North Carolina State Wolfpack
2016 Record: 7-6 (3-5 ACC)
2016 Review/Scheme: After making strides for three straight years on this side of the ball, Dave Doeren’s team took a step backwards last year. It probably didn’t help the optics of it all that Matt Canada, the OC for those three years who had been forced out by Doeren after the 2015 season, was running one of the hottest offenses in the country at Pitt and was snatched up by LSU this offseason. Many people were puzzled why Doeren would force such a hot commodity out. I’m not sure we still know why Canada left Raleigh, but in his place, Doeren brought Eliah Drinkwitz over from Boise State. Drinkwitz’ first NC State offense wasn’t bad, averaging 417 yards per game and 5.8 yards per play, but they were inconsistent, scoring 30 or more points six times, but were also held to 20 points or less six times too.
Part of that inconsistency was due to the fact that the run game was up and down. Drinkwitz is a Gus Malzahn disciple and while he isn’t as run-heavy as Malzahn can be, Drinkwitz does favor a balanced attack that utilizes a lot of play-action. In games where the Pack couldn’t get a run game going, the play action was useless and NC State struggled with traditional drop back passing. What Drinkwitz wants to do is identify his top playmakers and get them the ball any way he can, be it with runs, passes, trick plays, and lots of different formations. With the team having a full year and offseason in Drinkwitz’ system, I’d look for the Pack to open up the playbook a bit more this year.
Quarterbacks: Despite losing Jacoby Brissett after the 2015 season, most people thought there would be a seamless transition at QB since Ryan Finley was taking over. After all, Finley had transferred to NC State from Boise State so he knew Drinkwitz’ offense and had started several games at BSU before he transferred. In the end, Finley (3059 yds, 60%, 18 TDs, 8 INT) did have a good year and was smart with the ball, rarely making mistakes. However, it seemed like NCSU lacked big plays in the passing game and it is hard to tell if that fault lies with play calling, Finley, or perhaps the WRs. Either way, if Finley can push the ball downfield some, the passing attack could really blossom because he is, at minimum, a solid QB.
Junior Jalan McClendon returns to the backup role again. Many people thought McClendon (176 yds, 53%, TD, 4 INTs, 145 yds rushing, 2 TDs) might end up winning the job last year, but he is still somewhat raw as a passer. He provides a decent backup option. True freshman Matt McKay is the only other scholarship QB on the roster.
Running Backs: After being on the team for seemingly a decade, Matt Dayes, one of the more underrated backs in the ACC, has finally moved on. Although RB has become a devalued position, the loss of Dayes could be big. After all, he averaged 89.7 yards per game; no returning back on the roster averaged more than 19.5 yards per game last year.
NC State is hoping one of junior Reggie Gallaspy, senior Dakwa Nichols, or junior Nyheim Hines emerges to become a go-to guy at RB. As of now, it appears Gallaspy and Hines are battling to start. At 225 pounds, Gallaspy (234 yds, 4.8 avg, 2 TDs) is a power back that is going to run over you. Hines (43 recs, 525 yds) was recruited as a RB, but was shifted to receiver as a freshman due to a lack of depth. Hines has been a pretty consistent threat as a slot receiver, but in the spring he moved back to RB in the hopes to bring some home run ability to the position. Nichols (98 yds, 5.2 avg, TD) brings some experience to the table, but he very much appears to be on the outside looking in.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The Wolfpack feel confident enough in this unit that they moved Hines, who finished second in receptions last year, to RB, although Hines may still see time in the slot. On paper, this does appear to be a deep unit at WR and the Wolfpack have strength in numbers at tight end too.
NC State will typically have three wideouts on the field at once and the starting trio looks to be junior Stephen Louis, senior JuMichael Ramos, and sophomore Kelvin Harmon, with junior Maurice Trowell nipping at their heels. Louis (35 recs, 678 yds, 2 TDs) is a big play threat who led the team in receiving yards and yards per catch. He has a nice combo of size and speed and could be in for another big year. Ramos sat out last year due to injury after catching 34 passes in 2015. He’s a solid possession guy with a big body. Harmon (27 recs, 462 yds, 5 TDs) flashed big play potential as a freshman and could have a breakout year. Trowell (9 recs, 149 yds, TD) is a guy that can line up in the slot or outside. Sophomore Jakobi Meyers (13 recs, 158 yds) is another option in the slot if Hines stays at RB.
The Pack do not throw to the tight end much, but they return a solid blocker in senior Cole Cook. In addition to Cook, redshirt frosh Dylan Parham is an undersized receiving threat and classmate Dylan Autenrieth probably is the best combo of blocker and receiver.
Last, but certainly not least, is senior Jaylen Samuels, a man without a true position who lines up as a RB, H-back, TE, and WR. Samuels (55 recs, 565 yds, 7 TDs, 189 yds rushing, 5.7 avg, 6 TDs) is a jack of all trades who doesn’t create many big plays, but just consistently gets open and keeps the chains moving. He led the team in receptions last year and also finished second in receiving yards, first in touchdown receptions, third in rushing yards, fifth in rushing attempts, and second in rushing touchdowns. He’s been NC State’s security blanket since his freshman year and he’ll be a matchup nightmare for most defenses. As an FSU fan, I’ll be glad when he graduates!
Offensive Line: If anything has held back Doeren’s offenses since he came to NC State, it has been the offensive line. The lines for the Wolfpack under Doeren have been consistently inconsistent and have tended to struggle with run blocking against above average defenses. Last year was no different, with NCSU averaging just 4 yards per carry. They were pretty good in pass blocking (17 sacks allowed all year) but they need to be more consistent in the run game. With four starters back, the hope is that these guys being another year older and stronger will pay dividends.
The Pack seem most set at tackle, with junior LT Tyler Jones and junior RT Will Richardson back. Jones started all 13 games last year and has 19 career starts to his name. He is somewhat short (6-3) for a modern day LT, but he makes up for it with sound technique. Richardson started 9 games last year (18 for his career) and is a very good run blocker. Of the starters on the line, Richardson was the highest rated recruit. The other two returning starters are senior RG Tony Adams and junior C Garrett Bradbury. Adams is the bell cow of the group. He has started 35 games in his career and was named 2nd team All-ACC last year. Bradbury started at both center and LG last year and is a try-hard type who knows the system, but can get engulfed by bigger guys.
The new starter, at LG, appears to be junior Terrone Prescod, a massive man (6-5, 340) who is a better run blocker than pass protector. Prescod started 4 games last year, but he will likely face competition from younger guys such as sophomore Aaron Wiltz and a slew of redshirt freshmen. One guy to keep an eye out for is sophomore Emanuel McGirt, a high 4* prospect who can play either tackle spot. He has the most upside of any lineman on the roster and may end up starting eventually.
2016 Review/Scheme: Somewhat quietly, NC State fielded a top 25 defense last year. The Wolfpack weren’t perfect, but they were tough to run on (109 yards per game, 3.3 yards per carry), they got after the QB (37 sacks), and they created turnovers (10 INTs, 12 fumble recoveries). The pass defense was far from perfect, but this unit held 9 opponents to 27 points or less. With much of last year’s production in the front seven back, chances are this unit will be very solid again.
Coordinator Dave Huxtable is an old hat, having served as a defensive coordinator since the 1980s at places like Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky, North Carolina, UCF, and Pitt. Huxtable’s philosophy is fairly simple: he attacks on running downs to force 3rd and longs, which allows him to either sit back or attack, depending on the situation. As such, NC State will load up the box on 1st and 2nd down, often forcing teams to pass to win and making them one-dimensional. Huxtable, like many DCs these days, uses a 4-2-5 look for the most part, with a safety often dropping in the box to serve as a de-facto third LB.
Defensive Line: The key to NC State’s resurgence on defense (they were just okay in 2014 and 2015) has been the development of this unit. Of the nine players who saw game action last year, eight are back. Barring injuries, this will be one of the top defensive lines in the country.
Probably the best news NC State got early this year was when senior Bradley Chubb announced he was returning for his final season in Raleigh. Chubb (58 tackles, 22 for loss, 10.5 sacks) surely would have been a top NFL Draft pick, given his size (6-4, 275), quickness, and athleticism. NC State’s gain is everyone else’s loss, as the senior defensive end should wreak havoc. That is partially because the Pack also return senior Kentavious Street and junior Darian Roseboro at end as well, making it hard for teams to focus solely on Chubb. Street (30 tackles, 9 for loss, 5.5 sacks) is a big bodied (6-2, 282) former 5* recruit who reminds me of a poor man’s Mario Edwards, Jr. Street is an edge setter with some pass rushing skills. Roseboro (25 tackles, 11 for loss, 7 sacks) is another former highly ranked recruit who has beef (6-4, 287) and athleticism. All three of these guys will probably be on NFL rosters soon.
The Wolfpack will likely utilize a three-man rotation at tackle too, where senior Justin Jones, senior B.J. Hill, and junior Eurndraus Bryant return. Jones (43 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 3 sacks) and Hill (39 tackles, 2.5 for loss) are both run-stuffers who occupy blockers and clog lanes. Bryant (13 tackles, 3 for loss) is another space-eater who can give quality snaps off the bench. The coaches are really high on redshirt frosh “Shug” Frazier, a former 4* recruit who goes 6-3, 320.
Linebackers: For what seems like the tenth year in a row, seniors Airius Moore and Jerod Fernandez are back as the starters at the two linebacker spots. For a point of reference, Fernandez intercepted Jameis Winston twice in Raleigh in 2014! The duo should be one of the better starting units in the conference.
As good as the defensive line is, Pro Football Focus recently named Moore (86 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, 5 pass breakups) as the top player on the NC State defense. Moore is an every-down guy who can play the run, the pass, or blitz. Fernandez (88 tackles, 4.5 for loss, INT) is not going to wow you physically, but he is the prototypical instinctual linebacker who rarely takes false steps. Again, he isn’t a great athlete so he can be taken out of plays, but he rarely makes mistakes.
