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April 18, 2009

Five keys to watch for today's spring game

The Kay Yow Spring Football Game today at Carter-Finley Stadium will give NC State fans a chance to see with their own eyes what kind of progress the team has made since the team last played against Rutgers in the PapaJohns.com Bowl on Dec. 29, 2008.

The Wolfpacker takes a look at five key issues going into the 1 p.m. game, and will review the topics following the game.

1. Quarterback position: NC State fans have been clamoring to see redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Glennon live and in person ever since he committed to the Wolfpack. The former four-star prospect will get to play the entire game with NCSU only having two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, and returning starter Russell Wilson will only be playing half of a game because he has a baseball game later today.

The NC State coaches have the option to either show off Glennon's abilities or keep things vanilla. Even if it is the latter, take it as a sign that he must be doing pretty good in practices that they don't want opponents to know just how dynamic a thrower he is.

Wilson, a redshirt sophomore, has also earned some new-found freedom in his own way by being allowed to play baseball tonight against Florida State. That never would have occurred a year ago when he was battling for the job. However, if there was ever a player who has shown the ability of handling two sports and his academic workload, it's Wilson. I'm sure his teammates will take it easy on him because there is no reason to have him be in danger for a spring game, but one of the tasks the coaches wanted him to work on this spring is to stay away from situations where he could get hurt after suffering three different injuries last year.

2. Depth in the secondary: The Wolfpack have two players who could be starting in the season opener who have missed the spring in redshirt junior cornerback DeAndre Morgan and classmate Javon Walker, a strong safety. Senior cornerback Koyal George and redshirt freshman strong safety Earl Wolff and redshirt sophomore strong safety Justin Byers have tried to replace the duo.

Sophomore Dominique Ellis is earning raves for his play at cornerback in replacing senior Jeremy Gray, but one of the areas to watch is whether George or redshirt freshmen cornerbacks C.J. Wilson and Gary Grant, are able to be contributors in nickel or dime defenses. The Wolfpack had to play safeties in their specialty defenses and have them match up against wide receivers, which is never an easy matchup. Having George, Wilson or Grant, emerge will especially help NC State's third-and-long defenses next fall.

3. Is Toney Baker really back?: Redshirt senior running back Toney Baker was the starting running back for the Wolfpack against Central Florida in the 2007 season opener. He was having a solid game, running between the tackles and catching passes before he made a cut and his knee gave out.

Baker hasn't played in a game since, but has returned to practice this spring. While speculation has been wild over whether Baker is back to the form that had him starting against UCF or that he still has a way's to go before cracking the Wolfpack's running back rotation. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The big thing with Baker today is whether he has the speed to slash through defenders.

4. Offensive line struggling in run blocking: NC State entered the spring needing to find two guards and to build depth along the offensive line. Injuries to projected starting left guard Julian Williams (knee), a redshirt senior making the move from left tackle, and redshirt freshman backup Andrew Wallace (cyst), have put a crimp in that original plan.

The reshuffled line has redshirt freshman Zach Allen possibly starting at left guard today, and redshirt senior Andy Barbee playing extensively at right guard. The rushing numbers have been below coach Tom O'Brien's expectations, which might also be due to NC State's strong front seven. The spring game will help show if the line can protect a pocket passer such as Glennon and whether the backs have any running room.

5. Young receivers and tight end Mario Carter get opportunity: The injuries to different wide receivers - sophomore T.J. Graham, redshirt juniors Donald Bowens and Darrell Davis - have opened the door for redshirt sophomore wide receivers Jay Smith and Steven Howard to get on the field extensively this spring. The same has held true for redshirt freshman tight end Mario Carter, who is one of two scholarship tight ends, along with redshirt sophomore George Bryan.

The spring game will showcase what Smith, Howard and Carter, have learned this spring and what type of role they'll have in the fall. Carter in particular will have a golden opportunity to be part of NC State's two tight end sets. NC State rotated seven wide receivers for the most part last year, with Smith, Howard and the departed Geron James as the wideouts getting the least amount of plays. Smith had six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown in the Pack's two scrimmages.


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