RALEIGH – North Carolina State is no stranger to high expectations. The Wolfpack football team has a history of setting the bar high, only to fall short of those expectations the next season.
The 2002 NCSU squad, led by junior quarterback Phillip Rivers, and its big chested, flamboyant, red shoes wearing coach, Chuck Amato, finished 11-3, the most wins in school history. They beat Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl, had a parade when they got back to Raleigh, and talked National Championship the next year.
With Rivers returning, the 2003 Pack finished 8-5. Respectable, but nowhere near what they had in mind. The 2009 team, led by eventual Super Bowl Champion, Russell Wilson, finished 9-4, and once again headed into the next season with high hopes. The next year Wilson was gone, and the Pack finished 8-5. Not bad, but they expected more.
The 2015 NCSU team finds itself at the very same crossroads. The Pack are fresh off an 8-5 season. They got stronger as the year went on, winning four out of the last five games, including a blowout over rival North Carolina, and a 34-27 victory over Central Florida in the Bitcon St. Petersburg Bowl.
Head coach Dave Doeren’s third team has something his first two didn’t – a returning starting quarterback, along with 13 other starters. The way things ended last season, along with the familiarity of the staff and players, make all signs point to big things in the fall. But first, the Pack has to focus on taking care of business in the spring. So far, so good.
“It’s been great for us,” quarterback Jacoby Brissett said after practice Thursday morning. “Coming out these last two days, it’s just been unbelievable competition back and forth. Both sides of the ball are just coming after each other. Even in the conditions (a cold rain all morning) we made strides.”
Brissett is one of the main reasons for optimism from the NCSU faithful. The University of Florida transfer enters his third year with the program, and proved in 2014 he was the perfect player to lead Doeren’s offense. The Pack played a quarterback by committee system in year one under Doeren while Brissett sat out.
When he got his shot, all Brissett did was pass for 2,606 yards and 23 touchdowns, while rushing for 763 yards and another three scores. At a school that has produced some pretty good signal callers, Brissett is the only one in NCSU history to throw for 20 or more TDs and have five or less interceptions in a season.
And it’s not just Brissett. Four of the five top rushers in 2014 return. Three starters on the line are back, and there are several more who saw significant snaps. Oh, the Pack also returns eight starters on defense.
As oppose to his first two springs in Raleigh, Brissett said this one has a different vibe.
“It’s just been great,” Brissett said, flashing a big smile. “The mentality from everybody has changed. Even from last year, players have brought in more. It’s been an unbelievable improvement from the first time I got here.”
A lot of that has to do with Doeren getting in players he recruited, instead of coaching guys he inherited. Brissett said when a new staff comes in a lot of guys feel uncomfortable, unsure of what their role is under a new regime. Last year everyone knew what to expect under Doeren, and even though the Pack were up and down initially (started 4-0, then dropped four straight), they gelled when it counted the most.
That experience, along with a strong finish, carried over to winter workouts and now spring ball.
“Our main goal right now is to not be complacent,” Brissett said. “It would be easy for us to just go through the motions. I feel like with the players we have and the goals that we have, everybody understands that we still have more to improve on and more to come.”
Brissett is the leader of this team. It’s the leaders job to avoid his troops from getting complacent. But with this group, Brissett hasn’t had to do much work in that department.
“With this team, honestly, it’s not that hard,” he said. “Everybody in each group is pushing each other. Everybody is striving for the higher goal, everybody wants each other’s spot. It’s just a matter of, we know what we have to do, let’s just all go do it together.”
The way NCSU finished and what they have returning, should make the Wolfpack a darkhorse in the ACC Atlantic Division. And if the Pack isn’t on the radar of division foes, Brissett has a simple message.
“If they don’t know,” he said, “they’ll find out very soon.”