After five straight winning seasons, NC State took a step back in 2019. Eighth-year head coach Dave Doeren is hoping that with some improved injury luck and a revamped staff, he can get the Wolfpack back to their winning ways.
It’s going to be a challenge to significantly recover from a 4–8 downturn with what is still a young roster, a more difficult schedule and with spring practice mostly wiped out by the COVID-19 crisis.
Doeren hired five new coaches, will have two new primary coordinators and has only one assistant left from the 2018 staff, when the team posted its second straight nine-win season. “There were just some things I wanted to do differently and felt like we needed to do differently to move forward,” Doeren says.
Previewing NC State's Offense for 2020
Tim Beck comes from Texas to take over an offense that struggled to find stability at quarterback and score points. The Wolfpack dropped to No. 107 in the country in scoring offense and didn’t score 28 points in an ACC game. There were multiple injuries up front (including to both starting tackles) and at running back, and Doeren went through two starting quarterbacks before settling in the eighth game on Devin Leary.
The redshirt sophomore, a highly rated recruit out of New Jersey in 2018, showed some promise when he didn’t try to do too much. But he has to improve his accuracy (48.1 completion percentage) and decision-making.
Doeren went into the spring with Leary as the designated starter, but freshman Ty Evans, who redshirted last season, and true freshman Ben Finley, whose older brother Ryan was the Wolfpack’s starter for three years, will be given a chance to win the job.
Running back was NC State’s strength last year and should be again. Bam Knight is the team’s best playmaker. He led the team with 745 rushing yards and five touchdowns as a freshman.
The offensive line loses only one starter and gets tackles Justin Witt and Tyrone Riley back from injuries. The line will also get a boost from the return of blocking tight end Dylan Autenrieth, whose knee injury in Week 3 really was the start of the decline of the season.
Receiver was a weak spot last season with Emeka Emezie’s inability to move up from supporting cast to a lead role. Emezie led the team in receptions (56) and receiving yards (576), but also in dropped passes. A healthy Thayer Thomas, who finished with 31 catches for 334 yards, and C.J. Riley would go a long way to boost a passing game that fell to No. 67 in the country.
Previewing NC State's Defense for 2020
Tony Gibson was on the staff last season and will take over as the primary coordinator and defensive play-caller. NC State switched to a 3-3-5 stack last season, and with a surplus of linebackers, Gibson is expected to keep the same scheme this season. The Wolfpack return four starters on defense, not including promising linebackers Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas, who figure to be a big part of Gibson’s plan.
Vi Jones, a transfer from USC, gives Gibson a lot of options to mix and match at linebacker, which is good because the defensive front could be an issue. Wilson, one of the top recruits to sign during Doeren’s tenure, missed his first season with a knee injury, but he was a bright spot with a team-best 69 tackles last season. He also had five tackles for loss and an interception.
The secondary was beaten up from the season opener, and Doeren struggled to find enough healthy bodies to plug into the lineup. Safety Tanner Ingle is a sure tackler but struggles in coverage. Chris Ingram, the best option at corner, got hurt midway through the season and is recovering from a knee injury.
Up front, Doeren is hoping talented defensive tackle Alim McNeill bounces back from an average sophomore season and that DT Joshua Harris and DE Savion Jackson can turn their recruiting promise into production in their second year in the program.
Previewing NC State's Specialists for 2020
Kicker Christopher Dunn built on a strong freshman season with a great sophomore campaign. He made 21-of-24 field-goal attempts and all 28 of his PATs. Dunn has turned what was a major weakness in the program into a strength. Punter Trenton Gill was a surprise starter but more than held his own with 47.6-yard average. Thayer Thomas played the last third of the season with a balky hamstring but was a consistent threat on the punt return unit. There was no such game-breaker on kickoff returns, which has been a problem spot since Nyheim Hines left for the NFL three years ago.
There’s young talent in the program, but the years NC State expects to be back at a high level are the 2021 and ’22 seasons, when its best recruiting classes will be juniors and seniors. This team, which has some of the same deficiencies as last year’s group, needs Leary (or another QB) to make a big jump under Beck and for the defense to get a grip on Gibson’s scheme.
The 1–7 ACC record didn’t help morale, nor did the six straight losses to close the season. Under normal circumstances, Doeren would be coaching for his job this season, but with the financial uncertainty created by COVID-19, he might get another year if NC State struggles again.
National Ranking: 57
(Top photo by Gene Galin/NC State Athletics)