Amato using Florida pipeline to stock D

Chuck Amato was paying attention during his 18 seasons as a defensive assistant at Florida State.

He regularly attended offensive staff meetings and sought information on how Bobby Bowden performed the tasks related to being a head coach.

But it didn't take clever discernment or volunteering in other departments to see why the Seminoles were playing for national titles in four of Amato's last seven seasons in Tallahassee.

"Everything started with defense," Amato said. "And with defensive players who could run."

Naturally, when he returned to his alma mater at North Carolina State following FSU's 1999 national championship, he had a carefully drawn blueprint under one arm. Amato set out to build the kind of defense he helped coach at FSU, and he knew exactly where to look for players with the speed he desired.

When the Wolfpack lines up Saturday in a more-important-than-you-think Atlantic Coast Conference game against Wake Forest, Amato's defense will have a distinctively South Florida influence.

That's the area Amato recruited well for nearly two decades under Bowden, creating a Miami-to-Tallahassee pipeline that served the Seminoles well.

Six of NC State's top 10 tacklers after three games are from Florida, and five of those are from the same area Amato recruited while in Tallahassee. In all, NC State's roster features 29 Floridians.

In fact, four of his top defensive players -- linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Pat Thomas, rover Andre Maddox and defensive back Miguel Scott -- all are from the same high school, Miami Killian.

Thomas and Maddox were NC State's top two tacklers in 2003.

Amato, a former Wolfpack linebacker who handled most of the defensive coordinator's responsibilities the past two seasons, learned something else in Tallahassee.

Since arriving in Raleigh, he has let his youngsters play on defense. As long as they could run, he didn't concern himself with lack of experience.

The result was an inconsistent performance in 2003 in which the Wolfpack was rated in the bottom 10-percent of Division I teams in total defense for most of the early part of the season. The unit began to improve, but finished the season rated 89th in that category and couldn't hold up its end of the agreement while Philip Rivers was setting passing records on offense.

"I thought Chuck and his staff did a nice job of hanging in the boat with those young guys, and toward the end of the year those guys were playing much better football," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said.

With 10 starters back this year, the payoff has begun, though the roles are reversed. Without Rivers, the Wolfpack now relies heavily on defense. NC State leads the nation, allowing 165.3 yards a game.

Nearly the same lineup that gave up 44 points in a triple-overtime loss at Ohio State last year held the Buckeyes to 137 yards and 11 first downs in a 22-14 defeat on Sept. 18 in Raleigh. Ohio State's only touchdown came after an interception return to the 3-yard line.

"That doesn't surprise me," said Bowden. "They have a couple of ends who are big leaguers (in sophomore Mario Williams and junior Manny Lawson).

"I think defense is the starting place if Chuck wants to win championships. I know he had that as his number one priority when he left here and it sure looks like they're doing it the way he wants it done."

A year ago, Wake Forest stunned Rivers and NC State by manhandling the Wolfpack at the line-of-scrimmage. The Demon Deacons built a 25-point halftime lead and won by running the ball on 50-of-61 offensive plays, for 202 yards.

Grobe is impressed with the one-year turnaround he sees in NC State after watching film of the Wolfpack sacking Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall 10 times last week.

"A lot of those kids who were pretty light up front last year have put on some weight and have gotten a lot stronger and they're just a very physical, hard-nosed defense," Grobe said.

"One of the things we've always been impressed with with Florida State's defense is how physical they are and how well they run to the football and NC State's kids do that very, very well.

"Chuck brings some of his own thoughts on defense to NC State that are a little bit unique, but overall the way they swarm to the football and attack up front is very familiar."

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.