Tom O'Brien, last seen confused by the multiple colors on this webpage and pictures. Isn't ASCII good enough for everyone?
If you're looking for one advantage the NFL has over college football, it's pretty simple: practice time. NCAA teams are limited to 20 hours* of practice time a week, while NFL teams have no such problems. The effect is twofold: NFL offenses and defenses are stupidly and unnecessarily complex**, and successful NCAA teams are defined by teams who can install their schemes simply, which allows them to use practices for repetition. If you do things like, say, install an offense over two seasons, it might look like an absolute trainwreck. Not that we'd know anything about that, mind you.
*you know, according to the rules
**yeah, I'm not going to avoid slamming the NFL
The astute Tennessee fan immediately started worrying about the defense after that first paragraph. (The offense has no such concerns, since Tyler Bray is perfect in every way.) That matters too, but it's also half the reason NC State has been so ...well, Tom O'Brien-ish.
Let's start with our own house first.
Practice Time and the Defense
So, here's what we know: Sal Sunseri is going to run something approximating a 3-4 and it'll probably be based at least in part on what Nick Saban would do. Saban's defenses are among the more cerebral at the college level, That kind of defense takes time to install properly, especially in the first year. Learning assignments and calls - especially for the Mike LB - is heavy on terminology and communication. In that sense, we're in good shape with Herman Lathers, who at this point could pretty much be run over by a bus and come back to play in Week 3. As far as the rest of the defense, I'm not as sure.
There are ways around that for now, mind you; you can simplify the install, reduce the number of schemes and techniques during the initial installation and expand later in the season or next season. Sunseri's got that part figured out, and as long as the basics are covered - namely, how do you stop the run and how do you stop the pass - the details can be added at a later time. For the Tennessee defense, the former will mostly center around gap control and the latter will come from pattern matching.
Both those techniques take time to implement properly and repetition to ensure they're done correctly, and getting that part down matters far more than any particular schemes. I wouldn't expect more than a handful of base schemes, maybe one exotic look, and a few blitzes and other things, possibly based out of a fire zone (which we'll cover at a later date, although there's plenty of information online about that) since that is the type of blitz that Saban prefers.
Beyond that, though? Let's just hope they look good, period. And let's hope they're exciting, because ain't no way a Tom O'Brien coached team will be exciting. (You thought you were going to go all week without hearing how boring Tom O'Brien coached teams were, didn't you? Admit it.)
Don't Fall Asleep
Okay, it's not quite that bad. (Then again, one of the rumors behind Russell Wilson's transfer to Wisconsin was that he wasn't learning anything new and was getting bored, so ...well, perhaps? Maybe? Just a bit?) Still, reputations are earned in part because of what you do on the field, and if you serve as a cure for insomnia with and without the ball, that counts.
Don't fall asleep* on this team, though. You get a reputation by being boring in part because you practice the same stuff all the time. That in turn means you're probably not half-bad at it, and with an experienced Mike Glennon at QB, that looks like an interesting challenge against a pass defense getting its first real run at pattern-matching coverage. Fortunately, none of NC State's receivers are anything to write home about, but expect a few of them to get open. Let's just hope it's the underneath routes instead of the deep ones.
*sorry. Had to keep up my Hackwriting Extraordinaire Continuing Education Credits.
On the defensive side of the ball, that would also imply discipline. DC Jon Tenuta has a challenge on his hands with a depleted LB corps (underneath routes ahoy!) and the suspension of CJ Wilson was a nice compliment to Da'Rick Da'Ricking himself all the way to Tennessee Tech. And yes, you better believe that we're in for a fun David Amerson-Justin Hunter matchup; if Hunter wins that consistently, feel free to remove all limits on the passing attack. Cordarelle Patterson is going to have to prove himself in a hurry (which, among other things, Da'Rick imploding kind of proves the coaching staff's confidence implicitly, but that's neither here nor there). More importantly, Tennessee will have a third option available - Mychal Rivera will be able to make hay against a depleted linebacking corps.
Expect no shortage of blitzes and rushes from all directions, which should play into Tennessee's hands, at least in theory; all the throwing the freshmen into the fire in 2010 should pay off at some point, we'd hope. That should leave holes, which Bray is good at finding and exploiting properly. And sure, I guess the run game has to show up just a little bit as well now. Maybe.
Bottom line: don't expect anything too fancy tomorrow night. Even the basics should be enough, though.