RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -North Carolina State's most reliable receiver missed all of Tom O'Brien's debut season with a serious injury. The team's top two rushers were severely banged up and barely played for their new coach.
And as O'Brien prepares to start his second year in Raleigh, some of his best players are once again carrying crutches instead of helmets.
``I'm pretty sure we're used to it now,'' tight end Anthony Hill said.
Hill didn't play a down last year after leading the team in receptions in 2006 and then tearing a knee ligament in the offseason, one of the most prominent casualties of an injury-riddled year that never really got going until it was too late.
The health concerns that kept 10 starters out of games last season have threatened to derail Year 2 of O'Brien's reconstruction project, leading the former Marine to quip of his defensive line that ``we don't want to be in a situation where we're playing a German and a walk-on the second or third game of the year.
``We're almost there at safety,'' he added, ``except we don't have a German.''
O'Brien was referring to Markus Kuhn, who never started, but saw action in 11 games last season at tackle and end.
N.C. State fans have to wonder what O'Brien's team can accomplish if the veteran coach ever has a full complement of players on the depth chart. While every team deals with the bumps and bruises that come with preseason camp, the Wolfpack have been particularly cursed:
- Running back Toney Baker, still recovering from the knee injury he suffered in the '07 opener, had a subsequent operation to clean out extra cartilage in his knee. That procedure likely will sideline him for a few more weeks.
- Safety Clem Johnson is out with a broken jaw suffered during a preseason scrimmage, further thinning the depth at a position that had few bodies already.
- Top returning receiver Donald Bowens will miss the season with a hairline fracture in his spine.
Even though the injuries have forced players to learn how to adjust to the loss of a teammates, the Wolfpack clearly can't afford any more casualties.
``They take things in stride much better (this year), which is good,'' O'Brien said. ``Surely there are going to be injuries, but hopefully none this significant as the (ones) we've had in camp.''
Bowens caught 41 passes for 598 yards and three touchdowns last year. His injury robs the Wolfpack of their leading returning receiver and most capable return man while also leaving an unsettled quarterback situation without its most dependable target.
``When you lose your most experienced and best receiver, that certainly hurts you when you're trying to find a quarterback,'' O'Brien said. ``It's a tough situation to be in and it's a tough situation for him to sit out this year. But we faced, and in my past we faced, these situations and one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity. So (I'm) just waiting for another man to step up and take that opportunity.''
There are plenty of other questions up and down the lineup for N.C. State, which rebounded from a 1-5 start last season to win four straight and threaten to win bowl eligibility before ending the season with losses to Wake Forest and Maryland.
One-time third-stringer Jamelle Eugene emerged as the team's go-to back last year when Baker and Andre Brown went down, but can he carry the load all season? The defense ranked among the nation's worst last season, so is the loss of seven starters actually a good thing?
And just who will throw the ball to the thinned group of receivers?
An open five-man quarterback competition has been whittled to three, with third-year starter Daniel Evans vying for his old job against redshirt freshman Russell Wilson and freshman Mike Glennon. Evans, the only candidate with game experience, led the Wolfpack's four-game winning streak last season but there remain lingering concerns about the 6-foot-2 player's arm strength.
O'Brien plans to settle on a starter by the team's final scrimmage of the preseason, roughly a week before N.C. State opens the season with a difficult test at South Carolina.
``You're going to have to learn to play before a crowd sooner or later, so why not start off the bat and go do it?'' O'Brien said. ``Maybe it's not the most ideal way you want to start. ... But they're all competitors. They all want to play against the best, and that's part of being at that position too, is accepting challenges to be the guy to go down there and play.''

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