Age is not prerequisite to play, talent is.
So it made all the sense in the world to freshmen Trent Pennix that it was a bunch of newcomers who helped N.C. State blast Georgia State 41-7 on Saturday.
“I know these guys are great ballplayers,” Pennix said of the freshmen group which accounted for 29 points in the Wolfpack’s win. “There must be reason why you put them in the game.”
Receiver Thayer Thomas, a redshirt freshman, filled in for injured receiver Jakobi Meyers, and was the brightest of the young stars. Thomas had a game-high nine catches for 114 yards and a touchdown.
He even had a 56-yard pass to Pennix in the second quarter, with the game tied at 7, to set up one of two field goals by freshman kicker Chris Dunn.
On the offensive side, Pennix had a touchdown catch and backup quarterback Matt McKay, a redshirt freshman, added a late touchdown run.
On defense, freshman defensive tackle Alim McNeill — Pennix’s high school teammate at Sanderson — recorded his first sack (and finished with 1.5) and freshman nickel Tanner Ingle had a tackle for loss and forced a fumble (and seven tackles).
“That’s what you want,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “You want to get your younger players quality reps and you want them to have success.”
After a somewhat sloppy opener last week, N.C. State needed Saturday’s youth-infused performance. The stadium, even on another sweltering day, had more juice and the players seemed to have more enthusiasm. Freshmen can do that for you.
Now James Madison is a better team than Georgia State but N.C. State needed to show more energy this week than it did in the 24-13 season-opening win over the Dukes.
After falling down 7-0 on Georgia State’s opening drive, Thomas delivered a spectacular catch on N.C. State’s first play and then capped off the drive with another one for a 5-yard touchdown.
“Unbelievable grab there in the end zone with his left hand,” quarterback Ryan Finley said. “He’s special.”
Thomas was a walk-on last season on the scout team. He gained confidence by making plays against Bradley Chubb and the NFL talent on N.C. State’s defense.
The 6-0, 193-pound receiver also earned a scholarship in the spring. A quick glance through his Twitter timeline and you’ll see a host of people who thought Thomas only got a scholarship because of his younger brother.
Linebacker Drake Thomas is one of the best high school players in the state. He committed to N.C. State in June, after being pursued by Alabama, Clemson and host of other national powers. He has also been important in building the top-25 recruiting class Doeren has put together this offseason.
“I feel like a lot of people thought they put me on scholarship because of my brother,” Thomas said. “I just wanted people to know I got put on scholarship because I could play.”
Even Thomas, though, had doubts about how his talents would translate at the ACC level. He was mentored and pushed by two of N.C. State’s all-time greats, Dewayne Washington and Torry Holt, his coaches at Heritage.
“He actually inspired me to come here,” Thomas said of Holt, an All-American receiver at N.C. State whose No. 81 is retired. “He believed in me in high school when really no one else did.”
After Thomas caught a 16-yard touchdown pass last week against JMU, he got a text from Washington, the Heritage head coach and former NFL cornerback.
“You think you can play here now?” Washington, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1994, texted Thomas.
Washington’s question was rhetorical. Thomas’ answer, with a 114-yard star turn on Saturday, was emphatic.