The only thing more comforting than the perfect weather at N.C. State’s football practice on Tuesday morning was the familiarity among the players and coaches.
N.C. State only has to replace six starters, out of 22, from a team that went 7-6 in 2016 and won three of its last four games.
There was a little too much newness in spring ball a year ago: a new offense, a new quarterback and a new offensive line. This year? There’s not a lot of new, especially not on the offensive side of the ball.
“Obviously, last year we had a big transition,” senior offensive lineman Tony Adams said. “This is just smooth sailing.”
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In shoulder pads for the first time, in already the third practice of the spring, the Wolfpack operation did look smooth on Tuesday.
Coach Dave Doeren’s fifth team has the promise to be his best, certainly if the Wolfpack can, as junior running back Nyheim Hines said, “Pick back up where we left off last year.”
N.C. State closed 2016 with wins over Syracuse, North Carolina and Vanderbilt. The Wolfpack opens the 2017 season with another SEC foe, South Carolina.
“Going into the offseason program, there was great bounce,” Doeren said, noting the finish to last season and the anticipation of the opener in Charlotte with the Gamecocks.
With so many of the same players back, Doeren can afford to use the spring to figure out which new parts can help. N.C. State needs three new starters on offense (center, running back, receiver) and defense (safety, cornerback and nickleback).
Those position competitions won’t be decided until fall camp. The spring is for getting healthy – running backs Reggie Gallaspy and Johnny Frasier are banged up – and a time for development and to get a better look at younger players. Safety Isaiah Stallings and receiver C.J. Riley, a pair of freshmen who redshirted last season, are two in particular Doeren would like to see.
“It’s really not a matter of trying to figure out who can do what,” Doeren said. “It’s just these guys who were redshirted last year, trying to see if they can help us next year.
There is, obviously, a lot of work to be done between now and Sept. 2 but you got the feeling from Tuesday’s practice that N.C. State’s not a team learning how to walk anymore. The Wolfpack might actually be ready to run.
Offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz doesn’t have to install his scheme, the players have a year of experience in it. Junior quarterback Ryan Finley wasn’t even on campus last spring when Drinkwitz was trying to teach his offense. Four of the starters on the offensive line are back, too.
The main missing piece on offense is running back Matt Dayes (1,166 rushing yards) and safety Josh Jones (109 tackles) will have to be replaced after a standout season.
But in Finley, Adams, Hines, do-everything Jaylen Samuels, defensive end Bradley Chubb and defensive tackles Justin Jones there are a lot of familiar faces in Wolfpack red.
And as nice as the sun was, unseasonably with the temperature in the 60s in February, that familiarity means N.C. State is already ahead of where it was last year at the same point.
“When you have as many starters coming back as we do, it’s make practice run a lot smoother,” Finley said.
“Comfortable” is the way the 6-4, 205-pound quarterback from Phoenix described.
“I would say it’s like a nicely worn-in pair of shoes,” Finley joked. “To the point, where I don’t want to get new shoes.”
No new shoes are necessary. N.C. State is just figuring out how to run in these.
Joe Giglio: 919-812-7181, @jwgiglio