It looks like you're new here. If you want to get involved, click one of these buttons!
RALEIGH, N.C. — Oh, hunger. What an overused, under-examined phrase in the lexicon of college football coaches speak … except, well, when it becomes literal.
First, the traditional (and trite) meaning: that a program is anxious, eager and champing at the bit to prove itself and succeed. And in that sense, NC State certainly fits the definition. Consecutive nine-win seasons in 2017 and 2018 had Dave Doeren’s club seemingly on the brink of a major breakthrough — and then came last season. A rotating cast of quarterbacks coupled with countless injuries to significant starters ultimately brought the Wolfpack back down to earth. Six straight losses to end the season was just the punctuation on a painful 4-8 campaign.
“You get to nine wins — nine wins — and sometimes you’re a young team and the kids didn’t understand maybe what those guys went through to create that because they weren’t here to witness that challenge,” Doeren told The Athletic. “Now they get it, you know? Winning’s hard. It’s really hard.” And while Doeren’s team understands that now, it doesn’t mean it’s any more satisfied with the way last season ended.
As defensive coordinator Tony Gibson succinctly said: “We’re pissed off.”
It should be no surprise, then, that NC State’s Zoom meetings over the last several months have been highly productive. With frustration comes fuel. But recently, thanks to an idea of Gibson’s, with frustration comes … food?
Gibson and others on the staff have taken that metaphorical “hunger” and translated it to reality. The Wolfpack’s defensive players, on a position-by-position basis, have been split into teams of two, and the groups compete during film study and play recall in meetings. There’s no number of points that signifies the end of the competition — when football returns in person is still up in the air, after all — but the reward has long been stated.
“When they get back, I’m gonna have them at my house. And the winning team is gonna get steak,” Gibson told The Athletic, “and the losing team is gonna get hot dogs.”
There’s a chuckle on the other end of the line.
“Obviously,” he added, “it gets their competitive juices flowing a little bit.”
That’s a good thing. A necessary thing, really. Not that the Wolfpack weren’t competing beforehand, but an offseason overhaul of the program was all about creating accountability. With the players, obviously, but the coaching staff, too. That’s part of the reason Doeren brought in five new coaches, including former Texas offensive coordinator Tim Beck, and slashed the “co-” off Gibson’s defensive coordinator title.
“When you go through difficult things,” Doeren said, “it provides opportunities for not just reflection but for growth.”
The reflection part and the subsequent changes are done. Now it’s about improvement. Luckily, the youth on this team means there’s plenty of opportunity for it; outside of Clemson, NC State played the second-most freshmen in the country last season. With a year of playing time under their belts, there’s reason to believe their young core coupled with established veterans can get the Wolfpack trending upward again. That’ll mean more stability from an offense that finished 12th in the ACC in scoring last season (22.1 points per game) and more teeth from a defense that allowed at least 28 points per game in the last six contests of the year.
The stakes are high, clearly — and for more reasons than the steaks up for grabs.
That old adage about if you have two quarterbacks, you really don’t have any? Well, what if you have three?
The same holds, as NC State discovered last season. A trio of signal callers lined up under center for the Wolfpack in 2019, two of whom return in redshirt sophomore Devin Leary and redshirt junior Bailey Hockman, although none of the three really excelled. Leary, though, started the final five games, throwing for 1,219 yards and eight touchdowns against five interceptions. Those numbers didn’t translate to wins, but for a guy who started the season No. 3 on the depth chart, it was enough promise for Doeren to name Leary the starter heading into spring camp.
Accuracy will be Leary’s greatest area for improvement, as the former two-time New Jersey Gatorade player of the year completed only 48.1 percent of his passes in 2019. But Beck and Doeren said they’re encouraged by Leary’s arm strength and quick release. “I’m really excited about his potential and some of the things he can bring to the table for us,” Beck said. “It’s just going to take time.”
Hockman is slated to serve as Leary’s backup, but if the former struggles early, it wouldn’t be inconceivable for the coaching staff to make a switch. Behind those two are a pair of redshirt freshmen in Ty Evans and Jamie Shaw. Evans was the more highly touted recruit, rated as the No. 18 pro-style quarterback in the class. Lastly, there’s freshman Ben Finley, the younger brother of former NC State starter Ryan Finley, for depth and development.
Whoever lines up at quarterback already has one built-in advantage: whom he’s handing off the ball to. For all the potential on this roster, the running backs are arguably the strongest unit of any on offense.
