Wolfpack has high goals for 2018 football season
Ryan Finley had a choice to make.
After N.C. State rolled through Arizona State in the Sun Bowl, and finished the 2017 season with an exclamation point, the 24-year-old quarterback could have either entered the NFL draft or returned to school.
Finley considered all the good things going N.C. State’s way:
▪ The Wolfpack had won six ACC games for the first time in almost 25 years.
▪ The 52-31 Sun Bowl win capped a 9-4 record and the first top-25 season under coach Dave Doeren and only second since 2002.
▪ After a lucrative contract offer from a traditional SEC power in December, Doeren had decided to stay in Raleigh and agreed to a new five-year contract. Helped by the new deal, Doeren’s staff also remained in tact.
▪ The way N.C. State had played in the bowl win, its third in four years, also swayed Finley. He threw for 318 yards, to an outstanding group of receivers he knew would be back in 2018. The offense, which cranked up 482 yards and 52 points, looked crisp. It was a glimpse of what this season could be.
“Everything was just kind of rolling,” Finley said.
And it has just kept on rolling for the Wolfpack, which opens the 2018 season on Saturday against James Madison.
In April, a school-record seven players were taken in the NFL, with defensive end Bradley Chubb going in the first round.
This summer, recruiting has taken off to a new level. N.C. State has commitments from 10 of the top 30 in-state recruits. The class ranks No. 20 in the country, according to 247Sports.
Where the program was after Doeren’s first season, 3-9 in 2013, and where it is now, couldn’t be more disparate.
“It’s a lot different,” fifth-year senior receiver Steph Louis said. “None of this stuff was happening when I first got here.”
What are you supposed to say after the first winless ACC season since 1959? Louis wasn’t sure what the message from Doeren would be at the first team meeting of the 2014 season but optimism was in short supply.
Unbowed by the 0-8 ACC record, in what Doeren likes to call “Year Zero,” the coach sold his vision of the program. He won big at Northern Illinois, 23 games in two years, and was determined to do the same at N.C. State.
“(Coach) had a vision and he wanted us to be a part of that vision,” Louis said. “It’s really cool to see it actually happen.”
Doeren promised to build perennial top-25 program with an emphasis on keeping the best high school players in the state and by developing NFL talent. With the help of his first two full recruiting classes, the Wolfpack finished No. 23 in the AP poll and No. 24 in the final College Football Playoff rankings last year.
Doeren is the first to acknowledge the road to success has not been a straight line.
“It has been a lot of hard lessons, a lot of fun times, a lot of roller coasters up and down,” Doeren said.
After a 27-13 home loss to Miami in 2016, Doeren was clinging to his job. At 5-6, the Wolfpack needed a win at North Carolina to reach a bowl and for Doeren to keep his job.
“It wasn’t long ago, people weren’t talking about us (positively),” Doeren said. “Quickly, everybody knows, things can change.”
They did last season. After a difficult loss to South Carolina in the opener, the Wolfpack won five straight and peaked at No. 14 in the AP poll.
Three losses in four games kept the team from reaching the 10-win plateau, for only the second time in school history, but the Wolfpack recovered for another win over UNC (the third in four years) and the bowl rout.
After the regular season ended, Tennessee had offered Doeren a deal worth about $4 million per year. He worked out a new deal (worth about $3 million annually) to stay at N.C. State through the 2022 instead.
Given none of the previous three N.C. State coaches made it past their seventh season, the length of the new contract offers a measure of security for Doeren, who has a 34-30 record with the Wolfpack.
The benefits of the new deal have already helped in recruiting. So has Doeren’s track record with in-state talent. Five of the seven N.C. State players taken in the NFL draft in April are from North Carolina.
Player development has arguably been the best trait for Doeren and his staff.
Chubb, an unheralded freshman in that team meeting in 2014, was ranked No. 733 in the recruiting class. In four years at N.C. State, he turned into one of the best defensive ends in ACC history. The Denver Broncos made him the No. 5 overall pick in the draft.
Of the 13 N.C. State players taken in the draft over the past three years, none were rated as five-star recruits (by 247Sports) and only three were four-star recruits out of high school.
This year’s team could feature another handful of draft picks, led by Finley and junior receiver Kelvin Harmon.
“I’m excited about the trajectory of our program, for sure,” Doeren said. “Our staff is doing a great job, recruiting is going well. Just keep doing the things we’ve been doing and just keep it that way.”
Finley, Harmon, Louis and junior Jakobi Meyers are the primary reason N.C. State could continue on its upward trajectory this season, despite the loss of all that NFL talent and a rebuilt defense.
Finley, the rare sixth-year senior, enters his third season as the Wolfpack starter. He threw for 3,518 yards with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions last season.
His accuracy, he completed 65.1 percent of his passes (312 of 479), is his strength. He has built an outstanding rapport with his receivers, too.
Harmon became the first 1,000-yard receiver since 2003 last year. The 6-3, 214-pound junior from Palmyra, N.J. had 69 catches for 1,107 yards last season.
Meyers, a converted quarterback, had 63 catches for 727 yards in a breakout season. He’s in line to replace the short to intermediate routes that made Jaylen Samuels the career receptions leader school history.
Louis added 583 yards in an injury-abbreviated season. He had 115 yards in the bowl win.
“We have some guys who can flat-out ball,” Meyers said.
Those numbers are from last year, though. As much as Finley has enjoyed the offseason, and all of the positives surrounding the program, he’s ready to make a new mark.
“We’re proud of what we have done in the past but we have to move on,” Finley said. “This is a brand new year. This is a brand new team. We’re all excited to get going.”
And to keep the momentum going in the right direction.