Monday, August 18, 2014

2014 season preview: NC State Wolfpack


8/30: Georgia Southern
9/6: Old Dominion
9/13: @ South Florida
9/20: Presbyterian
9/27: Florida State
10/4: @ Clemson
10/11: Boston College
10/18: @ Louisville
10/25: BYE
11/1: @ Syracuse
11/8: Georgia Tech
11/15: Wake Forest
11/22: BYE
11/29: @ North Carolina

Skip: Duke, Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech

Louisiana Tech: W, 40-14
Richmond: W, 23-21
Clemson: L, 26-14
Central Michigan: W, 48-14
Wake Forest: L, 28-13
Syracuse: L, 24-10
Florida State: L, 49-17
North Carolina: L, 27-19
Duke: L, 38-20
Boston College: L, 38-21
East Carolina: L, 42-28
Maryland: L, 41-21

Record: 3-9 (0-8); 7th, Atlantic

Projected starters:

QB: Jacoby Brissett (rJr.)
RB: Shadrach Thornton (Jr.)
WR: Bryan Underwood (5Sr.)
WR: Jumichael Ramos (So.)
WR: Bo Hines (Fr.)
TE: David Grinnage (rSo.)
LT: Rob Crisp (5Sr.)
LG: Joe Thuney (rJr.)
C: Quinton Schooley (Jr.)
RG: Alex Barr (rJr.)
RT: Tyson Chandler (5Sr.)

DE: Art Norman (5Sr.)
DT: Thomas Teal (5Sr.)
DT: Monty Nelson (So.)
DE: Mike Rose (rJr.)
WLB: Brandon Pittman (Sr.)
MLB: Jerod Fernandez (rFr.)
CB: Jack Tocho (So.)
CB: Juston Burris (rJr.)
S: Tim Buckley (rJr.)
SS: Hakim Jones (rJr.)
FS: Jarvis Byrd (6Sr.)

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

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Dave Doeren (2nd season)

Media prediction: 5th, Atlantic


2013 1st team: none
2013 2nd team: none
2013 3rd team: none
2013 HM: LB Robert Caldwell, K Niklas Sade
2014 preseason: none

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Thank goodness for NC State.  Dave Doeren's first year at the helm went not so great, and the Wolfpack shared the distinction of an ACC goose egg with UVA.  NC State's season went awfully similar to ours - win a few early and then watch in disbelief as the losing continues without end.  The challenge continues this season.  After a nonconference schedule that shouldn't be particularly hard, NC State opens the ACC season with FSU and Clemson.

-- Offense

The big deal with NC State this year, and the source of half their optimism, is new starting QB Jacoby Brissett.  Since transferring in from Florida after the 2012 season, Brissett has been halfway anointed as the 2014 starter.  As a Gator he did a passable job in limited time, but in Raleigh the job is his to sink or swim with.  ESPN figured the Pack to have the 4th-best QB situation in the conference, so the expectations are piled pretty high.

NC State will have its workhorse tailback Shadrach Thornton back on the team after a few run-ins with Doeren's doghouse this offseason.  Thornton has had a run-in or two with the law and can't afford to slip up again, or NC State will be left with a fairly unpalatable slate of options.  Thornton himself isn't flashy, but he proved capable of carrying the load last year; without him, the Pack would turn to Matt Dayes, who had his moments last year as a freshman, or the increasingly marginalized and uninspiring Tony Creecy.  Neither strike fear in opponents.

If there are any playmakers, they'll be found at receiver.  Bryan Underwood is a steady veteran presence at the top of the depth chart, who flashes some big-play ability at times.  Jumichael Ramos quietly had a strong season last year, as did Marquez Valdez-Scantling, both as true freshmen playing in a unit dominated by upperclassmen.  NC State also really likes what they see out of true freshman Bo Hines, who had a breakout performance in the Pack's spring game.