Sophomore Zonovan “Bam” Knight leads the way, and he’ll look to build on his promising freshman campaign of 745 yards and five scores. If taking your first college carry in for a touchdown doesn’t foretell great things, nothing does. Knight especially came on late in the year, recording two of his three 100-yard rushing games in NC State’s final four contests. But the depth here is staggering, both for the number of runners at Beck’s disposal and their various styles. Fellow sophomore Jordan Houston isn’t as physical as Knight, but he has great speed that pairs nicely in tandem; he also had over 500 yards last season.
The particularly interesting name to watch, though, is junior Ricky Person Jr., the former No. 4 back in the 2018 class. Person’s talent is immense, but he’s had trouble staying on the field since he arrived in Raleigh, missing nine games in two years. If he’s healthy, the Wolfpack will have as strong a group of rushers as anyone in the ACC. Redshirt sophomore Trent Pennix also has playing experience.
Wide receivers/tight ends
Might true freshman Porter Rooks, the Wolfpack’s top-rated incoming recruit, see substantial playing time this season? It’s not inconceivable after what Doeren said he wants from his pass catchers.
“We need to be faster,” he said, “and make more plays after the catch.” Rooks fits that mold, and the coaching staff is excited about his potential.
There are already playmakers at the position, though, including several returning starters. Senior Emeka Emezie, the team’s leading receiver last season (56 catches, 576 yards), will lock down one of the starting slots out wide. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he has the physicality to make contested catches, as evidenced by his 20-game catching streak. After speedster C.J. Riley tore his ACL in the season opener, Devin Carter filled in admirably with 456 yards; both are back in 2020, giving Leary two other massive, 6-foot-4 targets. Grad transfer Tabari Hines is gone, which should allow that trio to see a majority of the snaps, but redshirt junior Thayer Thomas will compete for time after starting 10 games last season.
At tight end, the Wolfpack are thrilled to get back injured captain Dylan Autenrieth, who returns for his sixth season. How much he plays is up in the air, as Cary Angeline developed into an All-ACC honorable mention in Autenrieth’s absence. Angeline, who caught 25 balls for 379 yards and a team-high five touchdowns, will also have to stave off athletic redshirt senior Dylan Parham.
It’s an experienced group, but injuries in recent seasons mean there’s still some projecting as far as the extent of the rotation. “There wasn’t anybody out there like, ‘This guy? He can’t play for us,'” Beck said. “There wasn’t that. It was, ‘Hey, this guy did this really well. Look at his effort; look at that block; that was a great route.’ You saw a lot of really positive things.”
The good news: Six offensive linemen who started last season return for 2020. The not-so-good news: With a line that struggled at times last season (especially during the six-game losing streak), how many of those guys can reasonably be expected to start again?
The two to feel safe about are redshirt junior center Grant Gibson and redshirt senior left guard Joe Sculthorpe. “We’ve got pretty good returning strength there,” Doeren said, “but we’ve gotta figure out the rest of it.”
That’s especially true at tackle. Tyrone Riley was the assumed starter at left tackle last season but suffered a season-ending foot injury the second day of practice in August. He was replaced by the since-departed Emanuel McGirt Jr., then by sophomore Ikem Ekwonu for the final seven games. Ekwonu and Riley will battle for that spot, with the loser providing swing tackle depth. On the right side, redshirt senior Justin Witt is back, but he too suffered a season-ending injury and missed seven games. His replacement, redshirt junior Bryson Speas, is better suited at guard, though, and Witt should reclaim that spot. Speas, then, figures to occupy the right guard spot that opened up when Joshua Fedd-Jackson entered the transfer portal, but that’s not a guarantee.
“We’ve got good players there,” Doeren said. “We’ve just gotta get them all on the field at the same time and see what the best five are.”
The staff is also high on redshirt freshman Dylan McMahon, who played in four games — including against Clemson — to keep his redshirt intact. But considering McMahon, Riley and Witt missed the team’s limited spring practices, there’s still some sussing out to be done along the line.
|CATEGORY||% RETURNING||TOP RETURNER|
Ingle & Wilson, 69 each
The defensive line room has become something of an NFL breeding ground in recent years, and the cupboard is still very much intact in that respect. It all starts in the middle with junior nose tackle Alim McNeill, whom Gibson called the “bell cow” on the D-line. At 6-foot-2 and 315 pounds, the All-ACC honorable mention from last season is a one-man wrecking ball. “He’s playing with extreme confidence right now,” Gibson said, which makes sense, as McNeill recorded 7 1/2 tackles for loss last season.
Joining McNeill inside is redshirt senior Val Martin, who missed the spring after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Those two will form a formidable rotation on the interior of Gibson’s 3-3-5 stack scheme, with the potential to kick one to “end” in certain three-man fronts.
