Had things gone a little differently, N.C. State’s Ryan Finley might have played quarterback at Arizona State.
ASU, the Pack’s opponent Friday in the Sun Bowl, showed recruiting interest in Finley in 2012 when he was a senior at Paradise Valley High in Phoenix. Donnie Yantis, Finley’s high school coach, pressed the Sun Devils to offer him a scholarship.
Yantis said Arizona State had its sights set on another quarterback, Joshua Dobbs. When Dobbs made a last-second decision to sign with Tennessee, Yantis again made a push for Finley, who had thrown for more than 3,400 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior.
“They came in late on Ryan, but he was a man of his word,” Yantis said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Finley, who had committed to Boise State as a high school junior, signed with the Broncos.
By the spring of 2016, Finley, having gone through injuries and three offensive coordinators, was looking to transfer, hoping for a new start elsewhere. The two options at the time were N.C. State and North Texas, said Yantis, now the football recruiting coordinator at Arizona State.
Why not ASU? “I had conversations with him, but we didn’t have anything for him at the time,” Yantis said.
North Texas had hired Joel Filani, a former graduate assistant at Boise State, as wide receivers coach. Filani had played for Yantis at Paradise Valley and was an assistant coach for Yantis when Finley was there, so there also was that connection.
But the Wolfpack had the trump card in Eli Drinkwitz, who was brought in from Boise State in January 2016 to be N.C. State’s new offensive coordinator. Drinkwitz and Finley had formed a strong bond at Boise State, and Finley had a firm grasp of the Drinkwitz offensive system and the coach’s offensive philosophy.
“I wouldn’t have come if he had not been at N.C. State,” Finley said. “I don’t think I would have ever gotten the opportunity to come if it wasn’t for him.”
Finley, who was redshirted as a freshman following surgery on his right shoulder, had graduated from Boise State and had two years of eligibility left. He later was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA because of time missed due to his injuries. As a graduate, he was immediately eligible to play for N.C. State and would be the Wolfpack starter from his first game in the 2016 season.
“He was always a guy who soaked it all in, one of the most intelligent if not the most intelligent player I ever coached,” Yantis said. “Coach ‘Drink’ has done a great job with him in helping him mature as a quarterback and with the mental aspect of the game. The strength staff has done a great job with him putting on weight. He looks so confident.”
Yantis said he was given permission by Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren and Drinkwitz to continue to have contact with Finley. That meant a lot to Yantis, who said Finley, who he calls “Skinny,” is a “like a son” to him.
While busy with his own football job, Yantis said he taped the Wolfpack games and would often watch replays early in the morning while getting in his daily stationary bike workout.
“I give him a little feedback, especially on the tough ones,” Yantis said “Mostly it’s ‘Hang in there, continue to lead.’
“He’s a great person and exceptional athlete, but he’s just so competitive. I mean the guy does not like to lose.”
Whether it’s football, basketball, roller hockey, tennis, ping pong, pickle ball or shuffleboard, Finley does not like to lose.
While at Boise State, Finley once took a teammate home to Phoenix and the two squared off in a shuffleboard game against Finley’s father, Pat, and Ryan’s younger brother, Ben. Losing the game, Finley was said to have “thrown a fit.”
“One thing about Ryan, when he does lose he puts it on his shoulders and takes responsibility,” Yantis said.
Finley’s Wolfpack teammates have seen some of that competitiveness and fire the past two seasons, although senior Jaylen Samuels describes Finley as “real cool and relaxed.”
Finley did not play organized football until he was a high school freshman, saying his father talked him into trying out. Yantis said he was working with another quarterback, who asked if he could bring a kid along to shag his passes. That turned out to be Finley.
“I saw him throw a few times and thought, ‘Whoa, we’ve got something here,’ ” Yantis said.
And not just in football. Finley was a shooting guard on the Paradise Valley basketball team, once scoring 37 points in a game without missing a shot.
“He comes from an athletic family,” Yantis said, noting Pat Finley plays competitive hockey in an adult league in Phoenix and his wife Robin is a good tennis player.
Now, it has come full circle — Finley and the Pack versus Arizona State in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The Sun Devils, despite a 7-5 season, have fired head coach Todd Graham and hired Herm Edwards, and it’s a program in transition with much uncertainty for Yantis and the Graham staff.
Graham will coach the Sun Devils in the bowl game, and Yantis will look across the field and see Finley in red and white, not on a video replay.
Will it be Finley’s last game at N.C. State? Finley might enter the 2018 NFL Draft and give up his last year of college eligibility. He said last week he would make a decision after the bowl game. But Yantis sounded like someone who expects him to stay at N.C. State.
“He’s got all the measurables to play,” Yantis said of Finley’s NFL prospects. “Obviously his arm strength is getting better and better each year. He can make all the throws, but he needs to keep developing that.
“There’s some pretty good ones (quarterbacks) coming out for the draft this year. Hopefully he comes back for his senior year and develops even more.”
NC State vs. Arizona State
When: 3 p.m. Friday
Where: Sun Bowl, El Paso, Tex.