It's officially less than 24 hours until the Pack kicks off its season against Georgia Southern.
The Pack has its new quarterback, a slew of freshman filling in major roles, and a giant question mark surrounding just how good this team will be once the real games start being played. With that in mind, and with full credit to the News & Observer's Laura Keeley whose idea I'm stealing here, lets take a look at the 10 most important players to the Wolfpack's success this season.
These aren't necessarily the guys who will break out or become stars. Just known commodities that will have to live up to expectations - and perhaps most importantly stay healthy - if the Pack wants to turn things around and meet its goal of getting to a bowl game.
10. Quinton Schooley (JR), C
Schooley played every snap last year at center for the Pack, and if you don't remember a single thing about Schooley then that means he probably did a pretty good job. Every other Pack center on the roster has a combined zero snaps to their name, so yeah.
9. Shadrach Thornton (JR), RB
NC State has finished 86th, or worse, in yards per rushing attempt in every season since 2007, which is the point at which I stopped looking. Thornton is the Pack's best hope to break that trend. He's still on the team, and he's the most talented running back they have on the squad in terms of pure play-making ability. He'll need to hang onto the ball and behave off the field, but he figures to be the primary runner if he can do both.
8. Bryan Underwood (RS SR), WR
The receiving corps actually looks solid, assuming everyone stays healthy and Bo Hines lives up to his spring game promise (I expect he will, but he's still a true freshman). Even so, Underwood is the only true home run hitter. He's the guy they like to run their various sweeps, and he'll be the guy trying to beat the defense over the top for big gains. If his quarterback can get him the ball this year, he could have a solid bounce-back season.
7. Thomas Teal (RS SR), DT
Teal led the team in tackles for loss last season, but currently is listed as a back-up to T.Y. McGill. This was likely done to get freshman B.J. Hill into the starting lineup, but expect a true rotation at this position as long as everyone stays healthy. Opponents ran for an average of 5.02 yards per carry against the Pack in 2013, ranking 103rd nationally in rushing defense, so the more fresh bodies it can throw onto the field the better.
6. Hakim Jones (RS JR), FS
Jones ranked 5th on the team in tackles last year, and with the Pack working primarily out of a base defense that includes five defensive backs he'll be expected to absorb a big part of both the tackling and coverage load.
5. Jack Tocho (SO), CB
Dave Doeren has repeatedly gone out of his way to call out Tocho as the guy with the best natural leadership qualities on the defense - he's just missing the experience to go with it. They'll need all of Tocho's leadership, and his talent, in a young secondary full of question marks. The passing defense was better than the rushing defense last season, giving up 6.9 yards per attempt.
4. Niklas Sade (SR), K & Wil Baumann (SR), P
I'm cheating, but it's the KICKING GAME guys. It's the third phase and its just as important as the other two phases! I'd call that my best Chuck Amato imitation, but pretty much all coaches will say the same thing these days. The Pack is a team that doesn't have the top tier talent or depth to blow people away on Saturday so it needs its special teams to make life easier on the offense and defense - especially when its two kickers are four year starters.
3. Rob Crisp (RS SR), OT
As a true freshman, Tom O'Brien said that they wouldn't redshirt Crisp because they didn't expect him to stay more than three years (he didn't phrase it that way but the context was clear). Five years later, here's Crisp, having been a solid tackle for years without ever becoming the force he was expected to become because of injuries. The offensive line is thin, and Crisp's return is a needed boost. You could say it every year, but the Pack desperately needs this group to stay healthy, and Crisp in particular to stay on the field.
2. Art Norman (GS), DE
In an attempt to revert the tendency we have to focus on skill position players when evaluating a team's performance, I pushed Norman considerably up the list. He led the team in sacks last year with 4.5, but on a team that ranked 93rd in the country (dead last in the ACC) in total sacks with just 20. The whole line needs to do a better job getting to the quarterback this season - a breakout final season from Norman would go a long way toward moving the Pack up those rankings.
1. Jacoby Brissett (RS JR), QB
Easiest call on the board. If he lives up to the hype he's had behind him since the spring of 2013, then the Pack's win ceiling rises dramatically. If he's a bust, it could be another very ugly year in Raleigh. I would say its been a long time since a player with so little playing time under his belt has had such huge expectations on his shoulders, but Mike Glennon succeeded Russell Wilson a few years ago.