Dave Doeren has changed what he can change.
After a disappointing 2015 season, the N.C. State coach changed his offensive coordinator and his strength coach.
Doeren also promised to change quarterbacks in Thursday’s season-opener against William & Mary. Heck, Doeren has said he’ll even change kickers during the game. (Whatever works, right?)
But these are all small changes compared to the challenge that faces Doeren going into his fourth season: Can he fundamentally change what N.C. State football has been?
And make no mistake, that’s why he’s here.
“I came to N.C. State because I want to be the best coach that they’ve ever had,” Doeren said. “I haven’t done that yet.”
N.C. State went 7-6 last season under Doeren and 8-5 the year before. Back-to-back winning seasons and bowl trips are perfectly acceptable, at least compared to the 3-9 record from Doeren’s first season, and in line with the Wolfpack’s history.
Since the ACC formed in 1953, N.C. State has won 51.9 percent of its games (a 366-338-15 record in 63 seasons).
Doeren’s last two teams have won at a slightly better clip (57.6 percent) and his three-year 18-20 record is slightly below (47.4 percent) the school’s average as an ACC member.
You can’t change what you’ve done but you can change who you are. Doeren believes in this philosophy. He saw it work firsthand as an assistant at Kansas and Wisconsin.
“Absolutely you can elevate a program,” Doeren said. “There’s a lot of programs across the country you can look at and say there’s proof.”
Doeren noted the work done by Bill Snyder at Kansas State, starting in the 1990s.
“There are programs that were nothing until they turned it around and built on that,” Doeren said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
A top 25 goal
But N.C. State isn’t starting from nothing, it’s starting from average. The high points are few and far between, though, especially when you consider that during Doeren’s tenure both Duke and North Carolina have posted double-digit win seasons and won division titles.
In 124 seasons of college football, N.C. State has won at least 10 games only once (11 in 2002). Granted, the length of the college season varied greatly through the first two-thirds of those seasons. But considering N.C. State has had an NFL-caliber quarterback (Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon, Jacoby Brissett) in 11 of the past 16 seasons – when a 12-game regular-season schedule was the norm – the number is harder to reconcile.
There are programs that were nothing until they turned it around and built on that. That’s what we’re trying to do.
N.C. State football coach Dave Doeren
N.C. State has won seven ACC titles but none since 1979. Four of those conference titles came in a six-year period in the 1960s in a quaint, eight-team version of the ACC.
Doeren went 11-3 and 12-1 in his two years at Northern Illinois, winning the Mid-American Conference title each time, before he was hired in December 2011 by N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow.
Doeren wants to be better than average and was hired to do more.
“I (won at least 10 games) twice at Northern and several times as an assistant at other schools,” Doeren said.
“Can I do that here? I don’t know but that’s why I’m here and that’s what I’m going to try to do. Until they tell me I don’t get to do it anymore, I’m going to do it as hard as I can.”
A top 25 program with “Alabama-type” recruiting was Yow’s outlined goal for the program when she made the decision to replace Tom O’Brien, who went 9-4, 8-5 and 7-5 in his last three seasons.
Recruiting, particularly in the state, has improved during Doeren’s tenure. The four classes under Doeren have an average national ranking by Scout.com of 40.7. The previous seven classes at N.C. State, from 2006 until 2012, had an average ranking of 50.4.
That’s not in the same ballpark as Alabama, which has the highest average recruiting ranking in the country and is coming off its fourth national title in seven years, but it’s progress, Yow said.
“Forty-one is not the answer, either, but it’s a heck of a lot better than 51,” Yow said.
At the time she made the “Alabama-type” comment, Yow said it was meant as an example of a program that recruits well, especially in its own territory, and not as a way to compare N.C. State to Alabama.
The 2015 class, which included four four-star players from the state of North Carolina and ranked No. 26 in the country, is the kind of recruiting Yow had envisioned when she made the coaching change.
“We need to continue to persevere and push through and get people like Nyheim Hines to stay home,” Yow said of the Pack’s sophomore running back from Garner. “That’s a big change, a big shift.”
A new mindset
Programs in the middle tier of the ACC like N.C. State also have to develop their own players and work the corners to be different.
On that front, Doeren promoted Dantonio Burnette, the defensive leader from N.C. State’s 11-3 team in 2002, to the head of the strength and conditioning program.
Every program works to get stronger and faster in the offseason but you can’t fake the admiration and appreciation the players have for Burnette, and assistant Tim Rabas.
