NC State's Finley looking to improve at quarterback
More is almost always better at the quarterback position, except when it isn’t.
N.C. State is hoping Ryan Finley can avoid a recent pattern, where more turned out to be less, among its second-year starters at quarterback.
With four former quarterbacks in the NFL, and three slated to start in Week 1, the Wolfpack has a better claim of being “QBU” than any other school in the country.
But in each of their second years as the starting quarterback at N.C. State, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon and Jacoby Brissett led the Wolfpack to fewer wins than their first seasons as the starter.
Only Wilson, who missed two and half games with injuries during his first year as the starter, made a significant statistical improvement in his second season as the starter.
While it’s simplistic to link the quarterback to the team’s success (or failure) – and comparisons among team performance can be tricky (with injuries and other dissimilar issues from team to team) – here are some numbers to consider as Finley enters his second season as the Wolfpack starter.
Finley had a better completion percentage (60.4) than Rivers (53.7), Wilson (54.5) or Brissett (59.7) and more total yards (Rivers did throw for more per game) than any of the four current pros. Only Wilson, in two fewer games than Finley, threw for fewer touchdowns.
The team’s performance under Finley in 2016 (7-6) was also in line with the first seasons of Rivers, Glennon, Brissett and Wilson.
So Finley, who is still only a junior in eligibility, was basically on par, statistically at least, with Rivers/Wilson/Glennon/Brissett as a first-year starter. So what does that mean for Finley’s second year as the Wolfpack starter?
First, let’s qualify some of the obvious comparison problems. Rivers started as a true freshman; Wilson was a redshirt-freshman; Glennon a fourth-year junior and Brissett a fourth-year junior (and transfer from Florida).
This will be Finley’s fifth year in college (he spent the first three at Boise State), but it will be his first as the returning starter. Injuries (shoulder, ankle) slowed his progress with the Broncos and then he graduated and joined the N.C. State program last summer.
He was familiar with coordinator Eli Drinkwitz’s offense, (Drinkwitz coached Finley at Boise State), but he had never practiced with any of his N.C. State teammates.
To come in, mid-summer, and win a job at such an important position is a difficult transition to make, but Finley was able to pull it off. After a season with his teammates, and the benefit of spring practice, now comes the expectation of progress. But progress hasn’t been the pattern for N.C. State quarterbacks in Year 2.
And this is where it gets a little scary for N.C. State fans who can remember the preseason build-ups (and disappointments) from earlier this century.
▪ Rivers, who lost offensive coordinator Norm Chow and receiver Koren Robinson, had the worst (relative to his other three) of his four seasons as the starter in 2001. His numbers took a dramatic downturn and the team dropped from 8-4 to 7-5.
▪ Wilson was about the only important player on the Wolfpack roster to stay healthy in 2009 (notably star linebacker Nate Irving missed the entire year after a serious car accident). Wilson’s numbers went up, but the patchwork roster finished 5-7.
▪ Glennon’s numbers basically stayed the same in 2012, despite an epidemic number of dropped passes by his receivers, and an offensive line decimated by injuries. He had more yards (on more attempts) but the same number of touchdowns in Year 2 as a starter. But Glennon’s second year ended with coach Tom O’Brien getting fired at the end of the regular season, and the team finished 7-6 (after going 8-5 the previous year).
▪ Brissett didn’t make a statistical jump in 2015, which was one of the main reasons coach Dave Doeren decided to replace offensive coordinator (and quarterbacks coach) Matt Canada.
Canada produced a wildly successful offense at Pittsburgh last season and is now making $1.5 million a year to run LSU’s offense. But in 2015, an injury to running back Matt Dayes, and the absence of running back Shadrach Thornton, stalled Brissett’s progress and the team dropped from 8-5 to 7-6.
Finley does enter this season with some advantages the other successful N.C. State quarterbacks did not have in Year 2. The Wolfpack defense is poised for its best season since 2004 (one of the few seasons this century without an NFL quarterback and the team finished just 5-6).
There are four returning starters on the offense line (Wilson, Rivers and Glennon were never so lucky) and established options in the passing game (a benefit Brissett never had).
And a year after having to make a difficult transition to a new school, with new teammates, Finley has the benefit of experience and familiarity. He is one of eight starters back on offense.
The pieces are in place for Finley to make a jump this season (and take the Wolfpack with him). In order to do that, Finley has to improve his play against ACC opponents. Outside the league last season, Finley completed 69.7 percent of his passes (85-of-122) and had nine touchdowns and no interceptions in five games. In eight ACC games, his completion percentage dropped to 56.4 (158-of-280) and his TD-INT ratio was 9 to 8.
In ACC play, Finley had a tendency to play it safe, probably too safe. Of his 280 pass attempts in ACC play, 181 covered 9 yards or less (he completed 115 of those). On attempts longer than 10 yards, he was 43-of-99.
Comparisons are an inevitable part of the job and with Finley, it is easier to figure out what he wasn’t in his first year than what he was. Finley’s not the elusive runner Wilson was (or even Brissett). He does not have the conspicuous arm talent of Glennon or the moxie of Rivers. But in Year 2, he has a chance to surpass them all.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio