North Carolina State Wolfpack
2017 Record: 9-4 (6-2, ACC Atlantic)
2017 Review: The Wolfpack were not necessarily great at any one thing, but they were good at everything, finishing 25th in the country in yards per game and averaging a solid 6 yards per play. Coach Dave Doeren’s background is run-heavy and so he’d probably like to see improvement in that area, but he has to be pleased with the overall improvement the offense has seen in his tenure in Raleigh.
Scheme: Coordinator Eli Drinkwitz came over from Boise State in 2016 and added some of his own elements to Doeren’s power spread style. Drinkwitz skews more toward the pass, focusing on short, efficient, high percentage pass plays. There are still components of Doeren’s up-tempo, power spread that got him hired from Northern Illinois, but the Wolfpack tend to lean on the pass.
Quarterbacks: Senior Ryan Finley actually played under Drinkwitz at Boise State before coming over to NC State as a grad transfer. Now in his third year as a starter (how in the heck did he graduate from BSU so fast?!?) in Raleigh, Finley (3518 yards, 65%, 17 TDs, 6 INTs, 194 yds rushing, 3 TDs) is probably the best QB the Wolfpack have had since Russell Wilson. He doesn’t have the arm of a Mike Glennon or the escapability and athleticism of a Jacoby Brissett, but Finley is accurate, efficient, has a quick release, and rarely makes mistakes. It took until the eighth game of the year for Finley to throw an interception last year and he completed a ridiculous 68% of his passes on third and long. The one knock against Finley is he often does not push the ball down the field, but the guy is a great college QB regardless.
Now, NC State has to hope that Finley stays healthy because the backup for the past two years, Jalan McClendon, transferred out of the program so that leaves senior Woody Cornwell, a former walk-on, redshirt frosh Matt McKay, and true freshman Devin Leary as the only other QBs on the roster. None of them have ever seen the field in college.
Running Backs: Most people assumed NC State would have trouble at running back last year after former receiver Nyheim Hines was forced to switch positions and won the job rather quickly. Hines ended up being a revelation, rushing for over 1,100 yards and adding another 26 receptions. He’ll be missed. Senior Reggie Galaspy, the top backup last year, gets first crack at the job. Galaspy (505 yds, 4.3 avg, 7 TDs, 13 receptions) has dealt with injury issues his whole career (he sat out the spring game due to injury) and that could be a problem since Doeren tends to like to lean on one guy. If he can stay healthy, Galaspy has the size to be the power back Doeren likes.
Much like at QB, depth is thin and unproven here. Many people expect highly touted true freshman Ricky Person, a high 4* recruit who was considered one of the five best RBs in his class, to step right in and serve as the backup. Person has college-ready size at 6-1, 210 and offers more speed than Galaspy. Redshirt freshman Nakia Robinson and true frosh Trent Pennix will get looks, but you get the sense the coaching staff would like to ride Galaspy and Person.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Jaylen Samuels has finally, mercifully graduated. NC State’s Swiss Army knife has finally moved on and he’s currently earning rave reviews on the pro level. Samuels was a jack of all trades during his career and he was once again last season, ranking first in receptions, second in receiving touchdowns, third in receiving yards, third in rushing attempts, third in rushing yards, and tied for first in rushing touchdowns. Most teams would greatly miss that kind of production and I do think NC State will miss his versatility, but it would not be a stretch to say NC State may have the best WR corps in the conference, even with Samuels’ loss.
It starts with junior Kelvin Harmon, who led the Pack in receiving yards last year. Harmon (69 recs, 1017 yds, 4 TDs) is not fast by any stretch, but he uses his 6-3 frame to box out defenders or goes up and gets the ball. He’s a great possession receiver. Classmate Jakobi Meyers (63 recs, 727 yds, 5 TDs) led the team in receiving touchdowns last year after moving over from QB. Athletic, fast, and great with the ball in his hands, Meyers will be a tough matchup in the slot. Senior Stephon Louis (37 recs, 583 yds, 2 TDs) tends to be inconsistent, but he is a big play threat on the outside. The coaches are expecting big leaps forward for sophomores Emeka Emezie (13 recs, 163 yds, TD) and CJ Riley (9 recs, 142 yds), who both flashed as freshmen and bring great size to the table.
