ACC Countdown: No. 12 N.C. State

Dave Doeren enters his second year at N.C. State with nowhere to go but up following a 3-9 season in which his team went winless in ACC play.

Liz Condo/Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

It certainly wasn’t the kind of season first-year head coach Dave Doeren and his staff were hoping for in Raleigh in 2013.

A seemingly easy schedule led many to think that the Wolfpack, as depleted as it was, could still reach a bowl game. After a 3-1 start that included a competitive loss to Clemson at home, the wheels fell off and N.C. State lost its remaining eight games to finish the season winless in ACC play. Those losses came by an average of 17.3 points, but don’t let that fool you — N.C. State was in quite a few of those games, only to watch everything to basically go up in flames in the fourth quarter.

This year, the schedule is friendly again and Doeren brings back plenty of talented players, not to mention a top-25 recruiting class and an actual starting quarterback in Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett. But N.C. State’s lack of depth left over from the previous regime hurt the Wolfpack last year and it will likely take some time before that depth can be built back up again.

Seven starters on each side of the ball return, though it’s no guarantee any of them will still be starting. The team’s starting punter (Wil Baumann) and kicker (Niklas Sade), both of whom were very good in 2013, are also back. Last year’s offense and defense are another story entirely, though.

There’s plenty of young talent coming in with an excellent recruiting class that could push existing starters for time, not to mention the rising sophomores that are a year better. The good news is that most of the offensive line returns, plus redshirt senior tackle Rob Crisp who was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing all but the first two games. Two of N.C. State’s top three rushers from a year ago are also back in junior Shadrach Thornton (768 yards) and sophomore Matt Dayes (252 yards), as is senior Tony Creecy (who finished with a scant 125 yards).

The ground game was not very good last year, but hey, they’re all back.

On defense, the secondary really only loses Dontae Johnson. He was an excellent player for the Wolfpack, but with three of the other four starters returning — cornerback Juston Burris (a team-high 11 pass breakups) will be a junior and rising sophomore Jack Tocho had some great moments last year — that unit is in pretty good shape. Particularly since three of the starting four defensive linemen are also back, including redshirt senior defensive end Art Norman, who led the team with 4.5 sacks last season. He and senior Thomas Teal are third and fourth on the team in career starts behind only the kicker and punter.

Both starting quarterbacks from a year ago are now gone, and yet another transfer steps in to take their place in Brissett. N.C. State’s passing game, helmed by Pete Thomas and Brandon Mitchell, was dreadful a year ago, and there’s nowhere to go but up. Both the coaching staff and his teammates raved about Brissett all offseason, and a very good spring game performance seemed to indicate it’s not all hype.

Two starting wide receivers (Quintin Payton Rashard Smith) are gone as well, but there are plenty of good ones ready to take their place. Bryan Underwood had a disappointing season last year, but will be a senior. Sophomores Jumichael Ramos and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (who combined for 42 catches) are back, and the Wolfpack adds freshman receiver Bo Hines, who enrolled early enough to catch 10 passes for 132 yards in the spring game. 

The big loss on defense came at the linebacker spot. N.C. State is switching to a 4-2-5 this year, and with questionable depth on the defensive line and the loss of two of the Wolfpack’s top four tacklers (linebackers Robert Caldwell and D.J. Green), the front four could be an issue. But the third starter in senior Brandon Pittman returns, and he’s also the leading returning tackler. Junior M.J. Salahuddin is better than he played a year ago, and he’ll join senior Rodman Noel as the foundation for this unit early on.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Jerod Fernandez had a nice performance in the spring game in his first on-field action, too (11 tackles). Artemis Robinson is another redshirt freshman joining the fray. Other than Coult Culler, an incoming three-star linebacker, there aren’t likely any others, save some potential converted safeties that could work in hybrid spots in the 4-2-5 — so the returning group had better be ready.

Offensive line/running game. There’s plenty of talent at quarterback now, and the young wide receivers are going to be very good. The real question is whether or not N.C. State can develop a ground game that can complement what should be a much-improved passing attack. If not, that passing attack is likely going to struggle as the year progresses.

While the offensive line returns almost all of its starters from a year ago, there are question marks. Crisp has not been able to stay healthy throughout his time in Raleigh, while both guard Alex Barr and tackle Tyson Chandler missed time with injuries last season. But any way you slice it, these are starters returning from a unit that paved the way for 3.8 yards per carry on the ground and allowed 36 sacks. The experienced players staying healthy, in addition to some of the talented younger players who are able to add depth, will be key — the depth department, in particular, something the Wolfpack sorely lacked last year.

