Given current events, this description of the N.C. State offense, from new coach Dave Doeren before the season, carries new weight: “A lot of it’s based on who our quarterback is, to be honest with you.” So what if there isn’t a clear-cut option at quarterback? Then what do you do?
Doeren said that before he settled on Brandon Mitchell as his starter, before Mitchell led the Wolfpack to touchdowns on his first two drives in the uniform, before Mitchell broke his foot, before N.C. State was back to square one at quarterback. Which is where the Wolfpack is now.
Putting aside for a moment the optimism generated by the alacrity with which Mitchell ran the offense, the way all the cogs meshed seamlessly with Mitchell turning the crank, the bigger issue for the Wolfpack is the lack of a clear successor at the position, at least not one that lets N.C. State be the kind of team N.C. State wants to be.
This is a bigger deal that swapping parts in and out, because Mitchell was the only quarterback among the contenders with the ability to run and throw the ball. Pete Thomas can wing it, that’s for sure, but he’s no threat with his legs, which is why there’s no rush to turn the keys over to Thomas and Thomas alone.
Big freshman Bryant Shirreffs was moved to fullback and linebacker during his short career. Another freshman, New Bern’s Josh Taylor, may have the right combination of abilities but needs considerable seasoning. Neither will redshirt now, so there’s no reason to hold them back.
We’ll learn a lot about Doeren and offensive coordinator Matt Canada from watching how they handle this. Their preference for a mobile quarterback is as clear as their lack of ammunition in that regard, which is why Mitchell transferred in from Arkansas to play this year and Jacoby Brissett transferred in from Florida to play next year.
Thomas will start. Beyond that, it could get wild.
Shirreffs and Taylor should both play. Earlier this week, Doeren hinted that Rashard Smith, the early focus of the offense before and after Mitchell’s injury, may take some snaps. So could Shadrach Thornton, who’s suspension is complete, and Tony Creecy and Travares Copeland. It wouldn’t be a huge shock to see six or seven different players in the trigger position of the pistol formation on Saturday.
The whole experiment may end up looking a little like Maryland last year, which was down to a converted linebacker at QB, mixing in a healthy mix of direct snaps to backs and receivers to make sure playmakers like Stefon Diggs got their touches regardless.
It was the best QB option of few palatable ones for the Terrapins, who lost their final six games, but N.C. State isn’t in the same fix. Yet. Clemson looms.
Even before Mitchell’s injury, no other new coach in this area has been forced to deal with similar issues recently. David Cutcliffe had Thad Lewis. Ruffin McNeill had Dominique Davis. Larry Fedora had Bryn Renner. After the long reign of Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon, Doeren had no such luck.
It’s a situation that required creative thinking from the beginning, exponentially so now. By the end of Saturday, two things will be perfectly clear: Just how capable a quarterback Thomas is, given a full week to prepare and a game plan tailored to his talents, and just how creative Doeren and Canada are willing to be.