On the edge, the Wolfpack are loaded with potential but thin on proven contributors. Redshirt junior Ibrahim Kante will have every opportunity to start at one end spot, but there are a number of younger talents the coaching staff is excited about, too. Tops among them are sophomore Savion Jackson, the team’s top-rated recruit in the 2019 class, and redshirt freshman Terrell Dawkins. Jackson is the favorite to start, but Gibson said he ideally would like at least nine linemen he can rotate over the course of a game. Grad transfer Daniel Joseph, who arrives from Penn State, will fit in that mix.
A deeper rotation is also a good sign for several younger guys, many of whom were top recruits. Redshirt freshman nose Joshua Harris, for example, was a four-star prospect who developed last season behind McNeill and Martin. Redshirt freshman C.J. Clark was also a four-star recruit, with the mobility-strength combination to play either one- or three-technique.
Again, potential is the key here. The hope is new D-line coach Charley Wiles, who arrives after more than 20 years at Virginia Tech, can parlay that raw talent into production.Dylan Autenrieth returns as an on-field and off-field leader for the young Wolfpack. (Rob Kinnan / USA Today)
If you’re looking for “the guy” in 2020, especially from a leadership perspective, it is unequivocally redshirt junior linebacker Isaiah Moore. Third on the team in tackles with 53 a season ago, Moore will be as key to the defensive success this year as anyone.
He’ll have help, though, in what makes up one of the team’s stronger rooms. Redshirt sophomore Payton Wilson, who tied for the team lead with 69 tackles, should start this season and expand his role even further. “He’s settling in and becoming what we thought he would,” Gibson said. Senior Louis Acceus, despite being a bit undersized, is back again after missing the final four games of the season with an injury. Those three, as likely starters, form the nucleus of the defense.
But there are others the coaching staff is watching closely, including redshirt sophomore Calvin “C.J.” Hart Jr., sophomore Jaylon Scott and sophomore Drake Thomas. All three will be counted on as part of the rotation, especially with former starter Brock Miller grad transferring to Boise State. The X-factor here is redshirt junior Vi Jones, who transferred from USC and sat out last season. “He’s a freak,” Gibson said. “Just can run. Very good pass rusher.” His versatility, at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, can absolutely be an asset.
Much like the O-line, there’s talent in the secondary. And much like the O-line, there are health questions that will factor in. At times last season, the Wolfpack were down to their sixth, seventh and eighth corners.
“Anybody out there knows that’s hard to win with,” Doeren said.
The lone guarantee in the secondary is junior free safety Tanner Ingle, who tied for the team lead with 69 tackles a season ago. A former nickel, Ingle isn’t huge — he’s listed at just 5-foot-10 and 188 pounds — but he’s dependable and a sound tackler for his size. His counterpart at safety, though, could end up being anyone.
Gibson said he feels “really good” about sophomore Jakeen Harris, who had 31 tackles last season in a rotational role. There’s also redshirt freshman Khalid Martin, who started for the injured Ingle against UNC, and junior Tyler Baker-Williams, who has mostly been a nickel thus far in his career. Don’t count out freshmen Nehki Meredith or Devan Boykin, either; Gibson said both were off to strong starts in the spring before the COVID-19 pandemic set in. “You can tell he’s a coach’s son,” Gibson said of Boykin, who played under his father, Johnny, at Ragsdale High School in Greensboro.
Cornerback is slightly less muddled but with a deeper overall group. Some crucial context: Chris Ingram, who started last season at right corner, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game of the season. His fellow starter on the left side, Nick McCloud, injured his left knee in the season opener and essentially missed the rest of the year; he has since entered the transfer portal. Replacing those two came via a committee approach. Returning junior Teshaun Smith and redshirt sophomore Malik Dunlap each started a handful of games, as did a few players who are no longer with the program: Kishawn Miller, who started five games outside before exhausting his eligibility, and De’Von Graves, who transferred to Northern Arizona this offseason. Stephen Griffin, who started eight games at nickel, graduated.
Add to the mix redshirt freshman Shyheim Battle, redshirt sophomore Taiyon Palmer and sophomore Cecil Powell and, clearly, there’s a lot to make sense of.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do back there,” Doeren said.
Ingram figures to assume one of the starting outside roles, with the other to be decided before the season. Dunlap (who played in all 12 games) and Powell are among the early favorites, but don’t discount Battle. “He had probably as good a spring as anybody on our defense,” Gibson said.
Redshirt junior punter Trenton Gill and junior kicker Christopher Dunn are back in 2020 and coming off All-ACC seasons. Gill, who led the conference in punting average, should contend for All-America honors if he stays on track. Dunn, meanwhile, made 21 of his 24 field goal attempts and every PAT. That duo should be among the conference’s best. Sophomore kick returner Keyon Lesane and punt returner Thayer return, too.