At some point, you have to start over.
That’s how college football works for everybody, save for the super machines at Clemson and Alabama. There are no multiyear contracts or quick fixes. You have to find players and develop them.
Coach Dave Doeren has proven, given the time, he can do that — and win games — at N.C. State. The Wolfpack enters the 2019 season off of back-to-back 9-4 seasons and with 13 players from those two teams in the NFL.
But Year 7 for Doeren starts on Saturday against East Carolina with 51 freshmen, first-year and redshirt, on the roster. If this is Mack Brown’s second act at North Carolina, this feels like a second phase for Doeren at N.C. State. A time for the “reset button” but in the best kind of way.
Most programs have to rebuild on shaky ground or start over after disaster. That’s not where N.C. State is. Doeren has a new five-year contract and is in the midst of his most successful stretch with the school.
The 47-year-old Kansan looks at his roster and sees the same type of potential and talent he had when Bradley Chubb or Garrett Bradbury were coming up. That pair of unheralded three-star recruits turned into All-Americans and first-round NFL Draft picks at N.C. State.
Doeren said he also sees a better foundation now than when Chubb and Bradbury had to cut their teeth early in their careers without a safety net.
“There are a lot of similarities because you are feeling guys out for the first time,” Doeren said after practice on Thursday. “But we have a roster full of guys who know our culture and know our expectations and were recruited into our systems. There is comfort in that.”
Something to prove
The biggest question mark for N.C. State this season would seem to be at quarterback. The school has been fortunate enough to have an NFL quarterback as its starter for 10 of the past 11 seasons.
Sophomore Matt McKay, a local prep standout at Wakefield, gets the chance to add his name to the school’s prestigious quarterback lineage after three-year starter Ryan Finley joined Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon and Jacoby Brissett in the NFL.
But up front, on the offensive line, might be where N.C. State faces the biggest change and the biggest challenge. Doeren had to hire a new line coach, and he has to replace three starters from last year’s group.
Left guard Joe Sculthorpe, a fourth-year junior, points out the obvious.
“Of course, we’re young,” said Sculthorpe, who started two games in spot duty last year.
And from outside the program, that could be construed as a problem. Sculthorpe understands the skepticism, but he also said the next crop of starters has had great teachers.
“Obviously, we always get a lot of doubt, when seniors leave,” Sculthorpe said. “It’s always ‘Oh, who’s next? Who’s next?’ They don’t really see the depth we have beforehand.
“We have a lot of young guys out there that can really play up to the skill level of the guys in the past and continue to raise the bar.”
That, Sculthorpe is told, sounds like a metaphor that can be applied to the whole team this season.
“I feel like N.C. State always has a chip on its shoulder,” Sculthorpe said. “We always have something we want to prove.”
Building on ACC, NFL Draft success
After a 3-9 record in his first season, which he still refers to as “Year Zero,” Doeren brought in a recruiting class in 2014 that included nine NFL players and another 10 starters.
It was the start of five consecutive winning seasons and bowl trips for the program. The Wolfpack finished in the Top 25 in 2017, for only the third time in 23 years, and then followed that up with a 9-4 season.
Only Clemson has a better ACC record than N.C. State (11-5) over the past two seasons.
But that group is gone. The past two recruiting classes were on par with those 2014 and ‘15 groups coming out of high school. Now the challenge is to match their tremendous development in college.
It’s easy to see the promise in a talented group of young players. Ricky Person, Alim McNeill, Payton Wilson, Savion Jackson, Drake Thomas, Josh Harris and Bam Knight might just be Doeren’s next generation of Chubb, Bradbury, Jaylen Samuels, Nyheim Hines, Jakobi Meyers, Germaine Pratt and Kelvin Harmon.
As Doeren said earlier this month after the first practice: “We need some 18-year-olds to play like they’re 20 this year.”
Doeren also said earlier this week: “We’re going to have our youthful moments.”
Defensive end James Smith-Williams is one of a handful of the fifth-year seniors who remember Chubb and the crop of NFL picks when they were young. He sees this new group and doesn’t believe “rebuilding” is the correct way to describe this season.
“I think N.C. State is at a place where we keep raising the bar every year,” Smith-Williams said. “There’s not one year that is going to be a down year. One year is not going to be a rebuild year. We’re going to keep raising that bar and going to keep pushing that standard.”
ECU at N.C. State
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh
Watch: ACC Network
Listen: WRAL-101.5 Triangle; WXRC-95.7 Charlotte