There are injuries, and then there are NC State’s injuries.
Yes, they are a part of the game, but there has been an inordinate number of injuries during coach Tom O’Brien’s tenure, and this year has exceeded that trend by even NC State's standards.
On Saturday at Virginia, NC State expects to start its fourth different combination on the defensive line in just six games, with all of the turnover attributed to injuries. That doesn’t include the injuries to the linebackers, the secondary or the offense, all of which have prevented NC State from reaching its full potential this season.
So what gives? Why is NC State one of the most injury-prone programs in the ACC?
This is not a strength-and-conditioning issue. It's not muscles, it's bones, and it's happening at the line of scrimmage. Three players have broken bones, three players have injured knees, and two others have ankle injuries. O'Brien attributed them to legal but costly blocks.
“Last year we stay healthy, we miss two games all year on defense and we win nine games, get ranked, the whole thing," O’Brien said. "Right now we’ve already missed 24 games by guys on defense, and they’re all at the same spot, defensive tackle, defensive end and one linebacker.
“It’s broken bone. We’ve got guys with broken bones in their foot. We’ve got guys who have been cut-blocked at the line of scrimmage that have knees and ankles. If you start pulling muscles, then I’ll start talking about strength and conditioning. When you’re getting chopped and your ankle or your knee goes, that’s a structural problem.”
NC State entered this season with three redshirt seniors on the defensive line and two of the best, J.R. Sweezy (broken bone in foot) and defensive end Jeff Rieskamp have been out. The Pack also lost their top backup on the defensive line, Thomas Teal, who broke his foot. Linebacker Terrell Manning got tangled up with an offensive tackle and was sidelined for three weeks with a knee injury.
Last year, during NC State's nine-win season, only two players missed a total of three games on defense and both were backups. In six games, players have combined to miss 20 games already on defense. That's more than the entire 2009 season, in which a total of 13 games were missed by injured defenders.
This season's injury list has set a whole new precedent.
The bye week didn’t help NC State’s injured much, but historically, the Wolfpack have been at their best in the second half of the season under O’Brien. NC State is 13-11 in the last six games of the regular season during O’Brien’s tenure.
In 2007, O’Brien’s first season in Raleigh, State opened the season with a 1-5 record, but then won four of its final six games (including four in a row). In 2008, after opening ACC play 0-4 and starting with a 2-6 overall record, the team won four in a row to become the first league team ever to start out so poorly and finish at .500 in the ACC. In 2009, NC State was in a similar injury situation and was just 2-4 in the second half of the season. Last year, the program finished the season with a 3-3 mark, including victories over No. 16 FSU and UNC.
“Our first year it was a question of getting the right people in the lineup,” O’Brien said. “We had the wrong people in the wrong spots and were able to restructure the defense and offense. The second year, we were in a situation like we’re in now, where we had so many injuries in the first half of the year, we couldn’t get any continuity until we got to the off week and got people healthy and got back at it again. We were hoping that would be the case again this year, but we haven’t gotten people back from the injury list, so we used the off week to try to get the guys that are going to have to play now the second half fundamentally sound and better football players. We are who we are and we’re going to go play the second half of the year.”