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Defensive turnaround key for O’Brien

Until about six weeks ago, when the first of two investigations into North Carolina’s program became public knowledge, the most compelling regional conversation piece this football season was almost certain to be the fate of Tom O’Brien.

Sandwiched between new campus president Randy Woodson and even newer athletic director Debbie Yow, the fourth-year N.C. State coach was thrown into a precarious situation just a few days before the Carolina chaos began.

UNC’s problems have pushed O’Brien off ground zero for now and may keep him there for a while – certainly for the next week or more.

Eventually, however, O’Brien will become an item again.

By the time the Wolfpack plays its first ACC game – at Georgia Tech on Sept. 25 – the new bosses and State fans should have a decent reading on the season’s direction.

That O’Brien is a very good football coach isn’t the question. He can coach. Unresolved is the matter of whether he can establish that fact again before Woodson and Yow develop an itch to bring in their own man.

On the field, it should very easy to see and read.

In fact, if there is a simple situation in all of ACC football this season, it has to be State.

The Pack will be the league’s most improved team if it has the league’s most improved defense. Otherwise, stand by for steam heat.

With just an average defense last season, O’Brien would have turned an important corner. The Pack would have won eight or nine games, gone to a mid-level bowl game and entered the coach’s fourth season among the favorites to win the ACC Atlantic.

Instead, only the season-ending win over Carolina kept the staff out of the hot water that began to spike after midseason losses to Duke (49-28), Boston College (52-20) and Clemson (43-23), two of which unfolded before a grumbling crowd in Carter-Finley Stadium.

Shortly thereafter, O’Brien brought in the ultimate defensive Mr. Fix It, Jon Tenuta, to patch up the trouble.

Defensive coordinator Mike Archer is still around and calling at least some shots on his side the line of scrimmage.

But there’s little doubt that Tenuta’s work with the team’s linebackers will go far in determining O’Brien’s job security and the fate of the program’s immediate future.

The UNC crisis has served as something of a summer solar eclipse. It has provided O’Brien, Tenuta and the rest of the staff with peace and quiet to maneuver and manipulate.

But soon, some of the focus will shift back to the Pack.