The Pack have two experienced backups in junior Riley Nicholson and senior Germaine Pratt. Nicholson (12 tackles, 1 for loss) has played a decent amount of snaps the past two years. Pratt is a former highly regarded recruit who has never panned out and didn’t play much last year. He has experience in the system and raw physical ability, but this is his last chance to do something on the field.
Secondary: If there was a weakness to the defense last year, it was definitely the secondary. The Pack prevented big plays, but opponents also threw for 244 yards per game and completed nearly 60% of their passes. If teams could avoid negative plays, they could dink and dunk all day on NC State. There is concern here once again because top safety Josh Jones, who was a 2nd round draft pick, the top two nickel backs, and the top corner, who is in an NFL camp, from last year are all gone.
The Wolfpack at least have strength in numbers and some experience at safety. Senior Shawn Boone returns at SS, where he started 12 games last year. Boone (67 tackles) does not offer a lot in pass defense and is often the safety who walks up into the box to clog the run. Junior Dexter Wright (10 tackles) has played some off the bench the past two years and has the size (6-2, 232) to be intimidating if nothing else. He’s the leader to start at FS. He will face competition from redshirt frosh Isaiah Stallings, a former 4* recruit who also has nice size (6-4, 220). The nickel back spot, which is a hybrid CB-S position in NC State’s attack, will be a battle between junior Freddie Phillips, sophomore Trae Meadows, and redshirt freshman Bryce Banks. Phillips and Meadows have both seen garbage time action while Banks may have the highest ceiling.
The situation at cornerback is similar. NC State returns a senior starter in Mike Stevens, but beyond that are question marks. Stevens (32 tackles, 4 PBU, INT) started all 12 games he appeared in and he is a solid cover guy. Although not blessed with great physical skills, Stevens is a good technician. Battling to start with him are sophomore Nick McCloud, senior Johnathan Alston, and redshirt freshman James Valdez. McCloud (15 tackles, 3 PBU) appears to be the clubhouse leader after starting in the bowl game and seeing lots of playing time as a freshman. McCloud is long and lean (6-1, 185) with decent cover skills. Alston is a former 4* WR recruit who showed brief glimpses on offense before moving to defense in the spring. He has good size, but he is obviously still learning the position. Valdez was recently reinstated to the program after being suspended for a violation of team rules in April. Valdez probably has the most natural talent of any of the trio, but he has to get back in the good graces of the coaches and has no actual game experience.
Special Teams: The good news is that Nyheim Hines is an excellent return man. Beyond that, the Wolfpack were a mess on special teams. Punter A.J. Cole (41.3 avg) had a solid average, but his net ranked in the bottom half of the country. Kicker Kyle Bambard (5 of 10 FGs) struggled mightily, hitting just 3 of 8 attempts from 30+ yards, including a potential game winner from 33 yards against Clemson. It got so bad that NC State started just going for it on fourth down toward the end of the year rather than kick. Not surprisingly, the kicking job is an open competition and it appears Carson Wise, a graduate transfer from Carson-Newman, has supplanted Bambard as the starting kicker. Bambard is still set to be the kick off specialist, but it looks like Wise has locked down the placekicking job.
Schedule: The schedule is very much a mixed bag, but is certainly manageable. Road games against FSU, Notre Dame, and Pitt will be hard, but road dates with Boston College and Wake are infinitely winnable. If NC State wants to improve on their win total, they really need to make some hay with a neutral site game versus South Carolina and home games against Louisville, Clemson, and rival UNC. One thing the schedule makers did not do the Pack any favors with, though, is a four game stretch of Louisville, at Pitt, at ND, and Clemson, with the Louisville game coming on a Thursday (although they do get a bye before ND).
Overall: If you go by Bill Connelly’s S&P system, NC State has actually improved every year under Doeren, even though last year appeared to be a step back from an optics point of view and saw one less win than 2015. But because the Wolfpack have not really won a signature game under Doeren (the win over Notre Dame was sullied by a hurricane and ND stinking last season), the former Northern Illinois coach is listed by many websites as being on the proverbial hot seat. On the one hand, I do think NC State is probably the first choice for dark horse ACC champion. I don’t think they can run through the gauntlet of the ACC Atlantic to make it to the ACC title game, but I do think they can play spoiler because they should have a terrific defense, a solid QB, and good enough talent at the skill positions. The offensive line may hold the offense back some, but the offense should be good enough to win games when combined with this defense. The problem for NC State is they don’t have much margin for error in terms of injuries because they aren’t very deep at any position besides probably WR, DE, and DT and at the latter two they really have three guys at each spot so they aren’t super deep there either. Injuries would cripple most college football teams, but NCSU could really go from a potential 9-win team to struggling to make a bowl if injuries hit. I look at the starting 22 and I think this is a 9-win team, but I look at the overall depth chart and the schedule and think 8-4 is probably more realistic. Doeren is recruiting pretty well, bringing in a lot of high 3* and low 4* kids, but winning 7 or 8 games per year got Tom O’Brien fired so it is hard to say if another 7-8 win season will get Doeren canned. In any event, NCSU will probably be a really interesting team to keep an eye on this year.