NC State will have a new play caller, new quarterback, new primary running back, new starting receivers and three new starters on the offensive line. That’s a lot of "new."
After consecutive nine-win seasons, it's going to be a rebuilding year for coach Dave Doeren. NC State relied on a lot of NFL talent to win 11 ACC games the past two years (second only to Clemson in that span).
Doeren, entering Year 7, has done well on the recruiting trail to reload, but it's going to take some time for the new parts to get up to speed. Not that Doeren is looking to grade the season on a curve.
"The national champion just won it with a true freshman quarterback," Doeren says. "So for any of us to put boxes on how good we can be at this point is premature. There are lot of unknowns right now, and that's the part that is exciting and unsettling."
Previewing NC State's Offense for 2019
The Wolfpack relied on their offense last year. The passing of quarterback Ryan Finley and the playmaking of receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers were the main reasons they went 9–4.
But just about all of the featured parts of the offense are gone, even offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz (now the head coach at Appalachian State). Assistants Des Kitchings and George McDonald, as co-coordinators, will take over the play-calling duties, but it will still be "our offense," Doeren says. That means a spread passing game and lot of zone stretch runs.
Matthew McKay, a third-year sophomore, finished spring with the inside track to replace Finley. McKay's strength is his mobility. He attempted only eight passes last year, but he ran 13 times for 36 yards and a touchdown in five games. Freshman Devin Leary and sophomore Bailey Hockman, who began his career at Florida State, will have a chance to win the job in training camp.
The new starter at quarterback will have plenty of capable targets. Junior Emeka Emezie is poised to have a big season. He caught 53 passes for 616 yards with five touchdowns last season as Harmon’s apprentice. Sophomore Thayer Thomas slides into Meyers’ role in the slot after a strong freshman campaign (34 catches).
After producing three different 1,000-yard running backs in the past three years, the ground game has to be retooled. Sophomore Ricky Person Jr. (471 yards) was a good change-of-pace back last season but will have to do more of the heavy lifting without Reggie Gallaspy. There are durability questions with Person and not a lot of experienced depth behind him. Freshman Bam Knight was the star of the spring game and looks like he could be a game-changer with his speed.
More of an issue than finding runners is rebuilding the offensive line. New O-line coach John Garrison will have his work cut out for him with three new starters.
Previewing NC State's Defense for 2019
NC State lost its starting defensive line to the NFL Draft last spring, and it showed during the 2018 season. The Wolfpack ranked No. 108 in the country in pass defense. With a new group of pass rushers, they struggled to pressure the quarterback, and the secondary couldn’t hold up.
Clemson (380 passing yards) and Syracuse (480 yards) ripped up NC State’s defense in a season-turning two-week stretch. The challenge for the Pack is to improve on defense with many of the same parts.
NC State returns eight defensive starters, including five in the secondary. Senior end James Smith-Williams tied for the team lead with six sacks and will be relied on to lead the front four.
There is a wave of talent coming up front, with sophomore tackle Alim McNeill and true freshmen Joshua Harris (tackle) and Savion Jackson (end) ready for primary roles. It’s going to take a year, or two, for that group to match the production of the NFL quartet from 2017.
Doeren has restocked the linebacker positions with highly rated in-state recruits. Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas are young but have a bright future.
Senior safety Jarius Morehead is the standout in the secondary. He is top returning tackler (81), and he led the team with three interceptions. The corners need to improve and make plays without committing penalties. The health of safety Stephen Griffin, who was limited to six starts last year, will be a key to the secondary’s improvement.
Previewing NC State's Specialists for 2019
Chris Dunn proved to be the answer at placekicker and figures to stay that way for another three years. As a freshman, Dunn made his final 15 field goal attempts. The return game struggled to make a difference. Thayer Thomas had some moments on punt returns, but the big plays on kick returns were few and far between after previously being a strength for the Wolfpack.
After losing 13 players to the NFL Draft in a two-year period, NC State has to reload. The schedule is favorable enough to make a bowl game, but the ceiling isn’t much higher than six or seven regular-season wins.
The question for Doeren will be: What is the basement? If it's five wins with the promise of higher yields in 2020 and '21, that's a deal most of the fan base will accept.