There is a certain uneasiness in being an N.C. State fan. Whenever the Wolfpack is supposed to be good, like this football season, something bad usually happens.
This has been especially true since the start of the 2000s with notable, and sometimes spectacular, disappointments – when expectations were at their highest – in basketball, baseball and football.
So the optimism for this football season, after a five-win improvement under coach Dave Doeren to 8-5 in 2014, has been somewhat tempered by a wary fan base.
Some fans anticipate the best, while N.C. State’s have a habit of waiting for the worst.
Never miss a local story.
Cornerback Juston Burris understands this pathos. Burris grew up a Wolfpack fan in Raleigh, went to high school at Broughton and the fifth-year senior has experienced his share of ups and downs during his college career.
But this season, with Jacoby Brissett back at quarterback and an experienced defense, plus a manageable schedule, has a chance to be different. Burris is sure it will be different.
“We’re going to be good,” Burris said. “We expect to be good. We want to go out every game and play our game. We expect to win every game.”
“I know a lot of people in the media will say, ‘You can’t beat this team’ or ‘You can’t beat that team,’” Burris said. “We’re not worried about that. We’re going to go out and play our game every game.
“We know we can go out and play with the Florida States and Clemsons. We’re not shying away from anyone, we’re not scared.”
‘Going to be special year’
N.C. State, in 2012, was the last ACC team to beat Florida State, which has won the past three conference titles and the national title in 2013. The Seminoles and Clemson have been the conference’s best teams the past four years and are expected to be again.
The Tigers were the preseason pick by the media to win the league (N.C. State was picked to finish third in the division) and both FSU (No. 10) and Clemson (No. 12) are ranked in The Associated Press Top 25.
But both have had significant personnel changes since the end of the 2014 season. N.C. State returns most of its key components from last year’s team and has added one of the best recruiting classes in recent history.
So, the Wolfpack is not scared and Burris is not alone in his confidence. N.C. State will be a young team, with 70 percent of the roster in its first or second season, and it has only 11 seniors (seven are expected to start), but the group is confident after how the 2014 season finished.
The Wolfpack won four of its final five games to bounce back after a midseason four-game losing streak. With many of the same key parts back, on offense and defense, the seniors are approaching this season as an opportunity.
“Oh, it’s going to be a special year for us,” Brissett said.
Reminded of Burris’ optimism and senior defensive end Mike Rose’s designs on an ACC title, Brissett wasn’t ready to define “special” but said he supports his teammates’ enthusiasm.
“We’re just going to play our best, go all out and play it one game at a time and then see where the chips fall,” Brissett said.
Brissett’s development the key
For all of the hope for this season, it’s easy to forget where N.C. State was two years ago during Doeren’s first season.
The Wolfpack lost the final eight games of 2013 to finish 3-9 and winless in the ACC for the first time since 1959.
“We’ve come so far from where we were two years ago,” senior left tackle Joe Thuney said.
Maybe that explains Doeren closely guarding his own expectations.
“We need to be better than we were last year,” he said.
Brissett, who sat out the 2013 season after transferring from Florida, was a big reason for the improvement last season and one of the main reasons for the optimism this season.
A 6-foot-4, 235-pound redshirt senior, he completed 59.7 percent of his passes (221 of 370) for 2,606 yards with 23 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He also ran for 529 yards and three touchdowns.
He was spectacular at times, notably in a three-touchdown, 359-yard effort against Florida State and with his running ability at the end of the season, which included a 167-yard outing in a 35-7 win against North Carolina.
But there were struggles, too. There were gaps in his consistency during a four-game losing streak in the middle of the season.
“He would let things he couldn’t control get to him,” Doeren said.
Brissett was trying to do too much. He tried to replicate an incredible, highlight-reel touchdown pass to Johnathan Alston from the first half of the FSU game in every game.
Brissett learned to relax and let the game come to him. He ran more at the end of the season – nearly 62 percent of his yards (325) came during the final four games.
Overlooked in Brissett’s standout season was he hadn’t started regularly in college. He spent his two seasons at Florida as a backup. His last year as a starter was his senior year at Dwyer High in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2010.
“He played so well, no one even mentioned it,” Thuney said. “Everyone figured he has been doing this forever. We can’t wait to see what he does this year.”
It’s time for breakthrough
Just as he did last year, Brissett will have help. N.C. State had its best season running the football since 1992, with 204.5 yards per game, and averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry (5.2) since the school started tracking the stat in 1953. Compare those numbers to Doeren’s first season when N.C. State averaged 162.7 rushing yards per game and and 3.7 yards per carry.
“And we think we can put up even better numbers this year,” senior center Quinton Schooley said.
The talent in the backfield – backs Shadrach Thornton (suspended for two games), Matt Dayes and Jaylen Samuels again will be key cogs in the offense – and the development on the offensive line were two of the main reasons for the statistical jump.
Three starters return on the offensive line, plus senior guard Alex Barr has made 18 starts.
There’s even more experience on defense with eight starters back from a unit that finished the season with a flourish. During the final six games of 2014, N.C. State allowed about 60 less rushing yards per game (142.1) and doubled its sack total (18) from the first six games.
Even with three new starters on the defensive front, third-year defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable believes the group will continue the momentum, and improvement, from the end of last season.
“Right now, we have a lot confidence and we feel comfortable with what we’re trying to do,” Huxtable said. “They feel really good and I’m excited to see them play.”
Huxtable’s excitement is one that permeates the program. There’s physical proof of the progress of the program with the addition of the $14 million Close-King indoor practice facility next to Carter-Finley Stadium and there was progress in the win-loss column last season.
The bowl win, against Central Florida in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl, was a good way to end the season, but there are bigger goals out there, ones N.C. State has not reached in a long time.
Of the teams that have been in the ACC since division play began in 2005, N.C. State is the only one in the Atlantic side that hasn’t won a division title.
The school’s conference title drought, which dates to 1979, is the longest among the original ACC teams.
And in 123 seasons of Wolfpack football, only one –Philip Rivers’ junior year in 2002 – has registered a double-digit win season.
Unlike the Wolfpack baseball team in 2014 or the men’s basketball team in 2012, the football team won’t enter the season ranked among the top 10 nationally. The Wolfpack only received two votes in the AP Top 25, but the players have their own high expectations for this season.
After all, the goal in the team’s mantra, “1Pack1Goal,” is not a return to the St. Petersburg Bowl.
“That’s not the goal,” Burris said. “It was great to get that, but that’s not the end goal. We want the ACC championship.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio