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NC State blew a massive opportunity in 2017, but the future might still be bright

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Dave Doeren signed a contract extension, recruiting is picking up steam, and there’s a lot of offensive talent here. But damn, 2017 could have been so much more.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Arizona State vs North Carolina State
Dave Doeren
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

There’s an optimistic way and a pessimistic way to spin the last 12 months or so for NC State. Both are pretty convincing.

The optimistic take:

The Wolfpack just finished with their second-most wins in a season ever (nine). Dave Doeren’s talent-building has reaped dividends; with top-40 recruiting, he just sent seven players to the NFL draft, including a top-five pick (defensive end Bradley Chubb) and his entire starting defensive line. That is awfully good for the #brand.

Doeren turns three-star prospects like Chubb into four-star performers and mixes in some big recruiting wins. The results speak for themselves. Doeren inherited from Tom O’Brien a program that had ranked outside the S&P+ top 75 for three of the last four years, and after a year-zero debut (3-9 and 78th), he has reestablished a much higher baseline. They’ve been in the top 50 for four straight years, peaking at 25th in 2016, and their 31 wins in four years is their most since 2001-04.

You could make the case that this is just the beginning, too. Doeren’s 2018 signing class ranked 26th in the country per 247, and 2019 recruiting is going awfully well. Doeren is parlaying on-field success into recruiting success; that’s how you build an infrastructure.

The pessimistic take:

[slams fist on keyboard] THAT WAS YOUR WINDOW. THAT WAS YOUR CHANCE.

Florida State had its worst team of the decade. Louisville’s defense was awful. Miami wasn’t fully weaponized. Hell, even Clemson was a step or two off of its 2016 pace.

You had seven draftees (plus whoever maybe gets drafted in 2019). And you lost four times. You let Clemson off the hook again. You lost to Wake Forest. You outgained South Carolina by more than 250 yards and somehow lost. With as much talent as you’ve ever compiled, you’ve lost seven one-possession games in the last two years.

The draft narrative wasn’t “Wow, look at the talent NC State is producing!” It was “How the hell did they only go 9-4 with all that talent? And what are they going to do now that it’s gone?”

You’re never going to get a better shot at an ACC Atlantic crown. FSU will probably rebound quickly. Clemson returns seemingly everyone. And that’s before we talk about the whole “Doeren publicly almost left for another job” thing. It is often difficult to re-engage the troops when you almost leave.

See? Both are pretty convincing.

And until we see how the Wolfpack respond on the field, we won’t know which take is correct.

There’s still plenty of talent.

The defense is getting rebuilt after losing four draftees up front, not to mention two of its top three linebackers and three of six defensive backs. Depth is an obvious reason for losing sleep.

Still, the offense could be super fun. Quarterback Ryan Finley is back, as are his top five wideouts, and while two all-conference offensive linemen are gone, another returns, as do two other two-year starters.

The schedule’s pretty favorable, too. The Pack are projected 37th by S&P+ and do have to go to Clemson, but they get FSU and West Virginia at home and are given at least a 40 percent win probability in 11 games. There aren’t a ton of sure wins, not in a conference with a loaded middle class, but NC State is going to have a chance at matching last year’s success.

The well is not dry, and recruiting is improving quickly. You can’t take back last year’s close losses, but you can keep winning.

But damn. That was one wide open window last year.

Offense

2017 NC State offensive radar

The new trend in basketball, at both the college and pro levels, is positionless basketball. Villanova has won a couple of national titles, and Golden State has won three NBA titles, by spreading the floor with jump shooters and running you out of the gym with whatever weapon you don’t account for. “We used to use the word ‘tweener’. Now we use the word versatility. Multi-positional,” says Villanova’s Jay Wright.

In Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines, NC State coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz had a positionless offense.

The 5’11, 225-pound Samuels was the size of a small fullback but led the Pack in receiving in 2016. From a stat standpoint, he may have had the best running back draft profile of anyone in the 2018 draft class (he might eventually replace Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh), and he was regarded by many as a tight end prospect. Strange.

