NC State head football coach Tom O'Brien talked with the media after practice Tuesday morning, the first time he's addressed the press since news of fifth-year senior defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy's foot fracture and subsequent surgery broke Sunday evening. Sweezy, a team co-captain, will miss six weeks.
"It's a really tough blow for J.R., as hard as he's trained and everything he's done, it's a setback for him," O'Brien acknowledged. "Injuries are a part of this game. One man's unfortunate is another man's opportunity, so we'll figure it out here in the next week and get ready for Liberty."
O'Brien declined to discuss who may be in line to replace Sweezy and play alongside fifth-year senior Markus Kuhn, but conventional wisdom is that junior Brian Slay, who played 12 games last year and had one start, will be leading candidate.
Slay had 24 tackles, including one for a loss, in 2010. He added five quarterback hurries and recovered a fumble. Behind Slay and Kuhn though are young players, including sophomore A.J. Ferguson, redshirt freshman Thomas Teal and true freshmen Carlos Gray and Ty McGill.
"I don't know if they have to grow up fast," O'Brien said. "It's all part of their natural progressions. Some of those young guys will get their opportunities and we'll see if they make it."
Sweezy joins sophomore running back Mustafa Greene, redshirt junior offensive lineman Andrew Wallace and redshirt freshman fullback Logan Winkles as players expected to return in October for NC State. Greene is recovering from foot surgery in the spring while Wallace and Winkles tore their ACLs in bowl practices last December.
Redshirt sophomore offensive guard Duran Christophe is questionable for the season opener after tearing his meniscus in his knee in preseason practices, and redshirt sophomore corner Jarvis Byrd will miss the season with a torn ACL.
O'Brien though said that the team has handled the injuries well.
"Injuries are a part of this game," O'Brien stated. "That's why you have to have depth, and you have to train guys if they're able to step in, and as I said it's somebody else's opportunity now and they have to make the most of it.
"I think they got used to it a couple of years ago. We had like a revolving doors of guys in and out. I don't think it affects the other guys. Everybody knows they got to step up and what their job is to do and if they have to play a little harder if they have to make up for the loss of J.R."
O'Brien did not have any other injuries to report Tuesday, but said that he will release an injury report Monday for the Liberty game.
NC State had its fourth and final preseason scrimmage last Sunday, and the focus of the work was to get a long look at the young players, particularly the true freshmen.
"We gave a lot of the young kids the opportunity," O'Brien said. "A lot of veterans didn't scrimmage. We didn't put them in those situations. They had enough play. For some of them, it was our last chance to look at the freshmen after 20 practices, give them a chance to see if they've learned anything, if they can help us this year or should be redshirted.
"The thing that comes back to most freshmen is sometimes it's not the best athlete or most talented guy that plays, it's the most dependable because that's still the most important ability, it's dependability. A freshman is going to play if we can count on them, if he knows where to go and what to do, doesn't matter what the talent level is. If we need him he's got to dependable and do the things we have to do so we can be successful on offense and defense."
O'Brien said that redshirt junior quarterback Mike Glennon's "been fine" this preseason.
"He's gotten better each and every practice," O'Brien said. "He understands his reads, he gets his back foot down, he delivers the football and somebody better be there because it's coming."
The other focal point of the offense has been developing the receiving corps. O'Brien said Tuesday that senior T.J. Graham and fifth-year senior Jay Smith continue to be the "lead guys" after starting the preseason on top of the organizational chart. O'Brien also admitted he is starting to feel better about the wide outs in general.
"I think for a while they were up and down as we went through this thing," O'Brien stated. "I think they've been much more consistent this last week, which is good for us. So hopefully what we need out of them is to see if they continue to work the way they have and to see if they continue to catch the ball the way that they have and we'll be fine."
O'Brien was asked specifically about a pair of freshmen: true freshmen Hakeem Flowers and redshirt freshman Bryan Underwood. O'Brien seemed to suggest that Flowers would ideally redshirt this fall.
"He's still learning and that showed up I think in the scrimmage that we had on Sunday," O'Brien said. "If you're thinking then you're not playing fast and if you're not playing fast then you're not able to play at this level."
Underwood needs to work on his consistency, O'Brien noted.
"He's probably more inconsistent than most of those young guys right now, which is a function of being young," O'Brien said. "He has great speed and if the ball gets to his hands a lot of things happen, but right now he's working hard to make sure he's in the spot that he's supposed to be so that he can get the ball when it comes to him."