Wolfpack's Doeren hopes changes pay off in opener vs. Tribe
FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2015, file photo, North Carolina State's Matt Dayes (21) finds some running room as Troy's William Lloyd, left, moves in for the tackle during an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C. Dayes is seeking to become the program's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2002. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren will soon find out whether some major offensive changes translate into a step forward for his Wolfpack.
Doeren opens his fourth season with the Wolfpack on Thursday night against William & Mary of the Football Championship Subdivision. His offense will have a different look with a new coordinator and a pair of unproven quarterbacks, and his team has spent an offseason working under the leadership of a different strength and conditioning coach.
That comes after a 7-6 season with a second straight bowl appearance but a feeling of unmet expectations.
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''The changes I made were changes I thought had to be made,'' Doeren said. ''They're never easy. . It's not a fun moment. But you do it because you believe what's best for the future of your team and your staff. And I can honestly say I feel like I did the right thing – not that I've looked back and doubt myself.''
New offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz worked with former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and was Boise State's coordinator last season. He brings a scheme sure to pick up the pace in Raleigh.
But the Wolfpack's offseason battle to replace Jacoby Brissett as starting quarterback hasn't settled on a long-term answer. Either Jalan McClendon or graduate transfer Ryan Finley – both are redshirt sophomores – will take the first snap Thursday night, but Doeren isn't promising anything more than the first series to the starter and said both will play.
The Tribe will present a veteran challenge. Ranked No. 10 in the FCS coaches poll, William & Mary enters the season with 16 starters and 10 all-conference performers back from a team that claimed a share of the Colonial Athletic Association title.
''You can't dwell on what happened last year because obviously it was a very good year but it's a different team,'' longtime Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock said. ''This year's team has got to set their own identity.''
Here are things to know about Thursday's William & Mary-N.C. State game
QB ROTATION: Doeren wouldn't commit to a specific rotation for McClendon and Finley, but it sounds like the position battle isn't over. Doeren said that the team has settled on the starter and won't reveal it publicly, but added the winner ''isn't necessarily'' the starter for the full season. ''I don't know how many reps we'll get,'' McClendon said, ''but we're both playing.''
KICKING BATTLE: Quarterback isn't the Wolfpack's only unsettled position. Sophomore Kyle Bambard and graduate transfer Connor Haskins are vying to be the top placekicker. Bambard struggled last season by making 7 of 14 field goals, a 50-percent conversion rate that was last in the NCAA's Bowl Subdivision national ranks. Doeren said both guys would kick but won't publicly announce a starter.
IN THE TRENCHES: The key battle will come up front. William & Mary's line boasts three seniors and two juniors, including three all-conference picks, blocking for team captain Steve Cluley at quarterback and tailback Kendell Anderson. But Anderson is questionable with a shoulder injury and the Wolfpack's defensive front is a strength. ''It's pretty much going to come down to your quarterback and offensive line,'' Laycock said. ''That's what makes you go.''
RUN IT: The Wolfpack's deep backfield is led by senior Matt Dayes, who had run for 12 touchdowns and was within reach of becoming the program's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2002 before missing the five games with a foot injury. And Drinkwitz has proven at his previous coaching stops he's more than willing to run the ball, so don't be surprised to see the Wolfpack go heavy on the ground game.
FAST STARTS: N.C. State has won its opener in each of Doeren's first three years and has started 4-0 in each of the past two. The Wolfpack can't afford a stumble Thursday with a trip to East Carolina next week and a schedule that includes No. 2 Clemson, No. 4 Florida State, No. 10 Notre Dame, No. 19 Louisville and No. 22 North Carolina.
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