Thursday, August 15, 2013

season preview: NC State Wolfpack


8/31: Louisiana Tech
9/7: Richmond
9/14: BYE
9/19: Clemson (Thu.)
9/28: Central Michigan
10/5: @ Wake Forest
10/12: Syracuse
10/19: BYE
10/26: @ Florida State
11/2: North Carolina
11/9: @ Duke
11/16: @ Boston College
11/23: East Carolina
11/30: Maryland

Skip: Georgia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech

2012 results:

Tennessee: L, 35-21
Connecticut: W, 10-7
South Alabama: W, 31-7
The Citadel: W, 52-14
Miami: L, 44-37
Florida State: W, 17-16
Maryland: W, 20-18
North Carolina: L, 43-35
Virginia: L, 33-6
Wake Forest: W, 37-6
Clemson: L, 62-48
Boston College: W, 27-10
Vanderbilt: L, 38-24 (Music City Bowl)

Record: 7-6 (4-4); 3rd of 6, Atlantic Division

Projected starters:

QB: Pete Thomas (rJr.)
RB: Shadrach Thornton (So.)
WR: Quintin Payton (5Sr.)
WR: Rashard Smith (5Sr.)
WR: Bryan Underwood (rJr.)
TE: Asa Watson (5Sr.)
LT: Rob Crisp (Sr.)
LG: Duran Christophe (5Sr.)
C: Joe Thuney (rSo.)
RG: Alex Barr (rSo.)
RT: Tyson Chandler (rJr.)

DE: Art Norman (rJr.)
DT: T.Y. McGill (Jr.)
DT: Thomas Teal (rJr.)
DE: Darryl Cato-Bishop (5Sr.)
SLB: D.J. Green (Sr.)
MLB: M.J. Salahuddin (So.)
WLB: Brandon Pittman (Jr.)
CB: Dontae Johnson (Sr.)
CB: Juston Burris (rSo.)
FS: Jarvis Byrd (5Sr.)
SS: Hakim Jones (rSo.)

K: Niklas Sade (Jr.)
P: Wil Baumann (Jr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Dave Doeren, 1st season

Media prediction: 3rd of 7, Atlantic Division


2012 1st team: S Earl Wolff
2012 2nd team: OG R.J. Mattes, CB David Amerson
2012 HM: S Brandan Bishop, DE Darryl Cato-Bishop, QB Mike Glennon, C Camden Wentz
2013 preseason: none

(Italics indicate departed player.)

After a 7-5 regular season and a bowl loss, NC State decided that was as far as Tom O'Brien was ever going to take them.  Their loss, our gain.  The Pack hired Dave Doeren out of the MAC, who wants to bring a more uptempo style to Raleigh than O'Brien's admittedly stodgy ways.  Now comes their chance to see if TOB was holding them back or if he was squeezing the best possible results out of the talent that he had.

-- Offense

The UVA-NC State connections don't stop with TOB, even with a new coaching staff.  O'Brien took the transfer of quarterback Pete Thomas from Colorado State - he left when Steve Fairchild was let go as head coach.  Thomas started right away as a freshman at CSU, had two years as a starter, and acquitted himself fairly well, completing 63.5% of his passes, although also throwing more interceptions than touchdowns (18 to 21.)  He's a big, tall pocket passer, standing 6'6", and has the edge over scrambling QB Manny Stocker for the starting job, though it's also fair to say the question isn't totally settled yet.

Thomas's poor mobility may have contributed to the astronomical number of times he was sacked at CSU - 44 times as a freshman alone - although the Rams also probably had an awful O-line.  At NC State his tackles will probably be better.  The outer edges are the strength of the Wolfpack O-line, with Rob Crisp and Tyson Chandler each having about a year of starting experience.  In Crisp's case it's spread out over a couple seasons, though.  The middle is a little shakier.  Duran Christophe at left guard has plenty of experience and is not at all a question mark.  Center Joe Thuney has been groomed to replace longtime starter Camden Wentz, but has only received playing time in fits and starts; meanwhile, prospective new starter Alex Barr at right guard got very minimal experience last season, playing almost exclusively on special teams.

The tailback platoon that carried the load last season returns, although neither Shadrach Thornton or Tony Creecy put much fear into the opposition.  Thornton, as a true freshman in 2012, started to emerge as a quality player as the year went on, finishing the regular season with three straight 100-yard games.  If he continues to improve and show consistency he'll be a solid back.  Creecy is nothing special, averaging 3.7 yards per carry in each of the past two seasons.

