By any standard, N.C. State’s offensive line had a pretty good year in 2017.
The Wolfpack blockers helped produce a second straight 1,000-yard rushing season and was among the best in the country in sacks allowed.
Only Mississippi State gave up as few sacks (13) as N.C. State with more pass attempts (634 to 485 by the Wolfpack).
Perhaps the line’s best showing was in a home loss to Clemson. The Tigers had one of the top defenses, and pass rushes, in the country last season and all four of the Tigers’ defensive linemen are on the preseason All-ACC team.
In 50 pass attempts, the Tigers got to Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley once — on a play where Finley slipped as he was spinning away from the pass rush.
But the right side of N.C. State’s starting offensive line from the 2017 season is gone. Actually both, right tackle Will Richardson and right guard Tony Adams, are in training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jags took Richardson in the fourth round of the NFL draft and then signed Adams to a free-agent deal.
In theory, that’s a good reason for the Wolfpack to panic. Richardson had a standout season, despite being suspended for the first two games, and Adams was a four-year starter whose leadership will be difficult to replace.
But Ryan Finley is not exactly in a dither about the task of replacing two pros up front. The return of the other three starters on the offensive line — center Garrett Bradbury, left guard Terronne “Big T” Prescod and right tackle Tyler Jones — certainly has a calming effect.
Bradbury and Jones are poised to follow in the footsteps of Richardson, Adams and former All-ACC guard Joe Thuney into the NFL.
Returning talent always helps. So does the experience of the new starters on the right side. When Adams injured his knee in the first half of the UNC game, sophomore right guard Josh Fedd-Jackson filled in and then started in the Sun Bowl.
Sophomore right tackle Justin Witt started for Richardson in the season-opener against South Carolina and also played against Marshall and Furman. N.C. State actually has the third-most career starts in the ACC among its offensive lineman.
“Fedd and Witt, they’ve played a lot in games and that’s a big deal,” Finley said.
They have game experience and they had all spring to get reps together.
“They’re new starters for a season but they’ve started in games and played a lot of football here,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “So we don’t really feel like we’re breaking two guys in.”
If the quarterback and coach are OK with the newcomers, then it’s safe to say everyone else is, too.
As much attention as Doeren and his staff have received for developing the defensive line (all four of last year’s starters were taken in the NFL draft), their work on the offensive side has been equally impressive.
Going back to the end of Philip Rivers’ career in the early 2000s, the offensive line had been a weak spot in the program. First under assistant coach Mike Uremovich, and since 2016 under Dwayne Ledford, the offensive line has turned into a strength during Doeren’s tenure.
Ledford refers to the group of blockers as a “Band of Brothers.” Their off-the-field camaraderie has been a big part of their development.
N.C. State has produced back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the first time since Ted Brown, the leading rusher in ACC history, put together three straight seasons from 1976-78.
The sack totals have dropped from 39 in 2015 to 17 in ’16 and 13 in ’17.
So there is a reason the group, even with two newcomers and a new set of running backs, has confidence it will come together and have another productive season.
“There’s going to be holes for someone to run in,” Bradbury said. “If Big T needs to run through the hole, it’s going to be there.”