WINSTON-SALEM — Rival ACC football programs hardly knew what to make of N.C. State going into this season.
If the Wolfpack were an obscure 1960s rock band instead of a football team, it might be known as Question Mark and the Mysterians.
N.C. State had a new coach, a new staff, new offensive and defensive schemes and a new quarterback.
“There was really nothing we had to go on,’’ said defensive end Kristopher Redding of Wake Forest. “We just had to wait.’’
The wait is over for the Deacons as they prepare to play Coach Dave Doeren’s first Wolfpack team, which has been impressive so far on the way to a 3-1 record. The more teams learn, the more they recognize what a challenge the Wolfpack poses.
“Gladly we have film, and they’re four games into the season just like us,’’ said safety A.J. Marshall of Wake Forest (the 2-3 Deacons have played five games). “So our coaches have a lot to study. They put a lot of stuff out there on film. We feel comfortable with our game plan as we’re putting it together. And I feel comfortable that the coaches will put us in great position for Saturday.
“We know they do a lot of shifts and motions. They have good athletes. And they have good coaches as well. So I just feel that we need to out-execute N.C. State on Saturday and play our game — do what we need to do.’’
For all that has changed since Doeren succeeded Tom O’Brien, Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe sees one constant. N.C. State still has considerable talent, as it proved by playing toe-to-toe with No. 3 Clemson before a highly controversial call turned the tables on a 26-14 defeat.
“You’re talking about a team, how many straight bowl games have they been to?’’ said Grobe, referring to N.C. State’s three straight trips. “And they get rid of Tom, but it’s not like they were on empty.
“I think Tom had to build some things, but I think recently they’ve been really, really talented. I thought Tom did a great job, and I think Dave’s doing a great job. But talent’s never been a problem.
“You just look at them on video and you say, ‘Ho, ho, yeah. Here we go again’ — a lot of guys who can run, a lot of fast guys, a lot talent. And I think they’re coaching them really well. I like what they’re doing offensively and defensively.’’
What the Deacons have seen is a fast team that plays fast and hard with great enthusiasm.
“Tempo is a lot faster,’’ senior cornerback Dontae Johnson of N.C. State said. “The pace, the energy out there, there’s a lot more enthusiasm and everything.
“The coaches are really hard on all the players, just trying to make us be good in the system and be technically sound and detailed in our work.
“It’s really good out there.’’
Junior Pete Thomas, a 6-6, 236-pound transfer from Colorado State, is starting at quarterback in the Wolfpack’s pistol offense. He ranks fifth in the ACC with 249.8 total yards per game and has completed 73 of 114 passes for 906 yards and has rushed for 93 yards on 35 carries.
His modest passing efficiency rating of 124.9 is largely a result of his five interceptions against one touchdown.
Senior Rashard Smith is playing like an All-ACC candidate at wide receiver, with 20 catches for 235 yards. Sophomore Shadrach Thornton cracked the starting lineup at running back in the last game, a 48-14 pounding of Central Michigan, but the Deacons can expect to see more than a half-dozen players carrying the ball Saturday.
One of the objectives of Doeren’s offense is to get the ball to his fastest players in open space. Bryan Underwood, a fleet junior wide receiver, has carried five times this season for 96 yards. Smith has carried 13 times for 92 yards.
“It’s something that I really believe in,’’ Doeren said. “The misdirection part of our offense is very important. My goal from a defensive background is to test the edges and the soundness of people’s games. We’re going to pull them laterally with our jet game, our arounds, and we’re going to press them vertically with our zone and power schemes. It puts a lot of stress on the defense.
“I think it’s something that allows us to utilize our speed. It helps our offensive line because it pulls people out of the box. If they’re not going to pull out of the box, we’re going to hand it off to those guys and let them run. If they are, it gives us a chance to run up inside against numbers.’’
The Winston-Salem Journal is a news partner of The News & Observer. For more Wake Forest coverage go to journalnow.com/sports/wfu.