“Our mindset has changed a lot thanks to Coach Thunder,” linebacker Airius Moore said, using Burnette’s nickname.
Will that mindset and improved stamina translate on the field? Doeren hopes so, particularly on the defensive end. Lopsided losses to UNC (45-34) and Mississippi State (51-28) soured what was otherwise a year of improvement for the Wolfpack defense.
“There were some games where we wore down and we didn’t have the depth we needed to have when we had a couple of injuries,” Doeren said.
With eight starters back on defense, and defensive ends Bradley Chubb and Kentavius Street and safety Josh Jones as Burnette’s star workout pupils, Doeren is encouraged his group can take another step forward this season.
On offense, Doeren fired coordinator Matt Canada, even after averaging 33.2 points per game (third best in the ACC) because he said they needed to be “different.”
He (Doeren) could win the same number of games and have a very good year.
N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow
Doeren hired Eli Drinkwitz, who was the offensive coordinator at Boise State and had learned the up-tempo spread offense from Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, to replace Canada, who made remarkable strides with N.C. State’s running game.
“We’re not player for player, across the board, going to be able to knock Florida State, Louisville and Clemson off the ball all the time,” Doeren said. “We’re not.
“If you play fast and if you do things to make the defense think and use players in space, you can neutralize some of the matchup problems.”
Doeren also went outside the usual recruiting convention to bring in three graduate transfers. All three could start, including quarterback Ryan Finley, in Thursday’s opener.
“We’re really close”
Doeren is hoping all the changes add up to more wins in league play. Under Doeren, as Moore put it, N.C. State has been adept at beating “the teams we were supposed to beat.”
“There were times where we could have definitely beat the teams who we, quote unquote, weren’t supposed to beat,” Moore said.
N.C. State led Florida State 17-7 last year in the second quarter in Tallahassee and trailed Clemson by six points midway through the third quarter. The Wolfpack ended up losing both games.
“We’re really close,” senior running back Matt Dayes says. “We just have to finish against those teams.”
Doeren’s problems have been in ACC play. He is 12-2 against nonconference opponents in three seasons but 6-18 in the ACC. N.C. State has struggled at home, with a 2-10 ACC mark at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Doeren’s ACC mark has caused some to speculate he’s coaching for his job this season.
“That isn’t reality,” Yow said.
Yow will give Doeren time to do the job. She reworked his contract in February 2015. Doren’s current deal, worth about $2.2 million annually, runs through 2019.
Not that she expects a significant jump in the win column.
“He could win the same number of games and have a very good year,” Yow said, noting the strength of N.C. State’s schedule.
After two years of soft nonconference schedules, N.C. State goes to East Carolina and hosts Notre Dame outside the ACC. The Wolfpack has its annual game with UNC and a rare division crossover game with Miami, which means it will face six of the top 26 teams in AP preseason poll. (Miami is No. 26, the top of the “others receiving votes.”)
Throw in the uncertainty at quarterback and how last season ended and expectations are low for this season.
Usually, with N.C. State, in any sport, when you expect less, you get more (and vice versa). This is an “expect less” kind of year. The Wolfpack was picked by the media to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division, behind Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. Fox Sports recently projected N.C. State to go 5-7.
All of which isn’t exactly Doeren’s primary concern but there’s an underlying motivation there.
“To me, that’s the greatest thing you can do in life, is prove people wrong,” Doeren said. “I mean, I love that.”
You are what you are. History says N.C. State is average in football. Only Dave Doeren can prove history wrong.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
N.C. State’s Dave Doeren enters his fourth season feeling good “about every phase of our program.” How the past four coaches at each Triangle ACC school have done in Year 4:
Larry Fedora, UNC
Butch Davis, UNC
Mack Brown, UNC
John Bunting, UNC
David Cutcliffe, Duke
Fred Goldsmith, Duke
Carl Franks, Duke
Ted Roof, Duke
William & Mary at N.C. State, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3
Sept. 1 William & Mary, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 10 at East Carolina, noon
Sept. 17 Old Dominion, 6 p.m.
Oct. 1 Wake Forest
Oct. 8 Notre Dame
Oct. 15 at Clemson
Oct. 22 at Louisville
Oct. 29 Boston College
Nov. 5 Florida State
Nov. 12 at Syracuse
Nov. 19 Miami
Nov. 25 at North Carolina