Then there are the running backs themselves.

Last season, the two quarterbacks combined for more rushing attempts (154) than N.C. State’s leading rusher (165). Shadrach Thornton had a great freshman season, then found himself in legal trouble in the offseason last year and was suspended for the first game of 2013. He had a few more legal issues crop up and his status with the team remains up in the air as he seems on the verge of losing the trust of Doeren and his staff. But he’s hanging on for dear life right now, and the Wolfpack need him — his four rushing touchdowns were tied for the team lead with sophomore Matt Dayes, who showed flashes of brilliance last year.

Senior Tony Creecy is rather pedestrian and averaged 3.0 yards a carry on 42 attempts in 2013. But he was the leading rusher in the spring game with 42 yards on 11 carries (3.8 per). Dayes and Thornton combined for 37 yards on 18 carries in the game. It’s just the spring game, to be fair, but N.C. State is going to need more than that.

Bottom line is Brissett will be elusive enough to hide potential holes in N.C. State’s offensive line when it comes to pass protection. But if N.C. State can’t get a running game going and Brissett has to do everything, it’s going to be a very long season.

N.C. State is in the hunt for a bowl come late November and/or wins its final two games. The season will be a disaster if N.C. State loses more than one of its non-conference games, but if it wins three of those and sneaks out at least one more ACC win along the way, it would enter its final two games of the season — Wake Forest at home, a bye week, then at rival North Carolina to end the season — with a chance to make a bowl game.

After last season’s 3-9 disaster, that would certainly be an improvement, and N.C. State would have already passed last year’s win total. Duke coach David Cutcliffe often says you want to be relevant in November, and if N.C. State can squeak out an extra win or two along the way, it will be. And that will be a significant step.

Now, what if N.C. State implodes a bit early on and only has two or three wins, then starts to show late-season progress and then wins its final two games, both of which are against in-state opponents? Certainly, N.C. State fans would take that — particularly when one of those wins would come against North Carolina, a team that N.C. State won five in a row against before the Tar Heels took the last two. And UNC is considered by a some a Coastal Division favorite, which would make the win even sweeter.

Even one win against an in-state opponent would be a sign of progress — N.C. State lost all four games against in-state opponents a year ago, the first time it had lost that many to in-state teams since 1943. The rivalries in the state aren’t nationally known, but they’re just as significant to the local fans, many of which live and work with each other. A year of bragging rights means plenty.

Boston College, Oct. 11. The Eagles aren’t going to be far behind N.C. State on this countdown, so this is certainly a winnable ACC game for the Wolfpack, especially since it’s at home. It will likely be the first good chance for N.C. State’s first ACC win since Nov. 24, 2012, which, coincidentally, was also against Boston College.

The Wolfpack begin the season with Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, at South Florida and Presbyterian — a chance for a 4-0 start, but likely 3-1 — then hosts Florida State and goes to Clemson. So it’s 4-2 at best, 3-3 most likely or 2-4 at the very worst. This Boston College game could represent N.C. State’s best chance for a win from Sept. 27-Nov. 8, as its next two games after Boston College are at Louisville and at Syracuse.

A win over the Eagles could ensure N.C. State keeps its bowl chances alive headed into the back stretch of the season. A loss, and it will be an uphill battle to say the least.

There are likely at least one or two other potential wins on this schedule, but the games aren’t played in a vacuum. N.C. State could get through its first four games (including at South Florida) with wins, but a young team feeling good about itself would then host Florida State and travel to Clemson. Both are almost certainly losses, and likely by large margins. Then it’s Boston College and Georgia Tech at home with trips to Louisville and Syracuse sandwiched in between.

Can N.C. State emerge from that stretch with more than one win? It’s possible, certainly. And if it does, then it has a real chance to make a bowl game. But how will a young team respond to that kind of stretch, particularly when it won’t get a bye until after the game at Louisville, also likely a loss?

This team is not short on talent, but it’s green and it should take another transition-type year before it starts to translate into on-field results.

Doeren and his staff can’t rebuild the lack of depth left behind by the previous coaching staff overnight. The starters will be ACC-caliber, for the most part, but there’s just no margin for error. Too many returning players get hurt or have a bit of a down year and there’s trouble. There’s just not a lot behind them, particularly along both lines, which are arguably the most important positions on the field besides quarterback.

This could be a six-win schedule. But, again, Doeren can’t turn around this program in only a year. Give it one more year before the Wolfpack really starts turning some heads and making itself into a pest in the Atlantic Division again. (No, seriously, ask 2012 Florida State about this.)