The good news for NC State on the line is that they return a full slate of starters; the bad news is, this line wasn't very good last year.  They were a revolving door against the pass rush, allowing nearly three sacks a game, and failing to open many holes in the run game.  Still, there's something to be said for a great deal of continuity.  Particularly at center, where Quinton Schooley didn't miss a single snap in 2013.  Left tackle Rob Crisp is a talented player, but has dealt with injuries his whole career.  NC State's O-line will definitely get a boost if Crisp can put together a full senior season.  Tyson Chandler has been a familiar presence at right tackle, entering his third season as a starter there.  Chandler is a massive road-grading presence at 345 pounds.  Alex Barr stepped in as the right guard starter in the third game of 2013 and didn't let go of the spot, and Joe Thuney is a versatile player who's seen time both inside and out along the line; he figures to be the left guard by default, barring any further shuffling.

We'll see how up to the task Brissett is; he's gotten a fair amount of hype so far.  Brissett is a big, linebacker-sized guy with decent mobility; he possesses most, if not all, of the necessary physical tools.  By himself he could be worth a few extra wins, if the production matches the hype.  The line needs to do a better job keeping him free of grass stains, but I like the continuity they have, and there's some playmaking potential among his receiving corps.

-- Defense

NC State had the worst run defense in the ACC last year, and were the only team to allow more than five yards a carry, so naturally, they switched to a base 4-2-5 nickel package this year.  Teams are starting to do more and more of this to combat the proliferation of passing spreads; NC State also has depth issues at linebacker, particularly with prospective MLB starter M.J. Salahuddin out likely for the year with a training camp injury.  The all-important Mike position now falls to redshirt freshman Jerod Fernandez.  Nobody expected to play that position has so much as a single college snap under their belts.  The outside, at least, has experience, with two seniors manning the weak-side spot in Brandon Pittman and Rodman Noel.  Pittman was a very steady presence last year, and Noel does have a few starts to his name as well.

Up front, NC State continues to have plenty of depth.  Thomas Teal is a playmaking defensive tackle, and Monty Nelson was a pleasant surprise in his freshman season last year as well.  T.Y. McGill also returns to give the Pack a solid three-man rotation in the middle.  Teal also has the versatility to play end.  NC State has at least one decent returning starter in Art Norman for the end; they'll lean on promoted reserve Mike Rose for the other side.  NC State's line put up good individual numbers, but it needs to improve on that five yard a carry number.

At safety, the Pack get Jarvis Byrd back for a sixth season after he suffered his third(!) career ACL tear last season.  Byrd was good enough way back in 2009 to play his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman, but over a five year career he's played in a grand total of 14 games, the result of all those popped ACLs and one quad injury.  Hakim Jones had a good debut as a starter last year, making 61 tackles from his strong safety position, intercepting two passes and breaking up eight more.  Jack Tocho stepped in at cornerback as a true freshman in 2013, when Byrd went down and Dontae Johnson was moved to safety to cover; Tocho also registered a pair of picks and outplayed his counterpart Juston Burris.  NC State's pass defense didn't benefit from a productive pass rush and still wasn't sitting at the bottom of the conference last year, so putting another DB on the field might not be the worst decision.

Still, the depth issues at linebacker are not a new problem; they've been going on for a while now, and I really like the individual production that NC State has gotten out of their D-line but the overall result was fairly hideous.  They do need to pick it up and get more pressure on quarterbacks, having failed to produce much in the way of sacks last year - just 20 as a team.  There's room for improvement, but like the O-line, the continuity is (mostly) there to help it happen.

-- Special teams

Niklas Sade is one of the better kickers in the conference and happens to be NC State's only returning player to get any votes in all-ACC voting last year.  Wil Baumann posted a 42.1 yard punting average last year.  Both these players made huge strides over 2012 and figure to give NC State a good kicking game in their senior seasons.

-- Outlook

The OOC slate is anything but scary; the only team that even closely resembles a big-time-ish program is South Florida - a 2-10 team last year.  It'll probably be ODU that actually provides the biggest test; the point is that NC State is highly likely to start the season 4-0.  They're equally likely to start the season 4-2, with the two hardest ACC games on the schedule out of the way early.  The question then becomes, can they find two wins in the next six games?  Probably can.  Last year's results offer plenty of reason to doubt, but I think it'd be underperforming and a failure to play to potential if NC State can't get back to the postseason this year.  NC State should wrap up bowl eligibility somewhere in the three-game November stretch of Cuse, GT, and Wake.

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