The receivers, at least, are a deep unit.  NC State featured three 600-yard receivers last season, two of which - Quintin Payton and slot jitterburg Bryan Underwood - return in 2013.  Rashard Smith was a useful player in a reserve role, and Asa Watson is a capable tight end as well; additionally, Charlie Hegedus could be an intriguing option, having earned one starting nod as a true freshman last year.  The caveat to the productivity of the receiving corps is that it could be awfully tough for Pete Thomas to duplicate the success of Mike Glennon; a 4,000-yard season such as Glennon had last year is probably not in the offing.

If Thomas - or even Stocker - turns out to be a worthy replacement for Glennon, NC State's offense should be able to move the ball.  Thornton also needs to continue his development into a quality running back, because NC State doesn't have many options otherwise, and the new faces on the O-line need to get up to speed as well.  Plenty of question marks here, but the tools to be respectable as well.

-- Defense

The defensive line looks like NC State's best position unit this year.  It had better be, because the back seven is one of the shakiest in the conference.  Up front, there is a ton of talent.  Ends Darryl Cato-Bishop and Art Norman tallied 6.5 and 5.5 sacks, respectively, and combined for 18.5 TFL as well.  The Pack like the depth they have at end, too, with Forrest West playing a big reserve role in 2012 before going down with injury, and Mike Rose should also push for playing time after delivering a huge punt block last year against FSU.  In the middle, T.Y. McGill has the skills to be a terror; 10.5 of his 39 tackles were for loss last season, including five sacks.  Nose tackle Thomas Teal also gets into the backfield an impressive amount for a 1-tech, and there's not a lot of dropoff in talent to his backup, A.J. Ferguson.

The D-line is excellent, but they're going to have to carry a huge load this year.  Middle linebacker M.J. Salahuddin is a true sophomore who played on special teams last year except for a few snaps against UVA when the game was out of hand.  He earned the starting job in spring camp, with his main competition being career special-teamer and former walk-on Zach Gentry.  Weakside backer Brandon Pittman has some starting experience, but that came in the first two games of last season after which he was bumped to the bench; his backup is a redshirt freshman.  And on the strong side, D.J. Green showed some promise in 2011, starting six games before losing the rest of the season to injury.  In a possibly related development, he was suspended for all of 2012 by the NCAA for PEDs, and could only practice.  Rodman Noel may push for time on that side, but he too began 2012 in the starting lineup before being bumped to the bench.  Last year, NC State's linebacking corps looked shaky going into the season, and they found a few playmakers in Rickey Dowdy and Sterling Lucas; they will need a similar pick-me-up this season.

That's because they no longer have the security blanket named Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop, who formed probably the league's best safety pair for a couple years.  Getting first crack at replacing them will be Jarvis Byrd and Hakim Jones, the former of which has bounced from corner to safety and suffered two torn ACLs in his career.  Jones doesn't have much field time either, which is no surprise when you're backing up Wolff and Bishop, but in any case the Pack are set to take a major step backwards at safety.  Cornerback is thin too, behind the starters; Dontae Johnson was a starter last season, but didn't record an interception (and with David Amerson on the other side, Johnson was thrown at more than usual) and Juston Burris was the nickel corner and recorded three interceptions.  Not a bad starting two, but the rest of the gang is almost entirely freshmen and walk-ons, so the Pack will have to work hard to find and develop some answers on the depth chart.

Truthfully, I'm not convinced.  So many questions means a few are bound to go unanswered.  This is going to be a tough year defensively for the Pack as they try to solve a perenially vexing linebacker issue and replace three outstanding players in the secondary.  The line is one of the best in the conference, but that can only take them so far; there'll have to be some surprises if NC State is going to succeed.

-- Special teams

Both placekicking and punting look a little iffy.  Kicker Niklas Sade was only 13-for-23 last season, including 8-for-18 from 30 yards or greater, and he missed two extra points.  Punter Wil Baumann had a 38.9 yard average.  Both need to improve.

-- Outlook

I'm on the edge as to whether or not to expect a bowl season out of the Pack this year.  Because of the schedule - it's not difficult, with the toughest OOC test probably being Louisiana Tech - I'd lean toward yes.  It's conceivable the Pack could have five wins by their second bye in October, and even four would set them up well for bowl eligibility.  But a team with such serious holes, and learning new systems, can't be expected to contend for a division title when the two best teams in the conference are in their division.  I'd be surprised if they can't muster up six wins, but not very.

No comments: