NC State opened their spring practices on Tuesday morning for the first time under new head coach Dave Doeren. The first five five-minute periods were open to the media and it was noticeable that there was a renewed energy among the players. Rising senior cornerback Dontae Johnson said there was definitely a new feeling within the program.
"It was the first day and, honestly, it's just great to be back out here on the grass with my teammates and the new coaches," he said. "There's a new energy, new excitement out here. I'm just excited for the season and for the spring.
"These guys out here want to coach us, and they want us to get better. There were a lot of coaches yelling and screaming at us, but my teammates took it well, as constructive criticism, and used it to get better. That will make the team better. There's a new energy, like I said. That's a great feeling and everybody was enthusiastic."
Despite the numerous changes that the program has seen in the past few months, the start of spring practice is always something to look forward to, according to rising redshirt junior running back Tony Creecy, who also noticed a few subtle changes on the practice field.
"It was a pretty good practice," he said. "With the new offense and new defense, a lot of players have to adjust, but overall, I think we had a pretty good practice from an enthusiasm standpoint and an execution standpoint.
"There's not many major differences, the only thing is just the enthusiasm and it wasn't as quiet. There's always someone talking, whether it's calling out plays, calling out defenses. There was a lot of enthusiasm today."
Rising sophomore quarterback Manny Stocker said that the new staff set the tone from day one in Raleigh, and the players know the coaches are all about competing.
"There's a lot of competitive energy," he said. "I think the new coaches brought that out of us in January.
"I'd say it's definitely picking up from what it used to be. The competitive spirit, that nature, is definitely picking up, so I'm glad about that."
Stocker described the offense as, "no-huddle, fast-paced, trying to get on the edge and score as many points as possible.
"There was a lot faster pace than last year's practices. I'm glad I got the opportunity to be in a pro-style offense [last year], and now to be in this offense. I know two different paces, and this one is a lot faster."
"The practice was a lot quicker," Johnson agreed. "The tempo was a lot faster. With the no-huddle offense, we had to make sure the defense was ready and everybody was aligned in the right places and everything. Things have to be recognized a lot quicker than last year. It's definitely good for us because, when game time comes, everything will slow down a little bit for us."
Competition under center is already heating up
Stocker, last year's backup quarterback, embraces the competition that will start this spring for starting duties under center. Former Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas, a rising-redshirt junior after sitting out last season, is expected to battle with Stocker for the job.
"I'm very excited," Stocker said of his opportunity to compete for the No. 1 spot on the depth. "I just can't wait for more practices. I'm already excited for Thursday's practice, I can't wait to get there.
"I'm excited for when we start scrimmaging and competing, really getting into it. I couldn't sleep last night. This is a good opportunity."
NC State has been set the past five years under center with Seattle Seahawks' Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson and future NFL signal caller Mike Glennon, who was on hand to watch his former teammates before tomorrow's Pro Day. The team hasn't had a wide-open competition like they will this preseason since Wilson beat out the true freshman Glennon in 2008, but Stocker sees that as a positive.
"As a team, the competition is great," he said. "It's a great quarterback that I'm competing with. I'm glad that I get the chance to compete against him. If someone else came here and wasn't as good, it wouldn't be a competition, but I'm glad I get to compete. He makes me a better quarterback because it keeps me on my [toes]. Therefore, I think it will be great."
After playing in Dana Bible's pro-style offense last season, Stocker is looking forward to the challenge of mastering a different style of attack.
"If you throw something at me, I'm excited," he said. "I think that [playing in the pro-style offense last year] will help me out a little bit. I definitely know what a pro-style offense is because I had to learn that, Coach Bible made sure I learned that. Then, I know what this offense is — hopefully I can get to know it, too. I'm getting better at it and I'm continuing to progress and learn as much as I can.
"I probably did everything in high school. I did mostly pro-style then I came and did some zone reads, so I'm comfortable with the zone reads because I've done it before. I'm comfortable with pro-style, too, so whatever fits."
There was also a new face out on the practice fields wearing the green quarterback jersey with former Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett joining the fray. He will have to sit out this year, like Thomas did last season, but Stocker is happy to welcome the newcomer to the group.
"The more competition, the better the players will be," he said. "I'm glad he came and joined us. It keeps us on our toes."
New offense is a rush for Creecy
In several interviews, new offensive coordinator Matt Canada has expressed that, while the new offense will be a balanced one, the Wolfpack is going to run the ball. That is music to the running backs' ears, who knew that Canada helped coach Wisconsin running back Montee Ball to the Doak Walker Award last year as the nation's top running back.
"That makes me real happy," Creecy said. "In previous years, the running backs probably had 400-500 carries all together, and I think it's going to be more now. Coach Canada is a great coach with a great offense. Coach Bible was also a great coach, but he was more of a throwing coach. Coach Canada is more of a balanced and running guy."
The one position group that has the same coach as last year is the running backs, who are still mentored by Des Kitchings.
"Since I've been here, I've had a new coach every year, so to have the same coach in back-to-back years has been good," Creecy noted. "Coach Kitchings is a great coach. He always makes us focus on detail and work hard. He never lets us get by with anything, so Coach Kitchings is a great coach, and I'm glad they kept him."
The backs might be lacking a little bit in numbers this spring, but Creecy is confident that he and rising-sophomore Shadrach Thornton can shoulder the load with the walk-ons until the new trio of ball carriers arrive in the summer.
"We're ready," he said. "With all of the hard work that [strength and conditioning] Coach [Steve] Veltkamp came in and made us do, and the extra work, we're going to be ready for this load.
"From the day he came in, we've worked hard. He's had us pushing stuff, picking up stuff, just working tremendously hard. Coach Ed [Corey Edmond] was a great strength and conditioning coach, but Coach Veltkamp is, too. He works us hard and make us be great."
Veltkamp's presence has been noticed by more than just Creecy. Stocker, who is going through his second spring practice despite still being a freshman, has also noticeably added some good weight.
"I gained a little bit [of weight]," he admitted. "I'm about 212 or 215, maybe. That weight program got me filling out a little bit, so I'm proud to come out here and take a couple of hits on the field."
Johnson proud to return for senior year
After the 2012 season, everybody was watching junior cornerback David Amerson to see if he would come back for his senior year or enter the NFL Draft. Amerson, the school's all-time leader in interceptions, left school, but he wasn't the only defensive back contemplating that jump. Johnson also could have made the move, but decided he would return for his senior campaign, although he admitted it was a tough decision.
"It was, but at the end of the day, I really wanted to be a part of it with my teammates," he said. "I didn't want to let my teammates down. I wanted to finish out my career here at State before I moved on and I'm proud of my decision. I'm glad I made the right decision."
Johnson was a Swiss army knife for the Pack last year, lining up at cornerback opposite of Amerson after starting his career as a safety, but also sliding in to man the nickel back role when offenses put three or more receivers on the field. He expects to be utilized similarly in his final go-round in the Red and White.
"There's a lot of concepts and techniques that we haven't put in yet, but I've been going over it with the coaches and I'll pretty much be used in the exact same way — a variety of ways. I'm real excited for it.
"I am happy to be at one position this year, especially after playing last year. I'm ready to take that next step, instead of going back to safety, which is great."