't anywhere close to being a football team that is ready to play a game. The only thing today was to try and get some guys some reps. Most guys got 30 players to get back in the swing of things."
First scrimmage statistics
Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon went a combined 20 of 31 for 168 yards, three interceptions and one touchdown.
Total: 27 attempts for 103 yards
Rashard Smith, INT, 77 yards returned for a touchdown
Koyal George, INT, 33-yard return
C.J. Wilson, INT in the end zone
Sterling Lucas, six tackles, one tackle for loss
J.R. Sweezy, six tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks
Sylvester Crawford, three tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack
Josh Czajkowski, 2 of 5 on field goals
Jeff Ruiz, two punts for 62 yards
Chris Ward, two punts for 97 yards
Full statistics were not given to the media.