Samuels was used as an H-back and tight end and there is no clear-cut successor. Sophomores Dylan Parham and Dylan Autenrieth saw some time off the bench last year, but were only targeted once each in the passing game. Redshirt freshman Damien Darden profiles as more of a traditional in-line blocking tight end. Classmate Adam Boselli offers even more size and blocking ability, but is a work in progress as a receiver. One guy to look out for is USC transfer Cary Angeline, a sophomore who played in two games with the Trojans last year. It was recently ruled that Angeline has to sit out the first three games of the year due to some weird NCAA rule, but he could be a factor here once he is back in the fold.
Offensive Line: This unit is a mixed bag. They did not give up many sacks, yet that was partially due to Finley’s ability to get rid of the ball. The ground game produced yards and a decent per carry average, yet NC State ranked 108th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line of scrimmage). The players are just as much of a mixed bag. NC State returns three starters, all seniors who have combined for 75 starts, yet the two missing starters were both all-conference picks.
The known quantities are LT Tyler Jones, LG Terronne Prescod, and C Garrett Bradbury. All three have started at least two years and Prescod was a 2nd team All-ACC pick last year. The two open spots on the right side will be a battle between four former 4* recruits. Sophomore Justin Witt, who started once last year, leads junior Emanuel McGirt, Jr., for the vacant RT spot. At RG, sophomore Joshua Fedd-Jackson is ahead of classmate Joe Sculthorpe. Sculthorpe started once last year and might see time at LG as well.
2017 Review: The 2017 Wolfpack defense was a bit of a conundrum. The unit featured four guys drafted in the first 128 picks of the NFL Draft, but were wildly uneven. They were pretty stout against the run for the year, but got bludgeoned by Notre Dame, Clemson, and BC. The Pack finished near the bottom of the ACC in pass defense and total defense, were middle of the pack in scoring defense, and allowed a pedestrian 5.6 yards per play. Considering the talent and experience, it was a surprisingly poor year.
Scheme: Coordinator Dave Huxtable runs a 4-2-5 that loads up the box and dares teams to beat them by the pass. Huxtable wants to sell out to not get beat on the ground and often puts his corners on an island, but his secondary was not up to the task last year, ranking 104th in pass defense. Huxtable is willing to attack to force negative plays. He loads up on size along the defensive line, but is willing to field fast, undersized players everywhere else to rally to the ball.
Defensive Line: All four starters from last year’s unit are gone and all four were drafted. The departed Bradley Chubb was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Despite those losses, NC State should field a solid starting four. Depth is the question.
At end, senior Darian Roseboro and junior James Smith-Williams will elevate into starting roles after being top backups last year. Roseboro (33 tackles, 7 for loss, 2.5 sacks) is a former blue chip recruit who offers great size to set the edge. Smith-Williams (10 tackles, 1.5 for loss) did not put up much in the way of stats last year, but he has been tabbed as a breakout candidate after a strong spring. Junior Tyrone Riley is the only backup who has seen the field and it seems more likely JC transfer Joe Babros and redshirt frosh Ibrahim Kante emerge as top options based on spring and summer reports.
Defensive tackle also has two for-sure starters and then question marks. Senior Eurndraus Bryant (15 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 2 sacks) is a career backup who has played a lot off the bench. He is a space eater at 330 pounds and should have a solid year. The staff and fans are really excited about sophomore Shug Frazier, a top recruit who appeared in all 13 games last year. Frazier (13 tackles) has been hampered by a toe injury, but when he is at 100%, he could be among the top DTs in the conference. Again, depth is the question. Junior Larrell Murchison has been in the program, but has never played. Redshirt frosh Grant Gibson was a high 3* recruit who brings nice size to the table. JC transfer Val Martin was signed to plug and play. True freshman Alim McNeill was a 4* recruit who has turned heads and is going to play at least some.
Linebackers: More rebuilding here after multi-year starters Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore finally exhausted their eligibility. The Pack are really thin here, with only five healthy, scholarship LBs at the start of summer camp. NC State basically only played three linebackers last year and you might see that again unless injuries strike.
The one sure-thing is senior Germaine Pratt, a former safety and well-regarded recruit who finally put it together last year. Pratt (69 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 2 INTs) did not actually start a single game, but still finished fourth in tackles. He has beefed up to 240 pounds, but is still fast enough to play the pass. He should be good. The likely starter next to him is sophomore Louis Acceus, who appeared in 12 games last year, mainly on special teams. Beyond that you’ve got sophomore Brock Miller, redshirt frosh Isaiah Moore, and true freshman Calvin Hart. True freshman blue chip recruit Payton Wilson was expected to play, but he got injured and appears headed for a redshirt.
