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How long can Dave Doeren keep up NC State’s steady improvement?

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The Wolfpack won nine games in a transition year and now face another one.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at North Carolina
Dave Doeren
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

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

There is no Tom Brady-Bill Belichick relationship in college football. Your reward for success is to lose those who helped to make you successful. Doeren’s gotten a pretty good taste of that by now.

The seventh-year NC State head coach has slowly raised the bar. He had shown signs of being a methodical builder in his career, and here’s what I wrote when State hired the former NIU head coach in 2013.

We don’t know Dave Doeren’s ceiling yet because he hasn’t reached it. He grew into previous jobs, and he didn’t take long to do the same in his first head coaching position. He inherits a roster that is intriguing but thin, and it’s conceivable that, before successfully bringing MACtion-level excitement and wins to Raleigh, he’s in for another growing-into-the-job experience.

After a 3-9 debut, Doeren’s Wolfpack averaged 7.3 wins and a 41.7 S&P+ ranking over the next three seasons. He raised the talent level and depth within the program (per the 247Sports Composite, State’s average recruiting ranking improved from 60.7 from 2011-13 to 42 from 2014-17), and in Eliah Drinkwitz, he made a nice hire in replacing talented offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

By 2017, State was ready for another step up in status. The Wolfpack went 9-4 and rose to 24th in S&P+, almost disappointing, considering how much draft-worthy talent the team had. But despite losing a truckload of defensive standouts, they backed up their newfound status by going 9-4 and ranking 35th last fall.

Again, there were some missed opportunities. They got blitzed early against Syracuse and couldn’t claw their way back. They were also upset by Wake Forest for the second straight year, and they ran into a buzzsaw in a blowout bowl loss to Texas A&M. But they backed up the previous year’s growth, produced another four draftees, and, better yet, signed their second straight top-30 class.

Now comes yet another challenge.

Last year’s turnover came mostly on defense, where four key linemen and seven overall starters had to be replaced before the Pack fell 16 spots in Def. S&P+. This time, it’s the offense’s turn. Drinkwitz is now head coach at Appalachian State, and Doeren has to replace a nearly 4,000-yard passer (Ryan Finley), a 1,000-yard rusher (Reggie Gallaspy, Jr.), two 1,000-yard receivers (Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers), an all-conference tackle (Tyler Jones), an All-American guard (Terronne Prescod), and a Consensus All-American and first-round draft pick at center (Garrett Bradbury).

Whew, that’s a lot.

State is projected to improve by 13 spots in Def. S&P+ but fall 32 spots in Off. S&P+. The job for new co-coordinators Des Kitchings and George McDonald, both promoted from within, will be to mitigate the regression, not prevent it. And a defense that has been slightly disappointing has to carry some serious weight.

After flirting with both the Tennessee and Ole Miss openings in the 2017-18 coaching carousel, Doeren signed a contract extension, then signed another one this spring. If recruiting rankings are any indication, his attempt at projecting stability is working. And lord knows he can sell his ability to produce draft talent by now.

In 2019, we’ll find out just how, uh, stable that stability is. If State again produces eight or nine wins and a top-40 ranking — a possibility, though S&P+ is projecting more like seven wins and the top 50 — then you have to like the program’s chances of maintaining top-30 status moving forward.

Offense

Drinkwitz’s 2018 offense definitely leaned on its strengths. Despite Gallaspy’s 1,000-yard status and the apparent quality of the offensive line, State pretty much stunk at running the football and therefore didn’t do it a ton. They ran just 55 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and 27 percent on passing downs (35 percent), instead entrusting its efficiency to Finley, a deep receiving corps — five players were targeted at least 47 times — and a line that almost always kept Finley upright.

By promoting from within, Doeren basically confirmed that he was okay with this approach. That’s probably good, because it’s hard to assume the run game’s going to get better without Gallaspy and the line studs.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Gator Bowl-Texas A&M vs North Carolina State
Matthew McKay
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

State has some intriguing quarterback prospects, but the battle to replace the ultra-efficient Finley will continue into the fall.

  • Sophomore Matthew McKay backed Finley up last year. The 6’4, 210-pound hometowner went 7-for-8 for 87 yards, mostly in garbage time against Louisville, and rushed 13 times for just 36 yards.
  • Florida State transfer Bailey Hockman redshirted in 2017 and put together a solid performance in the 2018 spring game but transferred after losing the starting job to Deondre Francois.
  • Redshirt freshman Devin Leary was a four-star prospect in 2018, and freshman Ty Evans was nearly a four-star in 2019.

There’s lots of potential and no non-garbage time experience whatsoever.

Whoever wins the job will have a pretty fun supporting cast, even without Harmon and Meyers. Junior Emeka Emezie caught 53 balls and was nearly as efficient as Harmon/Meyers last year, and sophomore Thayer Thomas’ per-target stats were basically clones of Meyers’.

Junior C.J. Riley is particularly intriguing to me — he was used conservatively when games were close (14 catches for just 118 yards when the score was within a touchdown) but unleashed with great effect when games weren’t (10 catches for 162 yards when the scoring margin was 15 points or more). Plus, Doeren brought in a ringer: former Wake Forest and Oregon receiver Tabari Hines, who was both efficient and occasionally explosive for the Demon Deacons in 2017.

That’s a pretty exciting quartet right there, and it’s possible that players like tight end Cary Angeline (nine catches, 169 yards) or redshirt freshmen Devin Carter and Jasiah Provillon get more involved, too.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Louisville
Emeka Emezie
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Pack’s run game really was strangely bad. Opponent adjustments were kind (they were 66th in Rushing S&P+), but the raw stats were universally awful: 104th in rushing marginal efficiency, 128th in opportunity rate (non-sack rushes of four or more yards), 112th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). Gallaspy was far more efficient than any of his backups, two of whom return: blue-chip sophomore Ricky Person Jr. and redshirt freshman Trent Pennix.

