ACC Preview: NC State’s Matthew Dayes has date with breakthrough season

NC State has made two straight bowl games under Dave Doeren, and while there has been incremental improvement in the ACC Atlantic Division standings in his three seasons — seventh in 2013 to fifth in ’14 and fourth a year ago — the Wolfpack are in need of a breakthrough.

No, not one where they are challenging Clemson, Florida State or dark horse contender Louisville for a spot in the conference championship game. Doeren’s crew may not be ready for that quite yet. Instead, they simply need wins against FBS opponents, preferably ones that end up playing in bowl games.

Last season, the Wolfpack was 0-5 vs. teams that went on to the postseason and dropped losing the Belk Bowl to Mississippi State. That left NC State with just one victory under Doeren against a team that finished the year with a winning record (nine-win UCF in the 2014 St. Petersburg Bowl).

ACC TEAM BREAKDOWNS

Will the Wolfpack change that narrative in 2016? It’s just one of the key questions facing this team this fall.

No NC State back has reached that yardage total since 2002 with T.A. McLendon, though Dayes nearly pulled it off last season as he ran for 865 yards in a season cut five games short by a foot injury. With a schedule that includes seven opponents that were 52nd or worse against the rush a year ago — including Miami (101st), Old Dominion (103rd) and North Carolina (121) — and an FCS opponent in William & Mary that ranked 48th, he would seem almost a lock to go over 1,000 yards. The only wrinkles it that thinking — beyond Dayes missing extended time again with an injury — could be redshirt freshman Johnny Frasier, who could also vie for carries, and an unproven commodity for the Wolfpack under center.

There’s an ongoing QB competition in Raleigh, with redshirt sophomore Jalan McClendon vying for the role along with redshirt freshman Jakobi Meyers and graduate transfer Ryan Finley, who played in new offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz’s scheme at Boise State. McClendon was Jacoby Brissett’s backup a year ago, but attempted just 14 passes while appearing in four games, and never threw a Power 5 opponent. Meanwhile, Finley started three games for the Broncos in ’15, and Meyers’ best asset may be spelling one of the other two as a running option. McClendon is a big talent, arriving as a four-star recruit, but Finley’s familiarity with the offense could be a determining factor in his getting the first crack at it. The fact is, with the running game the focus of this offense, whoever wins may spending most of their time handing off to Dayes and Co. The game plan here is to limit mistakes, and Finley does have more actual experience than McClendon does.

The Wolfpack secondary had its issues in ’15, ranking 65th in FBS in pass efficiency defense (126.3) and among ACC teams, only Virginia gave up more TDs through the air (26) than NC State’s 24. Compounding matters, the group is down Juston Burris, who was lauded for his ability to shadow receivers (and rode it onto a spot on the New York Jets’ roster). There is experience, as cornerbacks Mike Stevens or Jake Tocho have 33 combined starts in 60 career games, and safety Shawn Boone is healthy after missing four games with a foot injury, but there’s also uncertainty here. Jonathan Alston, another corner, was moved from receiver to DB and Josh Sessoms has done a similar position dance over his five years with the program. There is talent among the starters, but a lack of depth and no proven leader could make things dicey.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ is out now, and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners’ will be released Nov. 1, 2016.