Secondary: There is raw talent and some experience in the defensive backfield, but arguably the best two players have moved on and this unit was torched early and often last year. Hope for improvement rests on a lot of young shoulders.
The most known quantities are at safety, where starters Jarius Morehead and Tim Kidd-Glass return and experienced backups Dexter Wright and Isaiah Stallings come back too. Morehead (80 tackles, 3 pass breakups, INT) is the unquestioned leader of the unit after finishing second in tackles last year and starting 12 games. Morehead is no star, but he is solid. Kidd-Glass (35 tackles, 2 PBUs) started 10 times at FS last year, but he is being pushed hard by Wright (17 tackles, 2 PBUs), who started twice himself. Wright offers more size while Kidd-Glass is more athletic and fast. They may be interchangeable. Stallings started once last year and is the future of the secondary. Standing 6-4, weighing 220 pounds, and with good speed and athleticism, he should be a star in time.
Junior Nick McCloud is the leader at corner, returning after starting seven times last season. McCloud (34 tackles, 7 PBUs, INT) is probably the best player in the secondary and has a good combo of size and technique. Senior Maurice Trowell exited spring as the other starter, but he is extremely raw. A former WR, Trowell is the fastest player on the team, but did not move to CB until this spring and is still learning the position. Pushing him to start are sophomore Chris Ingram and JC transfer Kishawn Miller. Many around the program think true freshmen DeVon Graves and Taiyon Palmer, who were both low 4* prospects, must come in ready to play.
NC State’s nickelback position is a demanding one, asking the player to be equally adept at stopping the run or pass. The Wolfpack will surely miss Shawn Boone, who started in the spot last year and stuffed the stat sheet, finishing sixth in tackles, first in interceptions, third in passes broken up, and third in sacks. The good news is it seems the Pack have two viable candidates for the job in juniors Stephen Griffin and Freddie Phillips. Griffin is a transfer from Tennessee who played in 19 games over two seasons with the Vols. He has good size at 6-3, 210, and flashed playmaking ability on the scout team last year. Phillips was limited to just one game last year after injuring his Achilles in the season opener. He missed spring practice, but with 25 career games under his belt, albeit mainly on special teams, he brings some experience to the table.
Special Teams: The lone piece of good news is that senior AJ Cole returns for his fourth year as a starter. Steady and talented, Cole (43.7 avg) should push for postseason honors. The bad news is that NC State will be relying on true freshman Christopher Dunn at kicker and the aforementioned Nyheim Hines was a dynamic return man who must be replaced. Kyle Bambard does return to give NC State options at kicker, but he was just 4 of 8 on field goal attempts and so hopes are really pinned on Dunn to help a kicking unit that has struggled for several years.
Schedule: Last year’s non-conference schedule featured tough dates with South Carolina and Notre Dame and this year’s slate looks much more manageable, with FCS James Madison, Georgia State, and West Virginia all coming to Raleigh and a late September road date at Marshall. You would think that would produce at least three wins, although that opener with JMU could be tricky, as the FCS power has appeared in the last two title games and has taken down FBS teams in the recent past. The ACC slate is pretty mixed. Road dates with Clemson and Louisville will be tough, but the Pack get BC, FSU, and rival Wake at home.
Overall: As I wrote earlier about Louisville, you get the sense that NC State missed an opportunity last year. FSU was struggling and Clemson was still good but had several new pieces on offense. Yet, NC State again finished 8-4 in the regular season and never really challenged for the division title. Even after beating Notre Dame in 2016 and FSU last year, Doeren is still looking for that breakthrough win since those wins were sullied by the opposing team having subpar years. This year, the division looks harder and NC State is largely rebuilding. Finley and the WR corps should keep the offense humming along, although there are questions about RB, TE, and the right side of the offensive line. The defense is in full rebuild mode with just three starters back and largely no proven depth anywhere. The offense might improve on last year or at least be as good, but the defense could really regress. Even though the 2017 defense underachieved, they had more talent, experience, and depth than this year’s unit appears to have. It would not shock me to see NC State win 8 games again, but it also wouldn’t shock me if their 4 losses were blowouts. I also would not be surprised to see them slip up against a JMU or BC or Wake and struggle to a 6-6 or 7-5 year. I write this nearly every year in the summary about NC State, but I’ll repeat it again—NC State’s ceiling just may be as an 8 or 9-win team. Doeren has improved the recruiting, but as the Atlantic improves, it is hard to see if NC State will have another opportunity like they squandered last year.