The difference between coming off of a 4–8 season and an 8–4 season is obvious. "There's a lot of positivity here right now," NC State coach Dave Doeren said.
And for good reason. The Wolfpack exceeded all expectations last year in reversing their 4–8 record from 2019.
Doeren now gets a chance to reap the rewards of his two best recruiting classes (from 2018 and '19), who enter their third and fourth years in the program.
The Wolfpack will be deep and experienced — and overlooked again, with neighbor North Carolina getting all of the attention.
Doeren believes the team can apply the lessons it learned from the pandemic last year and build off of last year's 7–3 record in ACC play. "The guys are in a really good frame of mind," Doeren says.
Previewing NC State's Offense for 2021
Doeren hired Tim Beck in 2019 to make over an impotent offense. Given the lack of prep time, and the revolving door at quarterback and on the offensive line, Beck couldn't have done a better job under the circumstances. NC State's scoring average jumped by eight points per game, despite not being able to pad its stats against FCS or lower-level FBS teams. With Devin Leary in and out of the lineup because of COVID protocols and injuries, Beck was able to get the best out of Bailey Hockman and produce a top-40 passing offense.
Going into Year Two, Beck had the benefit of a full spring practice schedule and presumably will get an uninterrupted fall camp.
Leary started only three games and completed only two full ACC games before his season ended with a broken leg in a win over Duke on Oct. 17, but he showed the kind of pro potential NC State fans are used to at the quarterback position. He completed 60 percent of his passes and finished with 890 yards in four games with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. His ability to push the ball down the field had been an element missing from the offense for the better part of three years.
Hockman transferred to Middle Tennessee, so either Ben Finley or newcomer Aaron McLaughlin, a four-star recruit, will have to emerge as Leary's backup.
Leary will have the same playmakers back. Receiver Emeka Emezie bounced back from a subpar 2019 campaign with 47 catches for 738 yards and decided to come back for a super senior season. Receiver Thayer Thomas continued to show his versatility with eight total TDs.
Running backs Bam Knight (788 yards) and Ricky Person Jr. (643 yards) are a solid one-two punch. Knight could be ready to take another step after two promising seasons (1,533 rushing yards, 16 total touchdowns).
Left tackle Ikem Ekwonu heads into his third year as a starter and has quickly developed into one of the best run blockers in the conference.
Previewing NC State's Defense for 2021
When NC State's defense was good last year, it was good. When it wasn't, well, it wasn't. And the difference usually came down to linebacker Payton Wilson's health.
Wilson led the ACC with 108 tackles, and NC State's defense was fine when he was on the field. The good news is that Wilson, the highest-rated defensive recruit of Doeren's tenure (No. 79 overall in 2018 class by 247Sports), decided to come back for another season.
He will have plenty of familiar company and some new help in three key transfers. NC State's defense, which will return nine starters from last season, ranked in the top 15 in the country in sacks (32) and top 30 in interceptions (10). The problems came in stopping the run, with Virginia Tech (314 yards), UNC (326) and Kentucky (288) all piling up huge gains.
Tony Gibson, who took over as the primary defensive coordinator last year, will have to hope that experience in the 3-3-5 alignment equals improvement. Few teams in the league will be able to match NC State's set of linebackers with Wilson, Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas.
Alim McNeill must be replaced at nose tackle, but Doeren has confidence in space-eaters C.J. Clark and Joshua Harris, who are both going into their third year in the program. Transfer Cory Durden had five sacks at Florida State in 2019. A change of scenery could do him some good.
Safety Cyrus Fagan, also a transfer from FSU, and cornerback Derrek Pitts, a Marshall transfer, should add immediate help. There's plenty of experience in the secondary with the return of safety Tanner Ingle, nickel Tyler Baker-Williams and corner Cecil Powell.
Previewing NC State's Specialists for 2021
It's impossible to overestimate kicker Christopher Dunn's value the past three years. In three years, he has made 83.6 percent of his field goals (56-of-67). Junior punter Trenton Gill (44.8 yards per punt) figures to be solid again, while Knight (kickoffs) and Thomas (punts) have added much-needed punch to the return game. Vi Jones, who blocked three kicks last season, is a special-teams secret weapon.
This might be the deepest and most complete team Doeren has had in his nine years in Raleigh. If Leary can pick up where he left off, and if the run defense can tighten up, the Wolfpack have a chance to build on last year’s success and push for double-digit wins for only the second time in school history.
National Ranking: 38
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(Bam Knight photo by Gregg Forwerck/NC State Athletics)