- Jorge Milian
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Tom O'Brien didn't exactly leave Boston College hanging when he bolted Chestnut Hill in December to become North Carolina State's coach.
The Eagles, who return a host of upperclassmen, including first team All-ACC quarterback Matt Ryan, figure to be among the favorites to win the 2007 conference championship.
"That would have been my best team," said O'Brien, who spent a decade as BC's coach. "They have seven, eight guys that may be draftable in that senior class.
"I left Boston College in a much better situation than when I got there 10 years ago."
There's little doubt about that. O'Brien was hired in 1997 to take over a program sullied by a betting scandal that included two BC players wagering against their own team.
O'Brien worked his way out of that mess and led the Eagles to an active streak of eight consecutive bowl appearances.
"I love Boston College," said O'Brien, an assistant at Virginia for 15 seasons before replacing Dan Henning as BC's coach in 1997. "I have three kids who graduated from there, but sometimes you have to make family decisions and I think it was best for our family to get back down to this part of the country. We're going to retire down here anyway so we're headed in the right direction."
O'Brien's task in Raleigh is to get the Wolfpack program headed in a winning direction.
NC State ended 2006 on a seven-game losing streak that resulted in the firing of Chuck Amato after seven seasons as coach.
The Wolfpack were arguably the ACC's most undisciplined team, finishing next to last in penalties (58 yards per game) and tied for last in turnover margin (minus 0.92).
Enter O'Brien, a former U.S. Marine whose Boston College teams were nothing if not disciplined.
"That's one thing we definitely need," said NC State tailback Toney Baker. "He's going to be able to bring that to us and that's going to help us so much. I think it's a real good match."
"I expect that we'll have a winning season and go to a bowl game. That's the goal we're going to start off with. You know, I've been to eight straight bowl games. I don't want to break that streak."
-- NC State coach Tom O'Brien
O'Brien was hired on Dec. 8, but his real work begins on March 14 when the Wolfpack open spring practice. The 58-year-old O'Brien becomes the third coach in ACC history to leave one conference school for another, which gives him a strong familiarity with many of his new players. BC and NC State played in each of the past two seasons.
But O'Brien said he begins practice with no preconceived notions.
"Everybody on this football team gets a fresh start, they get to start over," said O'Brien, who was given a seven-year contract that pays him $1.1 million plus incentives annually. "We've tried not to make judgements off last year's team, not knowing exactly what they were coached to do or what they were asked to do. We'd rather judge them in spring practice."
But there are questions at virtually every other position.
O'Brien frets that "there is no one in this program that has kicked the football."
Defensively, NC State suffered major losses in All-ACC defensive lineman Tank Tyler and leading tackler Patrick Lowery.
Offensively, the focus on spring practice will be at quarterback where incumbent Daniel Evans must fight off a pair of challengers to retain his job.
Evans, a junior, appeared to be the second coming of Philip Rivers last season after leading the Pack to a pair of victories over Boston College and Florida State in his first two career starts.
Against O'Brien's 20th-ranked Eagles, Evans threw a 34-yard touchdown pass with 8.5 seconds remaining in State's 17-15 victory.
The following week against No. 17 FSU, Evans threw three touchdown passes -- including the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter -- to beat the Seminoles, 24-20.
But it all fell apart for Evans and the Wolfpack after that. He passed for only one touchdown the rest of the season as NC State finished by losing its final seven games, six of them by eight points or less.
When spring practice begins next week, O'Brien said Evans will be one of three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Harrison Beck, a transfer from Nebraska, and redshirt freshman Justin Burke are also in the running to start NC State's opener against Central Florida on Sept. 1.
"It's a lot different around here. Everybody is on the same page. I've never seen it like this around here. Everybody is actually excited to come to workouts and get better and help this university win some football games."
-- NC State running back Toney Baker
Asked if he expected to name a quarterback by the time spring practice ends on April 14, O'Brien said: "That would be best, but I think that would be an unrealistic goal right now. I don't think in 15 practices, we're going to have enough opportunities to give people the reps they need. I would hope that maybe we can get down to a couple of guys. I'm not going to try to rush it. It's more important to make the right decision than to just make a decision."
Helping him make that decision will be his entire offensive staff from BC. In total, O'Brien persuaded six former assistants and both of his strength coaches to make the move from Boston to North Carolina.
"It's a lot different around here," said Baker, a junior who rushed for a team-leading 688 yards and six touchdowns in 2006. "Everybody is on the same page. I've never seen it like this around here. Everybody is actually excited to come to workouts and get better and help this university win some football games."
How many games NC State will win next year is a big question. A rebuilding year would seem to be in store for the Wolfpack, but O'Brien said he's aiming higher.
"I expect that we'll have a winning season and go to a bowl game," O'Brien said. "That's the goal we're going to start off with. You know, I've been to eight straight bowl games. I don't want to break that streak."
Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.
1dSam Khan Jr.