Things weren't supposed to be quiet around the Murphy Center this time of year. N.C. State was supposed to be getting ready for an upcoming bowl game.

Certainly, that's how it looked when the Wolfpack was 3-1 in the ACC and 4-2 overall. But a four-game losing streak derailed those hopes and instead has N.C. State spending December thinking about next year, while its fans mull over several unanswered questions.*Is State a serious player in ACC football, or just an

also-ran?

*Was 2004 an aberration or a sign of what lies ahead in the post-Philip Rivers era?

*Is Jay Davis still State's best bet at quarterback, or will someone else unseat him?

Those answers won't be forthcoming until next fall rolls around. But here are a few indications of where the Wolfpack is heading.

Offense

Much of the hair-pulling and hand-wringing in Wolfpack Nation this season revolved around quarterback Jay Davis. Clearly, Davis (2,104 yards, 12 touchdowns, 15 interceptions) was no Philip Rivers, but much of the vitriol directed his way missed the point. He was only as good - or as bad - as his offensive line. When three starters on the line went down with injuries, Davis' production plummeted.

The silver lining is that those injuries force-fed game experience to young linemen Luke Lathan, Jon Holt and James Newby. The maturation of those three, with the return of Derek Morris, Leroy Harris and John McKeon, should give State the depth in 2005 that it lacked in 2004.

That will be critical because a quarterback savior does not appear to be on the horizon. Davis likely will man the position again next season unless Marcus Stone makes great strides and lives up to his high school All-America status.

At least the quarterback will have plenty of experienced backs and plenty of veteran receivers as targets. The top four receivers return, as do the top four ball carriers - unless someone starts to feel crowded out and transfers in search of more playing time.

Defense

Under first-year defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, State finished the season ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense, a massive improvement from 2003.

"If we can play 80 percent next year defensively like we did this year, we're on the right track," Amato said.

They'll have to do that without Herring, who left the Wolfpack after the season to become the defensive coordinator at Arkansas. His departure left behind questions about Amato's ability to maintain staff continuity and about who would build on Herring's success.

Certainly there is plenty to work with. The jewel of the defense is the line. Defensive ends Mario Williams and Manny Lawson may be the best duo in the nation next season. On the interior, John McCargo made significant strides, while Greensboro's DeMario Pressley should push for playing time.

The linebacking unit won't have Pat Thomas and Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay anymore, but it will still have plenty of the speed Amato cherishes. Oliver Hoyt should be an All-ACC candidate in the middle.

The potential weakness in 2005 is the same area that was vulnerable this season - the secondary. Safety Marcus Hudson will be the lone returning starter from the unit. Cornerback A.J Davis also saw significant playing time but much of the group is inexperienced. Expect opposing offenses to test the Wolfpack secondary early and often next season.

Kicking game

State went with an unusual approach in 2004, asking John Deraney to handle all the kicking duties - field goals, kickoffs and punts. Deraney's workload could be eased if rising sophomore Tyler Lewis, a Parade All-America out of Albemarle, can take on some of the placekicking duties next season.

Outlook

Before this season, the feeling among the Wolfpack faithful was that State was on the verge of becoming a national powerhouse. After this season, there is a sense that the sky is falling in Raleigh.

The truth is likely somewhere in between. Don't look for the Wolfpack to be in a BCS bowl next season, but expect State to return to its winning ways in 2005.

\ Contact Jim Young at 373-7016 or jyoung@news-record.com

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