Samuels and Hines, once a part-time slot receiver, are gone, and they were the drivers of Drinkwitz’s “just get the ball into the hands of your play-makers — it doesn’t matter how” approach. He and Samuels combined for 322 carries and 274 pass targets over the last two years.

State appears to return a lot more ... normal personnel this year. But it’s pretty good personnel.

  • X receiver Kelvin Harmon erupted for 69 catches and 1,017 yards as a sophomore. His marginal efficiency (plus-11 percent) was far better than the possession-minded Samuels (plus-four percent), and he averaged nearly double the yards per catch (14.7 to Samuels’ 7.9). That he emerged as the No. 1 target over Samuels was a big reason why the Pack improved from 55th to 21st in Off. S&P+ last year.
  • Slot man Jakobi Meyers and Z receiver Stephen Louis were even more efficient, combining for 100 catches, a 66 percent success rate, and a plus-17 percent marginal efficiency.
  • Running back Reggie Gallaspy II is bigger than Samuels (5’11, 235), and while he wasn’t as explosive as Hines, he matched the departed starter in efficiency (they each had a 39 percent success rate and a minus-6 percent marginal efficiency in the run game). He fumbled less frequently, too.
  • You’ve also got sophomore receivers C.J. Riley and Emeka Emezie (combined: 22 catches for 305 yards), a couple of new H-back-style options in sophomore Dylan Parham, 253-pound redshirt freshman Adam Boselli, and four-star freshman Ricky Person Jr. Four-star USC transfer tight end Cary Angeline will be eligible starting with the fourth game. [This preview has been updated since it was originally posted.]

Depth is a question at running back if Person isn’t immediately able to play a role, but the passing game is loaded and might improve, even without its Samuels security blanket.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Wake Forest
Kelvin Harmon
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Finley’s going to end up the rare three-year starter as a grad transfer; he came from Boise State to NC State in 2016 and raised his completion rate from 60 to 65 percent last fall.

The 6’4 senior rarely makes mistakes (14 interceptions in two years), but he did lean heavily on Samuels, especially in key situations, throwing to him far more in the second half — and for minimal production (Samuels caught 36 second-half passes for just 209 yards) — than to Meyers or Harmon. If Samuels’ departure means more chances for Meyers and Louis, plus a little less predictability, that might be a fair trade.

Up front, it remains a mixed bag. NC State ranked 38th in power success rate (which wasn’t that good, considering Samuels’ size and the all-conference linemen) and a dreary 108th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). But with Finley getting the ball out of his hands quickly, they ranked sixth in Adj. Sack Rate.

Losing all-conference performers in guard Tony Adams and tackle Will Richardson isn’t a good thing, but in guard Terronne Prescod, tackle Tyler Jones, and center Garrett Bradbury, they’ve still got three seniors who have combined for 75 starts. And Doeren’s been recruiting pretty well here. Four-star junior Emanuel McGirt Jr. still has a chance to break through, and sophomores Justin Witt (6’6, 310), Joe Sculthorpe (6’3, 314), and Joshua Fedd-Jackson (6’3, 329) look the part.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina State
Ryan Finley
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 NC State defensive radar

The most optimistic case you can make for NC State’s defense is that the bar isn’t as high as it should be.

The Pack fielded a line that featured the No. 5 (Chubb), No. 69 (tackle B.J. Hill), No. 84 (tackle Justin Jones), and No. 128 (end Kentavius Street) picks in April and ranked 44th in Rushing S&P+. They were 57th in rushing success rate allowed, 48th in stuff rate, and 75th in Adj. Sack Rate. With an all-NFL line. Explain that to me.

The four draftees combined to miss just one game, but State managed to allow a combined 816 non-sack rushing yards (6 per carry) in consecutive games against Notre Dame, Clemson, and Boston College.

The rest of the year went alright. But ND and Clemson did whatever they wanted, scoring 73 combined points. Those losses defined the season.

