N.C. State will practice 24 times between Friday and the season-opener against James Madison on Sept. 1.
Five storylines for coach Dave Doeren’s sixth team as it goes through August practice and preps for the 2018 season:
1. Finding a balance
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N.C. State has been a balanced offense under Doeren with Matt Canada calling the plays the first three years and Eli Drinkwitz the past two years.
Drinkwitz nearly hit a perfect 50-50, run/pass split last year with 496 running plays and 485 passing plays. In his two seasons as the Wolfpack’s offensive coordinator, Drinkwitz has called 1,000 running plays (for 4,596 yards) and 923 passing plays (for 6,967 yards).
Doeren grew up watching Nebraska football and coached at Wisconsin before taking the Northern Illinois job in 2011. He’s a self-proclaimed “hands in the dirt,” run-the-ball kind of guy.
As he likes to say, you pass to score but run to win. N.C. State’s running game was strong last season with Nyheim Hines (1,112 yards), Reggie Gallaspy (505 yards) and Jaylen Samuels (404 yards) combining for 2,021 yards and 31 touchdowns. Only Gallaspy, who ran 117 times and averaged 4.3 yards per carry, returns. He’s the only running back on the roster who had a rushing attempt last season.
With quarterback Ryan Finley back for his third year as the N.C. State starter, and sixth overall in college, will Doeren keep his “hands in the dirt?” Or will Finley, who threw for 3,518 yards last season, be turned loose in a Big-12, sling-it-all-over-the-yard kind of way?
Given the talent at receiver, and inexperience at running back, the run/pass split might tilt toward the passing side, but it’s unlikely Doeren will abandon the running game. Why? N.C. State is 16-3 when Finley attempts 39 passes or fewer in a game and 0-7 when he attempts 40 or more.
2. Line change
All four starters from N.C. State’s defensive line were taken in the NFL draft (and before the end of the fourth round). Defensive end Bradley Chubb was the ACC defensive player of the year in 2017 for a reason. He led the ACC with 10 sacks (in 12 games) and ranked second in the NCAA with 26 tackles for loss.
Tackles Justin Jones and B.J. Hill didn’t post gaudy numbers but their work in the middle allowed Chubb to excel on the outside. End Kentavius Street was second on the team with 3.5 sacks.
All four have to be replaced. Their backups all got valuable reps last season. Senior end Darian Roseboro, who has 13.5 career sacks, could have a breakout season in Chubb’s spot.
As much as Roseboro, tackles Eurndraus Bryant and Shug Frazier played last season, there’s still a void to fill. Doeren has recruited well on the defensive front but how N.C. State can rebuild its line will go a long way in determining the success of the season.
3. Another year, another kicker
N.C. State has a new kicker. Again. Freshman Chris Dunn is supposed to be the answer. For real, for real this time.
Well, truth is we won’t know until the season actually starts. Doeren routinely praised Kyle Bambard and Carson Wise in practice leading up to the 2016 and ’17 seasons, respectively, only to have major problems when the game lights were turned on.
Dunn had a standout prep career at North Davidson and enrolled early. He made all of his extra points and a 27-yard field goal in a driving rain storm in the spring game.
That doesn’t sound like much but Bambard and Wise missed eight kicks from inside 40 yards last season. The Wolfpack doesn’t need much to upgrade what has been the weakest spot in the program.
The Wolfpack kickers have combined to make the fewest field goals (26) and lowest percentage (50.9) of kicks of any team in the ACC the past three years. Given it has lost eight one-score games over that period (compared to four wins), just a little improvement — over the 10-of-20 effort last year or 9-of-17 in 2016 — would go a long way.
4. End-game execution
N.C. State managed to avoid a repeat of the soul-crushing variety of losses from the 2016 season — a missed kick at Clemson, a dropped interception against Florida State. Instead, it lost three games it had a chance to win (or force overtime) with the ball inside the opponents’ 25-yard line in the final 2 minutes.
The Wolfpack had the ball first-and-goal on South Carolina’s 8-yard line, down 35-28, but was stopped on downs.
The Clemson game ended with the Wolfpack seven points short after a procedural penalty offset a 24-yard pass play that would have given N.C. State a first-and-goal from the Tigers’ 4-yard line.
The Wake Forest loss, the most difficult to process, featured a fumble at the goal line (with N.C. State down 30-24) with 1:51 left. The Wolfpack had one last shot with 41 seconds left but reached the Deacs’ 35-yard line and then Finley threw an interception.
5. Are you ready from the jump?
N.C. State talked a lot last August about being ready early because a brand-name SEC opponent (South Carolina) was waiting in the opener in Charlotte.
The Wolfpack talked a good game and how it was different than opening with an Championship Subdivision opponent. Then the Gamecocks took the opening kickoff back 97 yards for a touchdown and never trailed in a 35-28 win (despite N.C. State outgaining them 504 to 246).
This year, N.C. State opens with an FCS team — a really good FCS team. James Madison won the 2016 FCS title and was the runner-up last year. The Dukes have won 28 games the past two years, including a 34-14 victory at East Carolina last year.
On paper, N.C. State’s schedule is more manageable than last season (with a road trip to Notre Dame and a neutral-site game with South Carolina). That James Madison game should scare N.C. State’s coaching staff. A stumble there could derail the program’s momentum from last season, the NFL draft and on the recruiting trail.