Luke DeCock

The kids are all right: NC State relies heavily on first-timers in opener

Payton Wilson might have had the simplest assignment of anyone on N.C. State’s roster on Saturday. The redshirt freshman linebacker’s highly anticipated debut after missing all of last season with a knee injury was very carefully set up to be a success: on almost all of the 22 snaps he played, he was a designated blitzer.

Wilson ended up making two of his six total tackles in the backfield, as impactful a debut as any of the 18 players who saw the field for the Wolfpack for the first time in Saturday’s 34-6 win over East Carolina.

That, even more than quarterback Matt McKay’s smooth transition to the starting job or Grant Gibson’s work filling Garrett Bradbury’s very large shoes at center, left N.C. State coach Dave Doeren feeling good on Monday: the successful integration of 10 true freshmen, four redshirt freshmen, two transfers and two upperclassmen into the lineup.

“Which was a lot,” Doeren said. “A lot.”

It wasn’t just Wilson: four of the seven players to run the ball, four of the 10 players to catch it and one of the two to throw it were playing for N.C. State for the first time. Two debutants — Drake Thomas and Wilson — took a fifth of the snaps at linebacker.

As things turned out, the holes the Wolfpack had to fill, immediately, neatly aligned with some of its most prepared newcomers. And while there’s nothing surprising about Tabari Hines jumping straight into the lineup after four years at Wake Forest and Oregon, the same can’t be said about Bam Knight or Jordan Houston or Keyon Lesane, all of whom stepped seamlessly into the lineup. Or long-snapper Joe Shimko, whose last long snap came in high school in New Jersey.

“The ability to start building depth through game reps is something we need to be able to do, because a lot of our two-deep is young players,” Doeren said. “Getting them in the heat of the battle and letting them make plays and also learn from mistakes was really important.”

These numbers sound large, and would have been large as recently as two seasons ago, but are generally a product of the new four-game redshirt rule, which allows freshmen to get a taste of the college game without losing a year of eligibility. In the not-so-old days, playing 10 true freshmen would have suggested panic in the program. It’s foolish now not to give them some playing time, especially in the second half of a game that’s generally decided at that point as Saturday was.

The freshmen who didn’t get a look against East Carolina could very well get that chance this weekend against Western Carolina. The bar for them has been set reasonably high.

“I’m not going to tell you I knew it was going to happen,” Doeren said. “I was excited to see them play because they had all shown -- enough of them had made electric plays in practice where you were hoping that’s what would happen on game day. My fear was, is game day going to be too big for some of them. You just don’t know that. I was really proud of how they handled the moment.”

In the case of the receivers, more playing time opened up immediately Saturday when C.J. Riley was lost for the season with a knee injury. Doeren singled out Devin Carter, a redshirt freshman from Clayton who played in four games last season, as the top candidate to fill that spot, but some of the newcomers showed enough ability to mount a challenge.

Some, like Shimko, will end up playing more than four games by necessity. Based on Saturday, there’s a few others who will give N.C. State a choice to make.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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