Defense dominates in Wolfpack's spring game

N.C. State has a lot to work on after its first set of spring drills under coach Dave Doeren.

RALEIGH, N.C. — As first-year head coach Dave Doeren put it in a postgame on-field interview, “We won.” In reality, the Red team beat the White team 20-10 in the Kay Yow Spring Game, and — as with most spring games — it’s difficult to glean much. But a few things stood out: 

1. If you like crisp offensive execution, this game was not for you. Especially the first half.

At halftime, each squad had managed just a field goal apiece and combined to run 77 plays for 189 yards (a rather pedestrian 2.4 yards per play). While things picked up in the second half offensively, the teams still finished the game with six turnovers (five lost fumbles). Quarterbacks took unnecessary sacks from holding onto the ball too long, and wide receivers dropped balls. 

To be fair, most of N.C. State’s play-calling was fairly vanilla, and the team is still getting used to a new tempo and new terminology. But it was troubling. “We had some guys get behind [the defense] and we didn’t capitalize,” Doeren said. “Our biggest disappointment, obviously, was the fumbles that occurred. Before I blame it on the running backs, I want to see it on film to see if there are exchange issues on some of them. They’re things we’ve got to correct, and will.

“[The defense is ahead of the offense], and that’s not a bad thing. The last program I took over, it was the opposite and that was tough because we had to score 65 points to win some games. I would rather be ahead on the defensive side than the offense. I think we’ll catch up.”

2. Special teams, for the win

Two of N.C. State’s more veteran players are the punter (Wil Baumann) and the kicker (Niklas Sade). And both got plenty of work. Baumann had a 41.6 yard average on 11 punts, and three were inside the 20! To be fair, in the (somewhat) controlled scrimmage, N.C. State had all of its punt returners fair-catch the ball — but that’s neither here nor there. Sade went 3-for-6 on field goals, but had all six first-half points and was 3 of 4 from 45 yards or less. Both got as much work as they did because the two teams combined for 24 first downs (and converted just eight of 31 third downs).

As the young Wolfpack continues to find its way early in the Doeren era, Baumann and Sade will likely play big roles in how much success the team will have. Or how many points it can score, at least. 

3. Pete Thomas seems to be edging ahead of Manny Stocker for the starting quarterback job 

On paper, Stocker’s mobility makes him a slightly better fit for Doeren’s offense, which is usually run by a dual-threat quarterback. But Thomas was the more accurate and efficient of the two, completing 15 of 26 for 168 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown, but he didn’t throw an interception, either. He made some mistakes, like taking a sack at the end of a first-half, two-minute drill. As he settled in, though, he looked better and so did the offense. In the third, he led an eight-play, 70-yard touchdown drive and had completions of 24 and 29 yards.

“Even in the first half, we had some good drives going on offense but then we killed ourselves — bad throws, fumbles, whatever the case was,” Thomas said. “As the game got going, we got a little bit more comfortable and we got a better tempo going and I think that showed.”

Star Watch: Rashard Smith

The senior wide receiver had eight catches for 84 yards, and was targeted 11 times on Saturday. (Thomas in particular had nice chemistry with Smith, throwing him seven of the eight catches.) “He’s just a playmaker,” Thomas said of Smith. “He’s one of those guys, you get the ball in his hands in any way possible and he can make guys miss.” Smith has had a tumultuous career, redshirting what would have been his sophomore year in 2010 after a knee injury and switching back and forth from defensive back to wide receiver multiple times in 2011. Smith had 19 catches for 315 yards and five touchdowns last year, but he also led the ACC in punt return average. He’s explosive, and it’s clear that the new coaching staff wants to find ways to get him the ball. He’s ready for the challenge, too.

When asked if he’s going to be the go-to guy next year, he said, “I would hope so.”

Impact Player: M.J. Salahuddin

The sophomore was primarily a special teams player last year, but played in 12 out of 13 games and had three tackles. The new coaching staff has been talking up Salahuddin all spring, and he was listed as the starter at middle linebacker on the depth chart released a few days ago. He did indeed start there for the Red Team and finished with eight tackles, a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss. He’s not very experienced, but he’s fast and seems to have good instincts. Salahuddin — who has gained 30 pounds since arriving at N.C. State last year — could be a difference-maker for a defense that struggled at times a year ago, particularly at linebacker.

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