Again, that was with three highly decorated linemen. Starting tackle Justin Witt does return, and Joshua Feed-Jackson and Joe Sculthorpe appear to be solid interior linemen, but the running back position has so much to prove. 2019 would be a very good time for both Person and four-star freshman Zonovan Knight to prove their potential.

Defense

Bradley Chubb (No. 5 pick in 2018). Josh Jones (No. 61 in 2017). B.J. Hill (No. 69 in 2018). Germaine Pratt (No. 72 in 2019). Justin Jones (No. 84 in 2018). Kentavius Street (No. 128 in 2018). Jack Tocho (No. 245 in 2017). Seven undrafted free agents who signed with teams between 2017-19.

A clear talent upgrade allowed Dave Huxtable’s 2016 defense to surge to 19th in Def. S&P+. A lot of it returned in 2017, especially up front, and some of it stuck around for 2018 as well.

Such evident talent made it a bit frustrating to watch NC State field a merely good defense in 2017 (38th) and a merely average one last fall.

Even more frustrating: the defensive front held up in 2018, even while dealing with such turnover. NC State was 23rd in rushing marginal efficiency and 21st on standard downs, and once opponents were leveraged into passing downs, the pass rush teed off — the Pack were 18th in blitz-down sack rate.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at East Carolina
James Smith-Williams
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

It was seemingly the rest of the defense where letdowns occurred. State was 76th in passing marginal efficiency and a horrifying 118th on passing downs. They were excellent on third-and-short to medium and horrible (90th) on third-and-long. If they weren’t sacking the QB in pass rush opportunities, they were getting gashed repeatedly.

The good news is that there’s better continuity throughout the defense this year: five of last year’s primary seven linemen are back, as are every linebacker but Pratt and every defensive back but safety Dexter Wright.

There is both talent and class balance here:

  • You’ve got senior leadership in the shape of guys like defensive ends James Smith-Williams and Larrell Murchison (combined: 17.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, five passes defensed, 20 run stuffs), safeties Jarius Morehead and Tim Kidd-Glass (combined: 4.5 TFLs, nine PDs), and cornerback Nick McCloud (10 PDs).
  • You’ve got some particularly precocious sophomores in linebacker Isaiah Moore (7.5 TFLs), tackle Alim McNeill (5.5 TFLs, three PDs), safety Tanner Ingle, and corner Teshaun Smith.
  • You’ve also a wave of young former blue-chippers — McNeil, redshirt freshman linebacker Payton Wilson, freshman tackles C.J. Clark and Joshua Harris, redshirt freshman corner Taivon Palmer, and maybe former USC linebacker Levi Jones (who might or might not be deemed eligible) — ready to provide competition at worst.
East Carolina v North Carolina State
Jarius Morehead
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Huxtable has a lot to prove, too. He inherited from O’Brien a defense that had averaged a 38.7 Def. S&P+ ranking from 2010-12, and he has had a lot of talent, but he’s only cracked the top 40 twice. There’s upside and experience here. But there has been upside and experience for a while.

Special Teams

After three straight years of ranking 116th in Special Teams S&P+, State surged to 27th, thanks primarily to the emergence of Christopher Dunn. In any conference that didn’t contain Syracuse’s Andre Smzyt, Dunn would’ve been the best freshman kicker. His return, along with that of Thayer Thomas (another sophomore) in punt returns, gives the Pack a couple of anchors. Punter A.J. Cole III will be missed, though.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug East Carolina 113 23.2 91%
7-Sep Western Carolina NR 38.6 99%
14-Sep at West Virginia 38 -4.8 39%
21-Sep Ball State 110 21.7 90%
28-Sep at Florida State 28 -7.1 34%
10-Oct Syracuse 56 4.2 60%
19-Oct at Boston College 72 3.1 57%
2-Nov at Wake Forest 62 0.7 52%
9-Nov Clemson 3 -21.1 11%
16-Nov Louisville 87 11.5 75%
21-Nov at Georgia Tech 89 7.3 66%
30-Nov North Carolina 61 5.6 63%
Projected S&P+ Rk 47
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 61 / 41
Projected wins 7.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.9 (35)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 32
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 1.4
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 53% (32%, 74%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 8.3 (0.7)

I’ve long talked about NC State as maybe the most baffling program in college football. The talent it has sent to the pros — from Philip Rivers to Russell Wilson (mostly, at least) to Torry Holt to Mario Williams to all those recent draft picks to Roman Damn Gabriel — is excellent. And yet, Doeren just became the third coach ever to win nine or more games twice with the Wolfpack (the other two: Lou Holtz and Dick Sheridan). No one’s done it three times, and to date, no one has led them to an actual AP top 10 finish.

Granted, Doeren did think about leaving for another job a year and a half ago, just as Holtz turned success in Raleigh into the New York Jets job. But he’s still there, signing a contract extension every offseason, and pulling off a level of steady growth lots of programs would kill for.

The primary question is how many more steps he can take, but we probably won’t get an answer this year. With the amount of turnover the offense is dealing with, this is a “hold steady at best” sort of year.

There are worse fates. Per S&P+, State is a favorite by double-digit points in four games and a heavy underdog in one. Seven games are projected as one-possession games, and if the Pack split them, that puts them in position for another finish between about 7-6 and 9-4. Considering whatever answers they find offensively will be underclassmen — as few as two or three seniors will start on that side of the ball — that’d be a solid result for what amounts to a second straight transition year.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.