North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien twisted and folded a napkin between his fingers anxiously, looking like a guy who would have chosen any other spot to be than sitting in the center of two dozen reporters at last month's ACC Media Days.
Not that O'Brien, a former Marine and coach for 38 years, can't handle a horde of ice cream-inflated reporters. And, truthfully, you couldn't blame O'Brien if he actually was looking forward to meeting with the media.
Last year, this event didn't appear enjoyable for O'Brien. Still fresh was O'Brien's decision to show the door to perhaps the ACC's best player, quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw for 8,545 yards and 76 TDs in three previous seasons. The move was in response to Wilson's decision to play pro baseball last summer instead of honing his football skills, and resulted in the job going to Mike Glennon, who had 13 total passes on his college resume.
A year later, Wilson is with the Seattle Seahawks, Glennon is one of the ACC's top quarterbacks and O'Brien – despite the mangled napkin – could sit back at the media kickoff event and field a round of softballs tossed his way.
It's not exactly vindication. After all, Wilson did throw for 3,175 yards, 33 TDs and just four interceptions in leading Wisconsin to a Big Ten title. But as it stands today, NCSU is a legitimate contender in the ACC and no one would be saying that right now had Wilson hung around Raleigh for his final season.
"It's obviously nice," O'Brien replied when asked what it's like having the Wilson drama removed this season. "Russell went on and had a great career, got himself to an NFL club and we all hope he has great success. We like the fact that Michael Glennon has a year of experience now coming back, that he can be even better than he was last year.
"We lived through the whole saga, survived it and moved on."
NC State is picked to finish third in the Atlantic Division (receiving five first-place votes) and Glennon was picked fourth among quarterbacks in preseason All-ACC voting.
"We'll be very competitive and we can play against anybody in the country," O'Brien said.
Much of that optimism surrounds Glennon, the brother of former Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon. The graduate student is coming off a 31-touchdown junior season in 2011, which tied the second-highest mark in school history.
But O'Brien's decision to dump Wilson for Glennon looked like a laugher last October. NC State stood 2-3 (0-3 against FBS schools) after the opening weekend of October, including an embarrassing 44-14 stomping at Cincinnati.
Glennon totaled seven TDs and four interceptions in those three losses, although he surpassed 300 yards passing in two of them.
Didn't matter, though. Not with losses piling up in Raleigh, and Wilson shooting up the Heisman watch lists in Madison. On the same day NCSU tumbled to 2-3, Wilson threw for 255 yards as Wisconsin stayed unbeaten by routing Nebraska. O'Brien was getting skewered for his decision – and Glennon found himself tossed into the same piñata.
"I tried not to worry about that too much," Glennon said. "My personality is laid back, go with the flow. Although I knew it would be a distraction to some, I tried to push it aside and not really worry about it. It worked out for both of us. He had a great year. And now this year we don't really have to worry about it."
That attitude is what O'Brien remembers most from those tense times.
"He had his brother to talk to through that situation," O'Brien said. "He was good at being able to focus on what he has to do and throw all that other stuff out. I'm sure bits and pieces got in here and there, but he never let on that it was a distraction. He and [offensive coordinator] Dana Bible did a good job on focusing on his game and making himself better. I think family experience and somebody to talk to helped a lot."
Positive steps began the following week after falling to 2-3, as Glennon posted a four-TD, zero-INT outing in a win over Central Michigan. By the end of the season, Glennon and the Wolfpack were rolling.
The lone loss over the final five games was a 14-10 setback at Boston College, and along the way the Wolfpack knocked off eventual league champion Clemson. An 8-5 record, a Belk Bowl victory over Louisville and the return of Glennon – who threw 11 TDs and only two interceptions over the last three games – suddenly made the move to oust Wilson seem, well, acceptable.
Glennon spent the offseason at the Manning Passing Academy and served as a coach at the Elite11 camp in Los Angeles, where he also picked up tips from former NFL quarterbacks.
"[O'Brien] wants me to take another step now," Glennon said. "He feels I can take that step. He's very confident in me and feels like we can win the ACC championship. I can step up more and perform like an ACC-champion quarterback."
A big part of Glennon's progression came from the offensive line giving him more time to throw. All five projected starters this season across the line have starting experience, with four of them having been season-long starters, forming what should be the best line of O'Brien's six seasons in Raleigh.
The top three running backs return, as well, and while the wide receivers are inexperienced, the Wolfpack offense looks ready to roll.
The defense could be another story outside of a secondary that should be among the best in the nation. Seniors C.J. Wilson, Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop have combined for 92 starts, and junior David Amerson returns after making 13 interceptions last year.
Of course, if NCSU isn't stronger up front, teams won't even need to test the secondary.
But those are the types of questions every coach tries to answer this time of year. And they are a welcome change from the recurring question O'Brien fielded at every turn a year ago: You seriously sent Russell Wilson packing?
No one is asking that now – most important, not the players on NC State's roster.
"As a leader you can only do so much until you start playing," Glennon said. “People can respect and all that, but a lot of it has to do with how you play on the field. I feel like now that I've done that, guys probably do look at me a little different. I tried to be a good leader when I was a backup in the past, and I tried to do that by my actions and working hard and encouraging the guys.
"Now it's different. I have to take on a little different role now that I have played. I definitely think guys look at me a little different."
The same can be said for O'Brien's bold decision.
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