NC State redshirt junior outside linebacker Terrell Manning never once doubted the abilities of the Wolfpack this season.
Manning might have gotten a little concern at halftime of the Maryland game, but the Wolfpack came through with 42 unanswered points to rally from a 27-point deficit and become bowl eligible with the win over the Terrapins. The emotional leader of the defense has been taking care of business with school exams this past month, but has welcomed the return to the football field.
NC State finished the year with five wins over the last seven games to go 7-5 and square off against Louisville Dec. 27 in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. Manning has played a crucial role during the second half of the season.
"There was a lot of people that didn't think we could do it," Manning said. "I credit a lot of these guys around here for the hard work they put in, for always believing and never giving up."
Manning earned second-team All-ACC recognition despite missing a pair of games this season. Manning finished fourth on the team with 76 tackles, but led the squad with 12.5 tackles for loss for negative-63 yards. He added 5 ½ sacks, two interceptions, two caused fumbles and three recovered fumbles.
The 6-3, 233-pound weakside linebacker had some of his best games down the stretch. He earned ACC linebacker of the week after having 11 tackles and a sack in the win over North Carolina Nov. 5, and he earned league player of the week honors after tallying seven tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one caused fumble and one recovered fumble in spurring on the comeback win over Maryland Nov. 26.
"The second half, my back was against the wall and I was trying to make an impression on everybody that came out to see NC State football, and my teammates as well," Manning said. "I think the last half of the season, I stepped up and did that. I think I got lucky a few times, but it's all good and I made the plays."
Manning expects to play against an athletic Louisville offense in the Belk Bowl.
"Their quarterback is an athlete who we will definitely have to stop," Manning said. "They have a couple of running backs that run the ball real hard. The offensive line moves pretty well. It will be a pretty good challenge for us, definitely."
Manning's season went through a serious speed bump when he injured his knee after playing 16 plays against South Alabama Sept. 17, and he underwent surgery Sept. 19. He missed the back-to-back losses at Cincinnati Sept. 22 and Georgia Tech Oct. 1, but made a surprise return against Central Michigan Oct. 1.
The Wolfpack have a 7-3 record with Manning in the lineup, and allowed a combined 89 points in the two games he missed.
"It's been fun because after surgery, I just came back with the mentality that it was do or die," Manning said. "The first half of the season, I know that I didn't play as well as I could have."
Manning and his fellow linebackers have also been aided by the health of the defensive line. Fifth-year senior defensive tackles J.R. Sweezy and Markus Kuhn, plus freshmen backups Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill, have done a good job of preventing offensive linemen from reaching the second level.
"They play a big role in the things that I do, especially when it comes to making tackles behind the line of scrimmage," Manning said. "Even when it comes to picking up the fumbles that I have [three], most of those came from D-Linemen hustling and making plays. I'm just cleaning up behind them. They do a great job of keeping guys off me and allowing me to make plays."
Manning has hopes and dreams to one day play in the NFL, and has the option of receiving feedback from an NFL advisory board. He has talked on a weekly basis with former NC State star linebacker Nate Irving, who is a rookie with the Denver Broncos.
"I pretty much talk to him every week, but he's a busy man," Manning said. "We have a lot of conversations. He doesn't give too much advice, but just says to do what I've always done, and just play ball. Even at practice, I just go hard."
Manning was a celebrated prep recruit coming out of Scotland County High in Laurinburg, N.C. Rivals.com ranked him the No. 138 overall player in the country in the class of 2008, No. 15 outside linebacker in the nation and No. 3 overall player in North Carolina. Manning was pleased to have his alma mater win the NCHSAA 4A state championship with a 42-16 victory over Porter Ridge High Dec. 3.
"I was very happy those boys pulled off a state championship, and I had two brothers play on that team, but to me, all those guys are family and always be," Manning said.
Manning hopes his family and "extended" Scotland County High family will be able to watch the Wolfpack play in Charlotte.
"It's like a home game and we'll have a lot of fans out there," Manning said. "It could be easy to be distracted. We just have to adjust real fast."