Coordinator Dave Huxtable appeared to be underachieving before a 2016 breakthrough that saw State surge to 11th in Def. S&P+. They returned almost all of their front seven but slumped to 62nd, their worst rating in three seasons. The secondary had to be rebuilt, so it wasn’t a surprise that they fell from 15th to 36th in Passing S&P+, but the cratering of the run defense made no damn sense.

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at North Carolina State
Darian Roseboro
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

But hey, that means an easier goal than expected. And in ends Darian Roseboro and James Smith-Williams and tackles Eurndraus Bryant and Shug Frazier, Huxtable’s got a foursomewho saw quite a bit of the field last year and made some plays. Roseboro had seven tackles for loss, while the other three combined for 4.5 TFLs among 28.5 tackles. Doeren signed a pair of JUCO linemen and has seven true and redshirt freshmen to add, so there’s a chance depth remains decent.

Depth is more tenuous at linebacker, where State basically only played three guys, and only one (Germaine Pratt) returns. Pratt, sophomores Brock Miller and Louis Acceus, and redshirt freshman Isaiah Moore basically make up the corps. Four-star true freshman Payton Wilson isn’t expected to play in 2018 after a right ACL tear during his senior year of high school.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Pittsburgh
Germaine Pratt (3) and Nick McCloud (21)
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In nickel back Shawn Boone and corner Johnathan Alston, Huxtable has to replace the two most disruptive members of his secondary. A trio of juniors (safeties Jarius Morehad and Tim Kidd-Glass and cornerback Nick McCloud) are back after extensive playing time, and Tennessee transfer Stephen Griffin and JUCO transfer Kishawn Miller, two more juniors, join the mix.

Add in a couple of four-star freshmen (corners Taiyon Palmer and De’Von Graves) and a high-three-star sophomore in safety Isaiah Stallings, and this unit probably has as much raw talent as last year’s. But it’s pretty young.

Special Teams

It’s hard to win close games when you don’t trust your kicker. NC State’s special teams unit has been a burden for three straight years, ranking 94th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2015 and 116th in the two years since.

Last year’s biggest problem was place-kicking. Carson Wise went a miserable 5-for-11 on field goals under 40 yards and missed a pair of PATs, and his late-year replacement, Kyle Bambard, went 3-for-5 on sub-40 kicks and missed a PAT. Yuck.

Punter A.J. Cole III returns after a solid year, but State has to replace an excellent return man in Hines, and while Bambard’s back, let’s politely say the kicking remains uncertain.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep James Madison NR 24.3 92%
8-Sep Georgia State 113 20.8 89%
15-Sep West Virginia 43 4.7 61%
22-Sep at Marshall 62 2.8 56%
29-Sep Virginia 73 10.5 73%
6-Oct Boston College 48 5.7 63%
20-Oct at Clemson 3 -20.7 12%
27-Oct at Syracuse 71 5.3 62%
3-Nov Florida State 18 -2.6 44%
8-Nov Wake Forest 34 2.3 55%
17-Nov at Louisville 29 -4.6 40%
24-Nov at North Carolina 51 0.9 52%
Projected S&P+ Rk 37
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 14 / 83
Projected wins 7.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 5.7 (41)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 40 / 38
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / -1.1
2017 TO Luck/Game +3.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 53% (70%, 35%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 9.0 (0.0)

The offense improved and could again in 2018. The defense regressed and really could again. The result could split the difference; State was 38th in S&P+ in 2017 and is projected 37th this time around.

That is perhaps not what you would expect. Losing all that draft talent automatically means a drop-off, right? But this offense could be tremendous, and the defense somehow left itself plenty of room to grow.

Despite life in the ACC Atlantic, the schedule is manageable. There are, from an S&P+ perspective, three likely wins (JMU, Georgia State, Virginia), one likely loss (at Clemson), and eight games projected within six points.

If the defense doesn’t slide as much as expected, eight wins is quite conceivable. If the offense doesn’t improve as much as expected, a seven-loss season is very much on the table.

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