LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Georgia’s Nick Chubb all get credit for the renaissance of the running back position in college football.
But to N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley, and his teammates, Wolfpack senior Matt Dayes doesn’t get mentioned enough with that elite group.
“We think Matt is the best back in the country,” Finley said.
Finley spent the last three years at Boise State. He had heard of Dayes, whose junior season was cut short by a toe injury in 2015, but didn’t quite realize how good Dayes was until he got here.
“You learn really quick,” Finley said after watching Dayes in practice and then on gameday.
Dayes had another 100-yard rushing game in N.C. State’s 10-3 win over Notre Dame last week and is a key to the 4-1 Wolfpack’s hopes of knocking off No. 3 Clemson (6-0) this week on the road.
It was against Clemson last October, after running for 72 yards in the first half, that Dayes did ligament damage in the big toe on his left foot.
More than anything, I’m happy to be out here and be able to play football again.
N.C. State running back Matt Dayes
Most people in Dayes’ situation would have circled the Clemson game on the calendar. That’s not quite how the quiet senior works.
“It doesn’t matter that I got injured against them last year, or anything,” Dayes said. “I’m just going to approach every game the same.”
That one-game-at-a-time approach has worked for Dayes, who has picked up where he left off last year with four 100-yard rushing games in the first five games this season.
He had 126 yards on 23 carries against Notre Dame in a game impacted by Hurricane Matthew. The Fighting Irish couldn’t run the ball, but Dayes found a way.
He’s both healthy, after an extended rest this spring, and grateful.
“Everything is great, I’m 100 percent,” Dayes said. “More than anything, I’m happy to be out here and be able to play football again.”
Dayes missed the last five and a half games of the 2015 season, including showcase games with Florida State, North Carolina and Mississippi State.
The Wolfpack was leading Clemson, which went on to win the ACC title and play for the national championship, 20-19 when Dayes got hurt while blocking a defensive end.
Dayes missed the second half and Clemson pulled away for a 56-41 win. The Wolfpack, without its top rushing threat, lost to FSU, UNC and Mississippi State and finished with a disappointing 7-6 record.
Dayes tries not to play the “What if?” game but as quarterback Jalan McClendon put it before the season: “We’re not 7-6 if Matt stays healthy.”
Dayes’ absence at the end of the season, he had surgery to repair his foot, explains some of the lack of hype for the 5-9, 203-pound senior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Before the injury, he was the ACC’s leading rusher (with 865 yards) and led the country in rushing touchdowns (12). He was on track to become N.C. State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2002.
In his last 13 games (eight last year and five this year), he has rushed for 1,428 yards and 15 touchdowns with an average of 6.2 yards per carry and 109.8 yards per game.
Those averages compare favorably (see chart) with what McCaffrey, Fournette and Cook, who all finished in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy voting last season, have done since the start of the 2015 season.
Another reason for the lack of hype for Dayes is his lack of self-promotion. Dayes prefers to stay out of the media spotlight.
“He doesn’t like to talk much,” said fullback Jaylen Samuels. “The way he plays says it all.”
There is one way to get Dayes talking. After the win over Notre Dame, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren noted Dayes ran for 126 yards but was going to be upset about his fumble.
Never mind, there was eight inches of water on the ground and the rain never stopped in four-plus hours, that’s not an excuse to Dayes.
“I squeezed the ball too tight and it popped up,” Dayes said of his second-half fumble vs. Notre Dame. “No one made me fumble or anything, it was just my dumb mistake.”
Yeah, but the game was played during a hurricane. Take it easy, man.
“I have a high standard for myself,” Dayes said.
And he has lived up to them, and then some.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
NC State’s Matt Dayes doesn’t get a lot of national attention but his rushing numbers stack up with the country’s best since the start of the 2015 season:
Leonard Fournette, LSU
Dalvin Cook, FSU
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
Matt Dayes, NC State
Nick Chubb, Georgia
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma