This is a lesson in the kicking game N.C. State is learning the hard way. The Wolfpack (1-1) is still working out the kinks in its kicking game with a home date with Furman next up before ACC play ramps up at Florida State on Sept. 23.
Twice, in as many games, N.C. State has given up a kickoff return for a touchdown. Only one counted, but the gaps in coverage have turned into a concern for coach Dave Doeren. Extra points and field goals continue to be an adventure, too.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
After the Marshall win, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said he wasn’t happy with the kickoff coverage. After re-watching the game, Doeren was more encouraged.
“Outside of the one kickoff return that was called back, I did feel like we improved in our kicking game,” Doeren said.
After South Carolina returned the opening kickoff of the season 97 yards for a touchdown, there was a lot of time spent in practice on kick coverage.
It certainly looked like it when Dakwa Nichols popped Marshall return man Marcel Williams on the opening kick.
After Marshall’s Keion Davis returned a pair of kickoffs for a touchdown in Week 1, Doeren did not want Davis to get his hands on the ball. This is where the direction comes into play.
On the first three kickoffs by Kyle Bambard, Davis didn’t get the ball. Marshall’s first three returns were less than 18 yards. The Herd’s first two drives started inside its own 20-yard line.
On the fourth kickoff, Davis got his hands on the ball and returned it 34 yards. Bambard needed to make the tackle to avoid giving up an even bigger play.
The fifth kickoff, right before the end of the first half, was a “pooch” kick which an upback signaled for a fair catch. The sixth kickoff, the first in the second half after N.C. State scored to make it 30-20, was a problem.
It wasn’t deep enough, it was in the middle of the field and Davis was able to get his hands on it. Shawn Boone over-pursued the play on the left sideline, and Davis was able to cut it up and then out. Ninety-four yards later, Davis was in the end zone. The play was called back for a holding penalty.
“We can’t kick the ball down the middle and land it on the 10-yard line on a kickoff,” Doeren said. “We need to put the ball where it needs to go and leverage it and tackle the way we did throughout the game.”
Bambard has handled all of the kickoffs through two games. The junior has one touchback in 12 kickoffs this season. He has averaged 55.6 yards per kick. Last season, Bambard averaged 61.7 yards per kickoff and had 10 touchbacks on 46 kicks.
Bambard has been able to specialize in kickoffs this season with Carson Wise, a graduate transfer, handling the placekicks. Wise missed his first field-goal attempt of the season, a 29-yarder against South Carolina, but made a 31-yard field goal in the first quarter against Marshall.
Extra points gave Wise more trouble in the Marshall game. He missed one and had another extra point bounce off the upright before going through.
Wise’s first PAT against Marshall hit the left upright and then bounced through. He hit the same upright on his FG miss against South Carolina. His third PAT against Marshall, at the end of the second quarter with N.C. State up 23-20, missed wide right.
Doeren said after the Marshall game that the PATs have to be “gimmes” but did not indicate any potential change at kicker.
Any potential change on the kickoff coverage unit is hamstrung by all of the injuries in the secondary.
Safety Freddie Phillips went down with an Achilles injury in the opener and is out for the season. Safety Trae Meadows left the team with a personal matter before the start of the season and the timetable for his return is unknown. Safety Dexter Wright missed the Marshall game with a groin injury and he’s not expected to play against Furman.
Cornerback Mike Stevens missed the first two games with a knee injury. He is expected to play against Furman but unlikely to be used on special teams. Cornerback James Valdez suffered a knee injury in the second half of the Marshall game and he will not play against Furman, Doeren said.
That has put extra pressure on Nichols, a senior running back; Boone, a senior safety; and Germaine Pratt, a junior linebacker; to be in the right spot at the right time on kickoffs.
Doeren lamented the depth issues but also said they should be able to do a better job covering kicks.
“We’ve got too many good players running down the field on kickoff coverage not to tackle people inside the 20, 25.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio