Wide receivers ready to step up

NC State is loaded with experienced in coach Tom O'Brien's sixth edition of the Wolfpack. 14 players have started at least 12 contests during their career, while the offense boasts an impressive seven senior starters who have previously been in the opening lineup.
However, the wide receiver position has a dearth of experience, with three of last year's top four pass catchers, in terms of receiving yardage, out of eligibility following the 2011 campaign. Fifth-year senior Tobais Palmer totaled 37 receptions for 496 yards and five scores last season, and is the veteran of the pass catching corps, although last year was his first competing on the FBS level.
Redshirt sophomore Bryan Underwood hauled in 16 passes for 226 yards and two scores last fall, but is out indefinitely with an injury, creating a sizable void on the receiving end of quarterback Mike Glennon's passes, but former defensive back Rashard Smith played both cornerback and receiver last season, and the redshirt junior spent all spring on the offensive side of the ball.
"We've come out here and worked hard every day, trying to get better so we will be ready for Aug. 31," Smith said of the group. "We've come a long way. Going into fall camp, the coaches kept telling us that we needed to be the group that steps up. I feel like we came out here and worked hard every day. We came out and made mistakes, but that's why we watch film. We corrected them, came back out the next day and did better."
Smith has just one catch in game action for six yards, but the versatile athlete has 19 games and seven starts, which all came on defense, under his belt. After years of trying to deny wide receivers on a daily basis, he has made the transition to torching his former running mates at defensive back in practice and trying to score touchdowns.
As one of the older players in the group, Smith tries to help Palmer and classmate Quintin Payton provide leadership for the wide receivers, even if the majority of his experience is on the other side of the ball. Payton opens the season as the starter opposite of Palmer, and has 11 career catches in 23 appearances.
"I feel like a leader," Smith said. "We have one lone senior in the group, Tobais Palmer, and he's the leader of the crew. Then, we've got Quintin Payton, who has played the next most snaps, and Bryan Underwood, but then I'm the next one who has played in actual games.
"All four of us come together as one big leader to help the young guys, to help get guys ready to play this year. We come together and talk to them, tell them what they need to do and what not to do; we also correct each other."
Smith also credited new receivers coach Troy Walters for helping the pass catchers make strides in the preseason. Walters is a former All-American wide receiver from Stanford who won the 1999 Biletnikoff Trophy, given annually to the nation's top pass catcher, and went on to play in the NFL for eight years.
"Coach Walters oversees all of us," Smith noted. "He makes sure we do things right and we lead the group the way we are supposed to. Working with Coach Walters is a big help. Most of our wide receivers are guys like him - small and quick receivers. He's brought a lot of experience to the receiving corps - he played college football and he played in the NFL. He knows the things we need to do to get better, to become better men and to get better as receivers so we can get to the next level.
"He's very hands-on. He's out there demonstrating stuff. We watch film and study it, but after we watch film, he comes out here and makes sure we see it and actually do it."
Outside of Payton, who checks in at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, the experienced receivers are sub-six foot speedsters. However, some of the younger receivers give the group a physical presence, and Smith is confident in the mix.
"The freshmen are doing real good," he said. "[Redshirt freshmen] Hakeem Flowers is practicing good, Maurice Morgan has stepped up. Charlie Hegedus, our true freshman, has stepped up, and we've had a couple of other guys step up, guys like [walk-on] Marcellus Ballard. As a whole crew, we've come together - when [Bryan] went down, we all picked it up and became a stronger crew. We had to pick up where he left off, that gave us more [motivation].
"We've got to be confident in ourselves. If we aren't confident, we aren't going to play as well. As a group, we feel pretty good because we know that [offensive coordinator] Coach Bible is going to call the plays that need to be called, Coach Walters is going to teach us what we need, [quarterback] Mike Glennon is going to throw it where it needs to be and our offensive line is going to protect. Our offense as a whole is just ready to play."
Flowers noted that his redshirt season spent on the scout team, going up against the Pack's vaunted secondary, has prepared him to contribute this season.
"Redshirt my freshman year really helped me a lot," he said. "It let me get a feel for wide receiver because, in high school, I mostly played running back. I've got a lot better feel for it now and it was really worth it. I wouldn't change it for the world.
"[Practicing against State's secondary] gets you better, it really does. They help you because they tell you what you're doing wrong with your routes and how they can read it and everything. They've helped me out a whole lot."
Smith admitted the team has some high goals for 2012, but he was adamant that the team can't get ahead of itself. Game one is Aug. 31 against Tennessee, and that's what he is focused on.
"We've got to take it one game at a time," he said. "We've got to come out here and continue to work everyday. We've got to be focused and we know the big picture, but we've also got to work on small things. You perfect things when you stack the small things on top of each other."