N.C. State begins spring football practice Friday afternoon, and with many Wolfpack fans probably concerned more about the basketball doings in St. Louis than football in West Raleigh.
But it's an important time for any football team and again will be for the Pack, 8-5 last season and a bowl winner in Tom O'Brien's fifth year as coach.
"The emphasis, as always, is to be better individually," O'Brien said today. "As individuals improve, the team improves. Certainly as the spring goes along there are certain things we need to look at, offensively, defensively, schematically, to make us better. There are some younger players we need to look at in situational things."
O'Brien said the Pack's "major concern" is no secret: finding new starters at linebacker. Audie Cole was a senior last season, Terrell Manning decided to be an early entry into the NFL draft and D.J. Green will sit out the 2012 season because of his use of a banned substance.
"We didn't expect to lose all three," O'Brien said. "Finding three linebackers is our biggest focus on defense."
Sterling Lucas, a fifth-year senior who sat out last season following knee surgery, has looked strong in running drills and appears fit, O'Brien said. O'Brien said Michael Peek and Brandon Pittman both played last season as true freshmen "a little more than than we had planned on" but may be ready to step in.
One potential loss that was avoided with assistant Jon Tenuta, who coached the linebackers, turned down an offer from Illinois to become the Illinii defensive coordinator. Tenuta now has been named the Pack's associate head coach for defense.
"That was huge for us," O'Brien said. "We're able to keep that continuity on defense, that continuity in the meeting room. He understands the capability of the guys we have here. There's not a lack of talent at linebacker. It's a lack of experience."
Offensively, the biggest question mark is at wide receiver with the departure of T.J. Graham, Jay Smith and Steven Howard. Tobias Palmer and Bryan Underwood return and have big-play potential, and O'Brien said moving Rashard Smith from the secondary to wideout should help.
O'Brien said running back Mustafa Greene, like Lucas, has gone through running drills and is progressing. Greene also missed the 2011 season after undergoing foot surgery.
A year ago, Mike Glennon was in the unpleasant position of being the No. 1 quarterback in spring practice but also wondering if Russell Wilson would return from his pro baseball gig for a final year. Most people know how that ended: Wilson wound up transferring to Wisconsin and Glennon passed for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns, then was the MVP in the Belk Bowl as the Pack topped Louisville 31-24.
"He's driven to be better," O'Brien said. "The talent has always been there but until you play and you get that experience, you don't know. Now, he has that body of work to fall back on.
"He showed improvement in our bowl practices. The thing he did in the bowl, he was more decisive with his reads. He wants to be more decisive and confident in what he's doing and wants to take on that leadership mantle."
Scott Brosius was the backup quarterback last season, and Brian Taylor was redshirted last season and now is in the mix. The offensive staff also is eager to get a look at Manny Stocker, who graduated from Coatesville (Pa.) Area High and enrolled early at NCSU this spring.
"That was a bonus for us," O'Brien said. "Manny gets in a semester of school and gets in the 15 practices. He will have a better starting point in August."
O'Brien chuckled when told he may not have to answer any more Russell Wilson questions this spring.
"Yeah, but Mike Glennon will be gone after this season and we'll probably have another quarterback controversy going on next spring," he said.