After being on the hot seat nearly the entire 2016 season NC State head coach Dave Doeren and the Wolfpack finished with a 7-5 record and an Independence Bowl victory over Vanderbilt. This was the third straight bowl appearance for Doeren in his four years in Raleigh.
It remains to be seen if NC State can compete with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville in the ACC Atlantic Division. One thing is for sure, the division is a lot tougher with Wake Forest and Boston College also making bowl appearances last season.
Here are the questions NC State will need to address entering spring practice, which begins on Feb. 25.
5 Storylines to Watch in NC State's Spring Practice
1. Replacing Matthew Dayes
NC State needs to replace the production of its top running back, who exhausted his eligibility after last season. As a senior, Dayes finished third in the ACC with 1,166 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
Junior Reggie Gallaspy II is the likely choice to fill Dayes’ spot in 2017. Last season, Gallaspy ran for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Dakwa Nichols and Johnny Frasier also should get opportunities to win the starting tailback job.
2. How much can Ryan Finley improve?
In his first season after transferring from Boise State, Finley threw for 3,055 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Wolfpack will need to see more consistency from Finley in 2017 if they hope to improve in the ACC standings.
In seven wins last season, Finley threw 12 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. In the five losses, however, Finley had more picks (eight) than scores (six). It doesn’t take a genius to know that the Wolfpack had a much better chance for victories when Finley limited his mistakes.
3. Will an experienced offense help?
It is projected that NC State will return eight starters on an offense that finished that finished 63rd in the nation in yards per game (416.4) last season. With that much experience returning, the Wolfpack have the potential their offensive production.
The running game will need a new leader, but there’s experience returning elsewhere, including at wide receiver in Stephen Louis and in tight end/fullback hybrid Jaylen Samuels. Louis led the team with 678 receiving yards on 35 catches, two of them going for touchdowns. Samuels was tops in both receptions (55) and touchdowns (seven) while accumulating 565 yards through the air and another 189 with six scores on the ground.
4. Can the Wolfpack defense be among the ACC’s best?
Not only will NC State field an experienced offense in 2017, but their defense also will have plenty of familiar faces returning. Nine starters on that side of the ball are expected to return, a group that’s led by one of the best defenders in the entire ACC.
Many expected defensive end Bradley Chubb to enter the NFL Draft after his junior season, but instead the Wolfpack’s Defensive MVP decided to return. Chubb was among the nation’s leader in both tackles for a loss (22) and sacks (10.5) last season.
Germaine Pratt also should help improve the Wolfpack’s depth at linebacker. He redshirted in 2016 after undergoing shoulder surgery.
NC State finished 24th in total defense a year ago and this unit has the potential to be one of the best in the ACC, provided all the key pieces can stay healthy.
5. Can NC State take the next step?
The Wolfpack finished their 2016 campaign with a lot of momentum, first upsetting archrival North Carolina in Chapel Hill and then handily beating Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl, 41-17. Sometimes, the way a team ends the previous season can carry over into the next.
NC State will open its 2017 season against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Later on September, the Wolfpack will travel to Tallahassee to take on Florida State, who will likely be the preseason favorite in the ACC and considered one of the top contenders to make it to the College Football Playoff.
With a schedule that opens up like that, it’s critical that NC State makes the most of the spring because come fall camp this team needs to be ready to get off to a strong start. The silver lining to the tough start is that both Louisville (Oct. 5) and Clemson (Nov. 4) come to Raleigh, so there will be opportunities for the Wolfpack to make a statement later in the season too.
Pre-Spring NC State Outlook in ACC
Even with last season’s strong finish, this is a critical year for Dave Doeren and his staff. Winning records and bowl appearances are nice, but the Wolfpack are coming off of back-to-back 7-6 seasons, so a little more progress in the win column would go a long way.
The season opener against South Carolina will be tough, but NC State should be 3-0 heading into its Sept. 23 date at Florida State. Eight wins before the bowl game is possible, but to get there, the Wolfpack will have to be at their best on the road against Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and can’t afford a slip up at Wake Forest either.
Clemson is the defending national champion and even though the Tigers lost several key players, they remain a talented and dangerous team. Louisville struggled down the stretch last season, but still features the Heisman Trophy winner. These two teams have to come to Raleigh and with as much experience as NC State is bringing back and the potential on defense, don’t be surprised if the Wolfpack make some noise in the ACC Atlantic Division this fall.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.