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May 3, 2011

Column: Turning the page

April 29 was a sad day for NC State football, but it was not doomsday. On that Friday afternoon, the Wolfpack announced that star fifth-year senior quarterback Russell Wilson would be released from NC State. It is regrettable that Wilson's career in Raleigh came to an end in such a manner. Yet life still moves on with optimism inside the Murphy Center.

If Wilson had stayed, he would have had a chance to be ranked among the league's most prolific passers. He threw for 8,545 yards and 76 touchdowns in three years. Those numbers rank 13th all-time in the ACC in passing yards and third in touchdown passes. Wilson was unlikely to catch former Wolfpack quarterback Philip Rivers' total of 13,484 yards, but he probably would have eclipsed Rivers' 95 touchdown throws.

Last season, in a crucial year for the Wolfpack program under Tom O'Brien, Wilson delivered a team-MVP worthy effort and led the Pack to a 9-4 season that ranks among the best campaigns in NC State football history. Wilson was a two-time All-ACC signal-caller and would likely have been the consensus preseason All-ACC quarterback this year.

Wilson could have immortalized No. 16 at NC State. The assault on the record books will never happen though, and that decision rests with Wilson.

The news of April 29 should not have come as a surprise. Wilson announced Jan. 17 that he would focus on spring baseball with the Colorado Rockies rather than work out for the Pack. At the bottom of that press release was a note that O'Brien was on the road recruiting and would not have any comments, but he would be available at the Feb. 2 Signing Day press conference.

When Feb. 2 came, O'Brien dropped the bombshell. He was moving on with redshirt junior quarterback Mike Glennon as the starter. The news dominated the signing day press conference coverage.

"We have to move forward with Glennon," he said. "We've planned for this day, and Michael is ready to do it."

O'Brien spoke of restructuring the offense to fit Glennon's skill set, and how he did not have the option of waiting for Wilson to decide at the end of the summer if he wanted to return for football. If O'Brien was not clear enough that afternoon, the next day he pronounced in a radio interview with Adam Gold and Joe Ovies on 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh that Glennon was his guy.

"We are going to go ahead and get Michael Glennon ready to play," he said. "He will be the starting quarterback against whomever we open with next year."

O'Brien has been consistent since his first comments on Wilson that this offseason represented a now-or-never moment. Fans and pundits can debate whether or not it should have been, but no one can deny it was a tough call.

It's clear that O'Brien, and presumably offensive coordinator Dana Bible, think highly of Glennon.

"I think he's ready to take control of this offense," O'Brien said. "He's as talented as any quarterback that I've had. All those guys at BC, he's got as much or more talent as all of them.

"He just needs the opportunity to play this fall and he will get that opportunity, and this team will look forward to his leadership as we go forward into the 2011 season."

Any reporter that covers NC State on a regular basis knows that O'Brien does not throw out such praise lightly. He can occasionally offer up flattering remarks. O'Brien had trouble containing his excitement about signing sophomore offensive tackle Rob Crisp in 2010 and even admitted last year that Wilson deserved some Heisman consideration.

Most of O'Brien's reviews, however, are in the context of the team and usually from a blunt perspective of a coach that seems to see the glass half empty. For O'Brien to boast that Glennon is as good as any quarterback he has coached should not be taken lightly.

O'Brien and Bible coached Tim Hasselbeck, who played seven years in the NFL, Brian St. Pierre, who just finished his eighth season in the league, and Matt Ryan, arguably one of the top young quarterbacks in the pros, at Boston College. Another signal-caller, Paul Peterson, got a shot a playing in the CFL.

That's all the evidence Wolfpack fans should need to understand that O'Brien and Bible know a good quarterback when they see one. (It's worth noting that O'Brien and Bible also coached long-time Seattle Seahawks starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in their first season at Boston College.)

The time had come, in O'Brien's eyes, for Wilson to make his call - football or baseball. It was either turn the offense over to Glennon, or Wilson commits to football and forces Glennon to make a decision on his future. Wilson, as O'Brien has consistently said in the past two months, chose baseball.

Valid points can be made on both sides of the argument, but it is easy to understand where O'Brien stood. In his own words, he has implied that he believes Glennon has a potential NFL future. It also does not take a rocket scientist to realize that there were logical fears that Glennon would contemplate leaving if Wilson came back.

It appears that O'Brien wanted a firm commitment from Wilson before spring football started that he was going to return to the team if the coach was going to risk losing Glennon. Wilson did not give it, at least to O'Brien's satisfaction, and O'Brien moved on to the next chapter. O'Brien has been consistent from his first statements that he has turned the offense over to Glennon, and if Wilson was to return he would be second-string. Wilson did not want to return as a backup, and no one should ever fault him for that.

The Wilson/Glennon call was a tough decision, but that's why O'Brien gets paid more than $1 million a year. Only time will tell whether or not it's the right decision. There are obvious risks. Wilson is not only a proven commodity, he is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. Glennon is still an unknown who will now have a tremendous amount of pressure to perform.

But history suggests betting on O'Brien being right.

He is one of just 23 active coaches in college football to have at least 100 career wins. His teams have been to 10 bowl games in 14 years. O'Brien has coached nine of those bowl games and won seven. If Wilson had not gotten hurt right before halftime of the Papajohns.com Bowl in 2008, there's a good chance O'Brien would be 8-1 in bowl games.

Last season, O'Brien coached a team that had one 2011 NFL Draft pick to a nine-win season, one more victory than a certain rival about 30 miles down the road that had six draft selections on its roster (three more draft picks did not play last season).

The bottom line is that over the course of 14 years as a head coach O'Brien has proven that he knows what he is doing. With the help of Bible, O'Brien has a good track record with quarterbacks, and he certainly has a good record on the field. If anything, he has earned trust in his decision-making.



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