I’ve already written in this preview series about defending conference champions being overlooked for trendier picks (see: Northern Illinois and UCF), but N.C. State is a slightly different story. The Wolfpack are easier to overlook with Florida State, Clemson and Louisville in the same division. The Pack took a big step forward last year in getting back to bowl eligibility, and this year they have the quarterback play and the running game to do more than scare the conference and division favorites.
Jacoby Brissett’s success with North Carolina State last year is proof that players can make massive improvements in their college years. Everyone knows this, but we all need reminding from time to time that what a guy is as a freshman or sophomore isn’t always what he’ll be as a junior and senior.
Brissett, as you’ll remember, started his career at Florida and filled in for an injured John Brantley before being beat out by the Jeff Driskel, and then filling in for him after he got hurt. After that season, he transferred to N.C. State and sat out 2013. Last year, expectation’s weren’t super high for the one-time four-star recruit, but he played well completing nearly 60% of his passes, throwing for over 2,500 yards and 23 touchdowns to five interception. He also picked up over 700 yards on the ground (on non-sack rushing plays) and three touchdowns, but his seven lost fumbles was way too high.
N.C. State also gets to boast one of the top running back stables in the conference if their trio of freshman running backs is as good as advertised. Johnny Frasier, Nyheim Hines, and Reggie Gallaspy II were all highly recruited out of high school, and could all be starters at some point in the future, whether that will be sooner or later remains to be seen. Frasier is widely considered the gem of that group and will likely factor into the mix as a true freshman.
There are a pair of running backs ahead of these guys though that will definitely be toting the rock too in 2015. Shadrach Thornton rushed for 907 yards and 9 touchdowns last year. His complement is Matt Dayes who is a major receiving threat out of the backfield. In fact, Dayes said this offseason that he wants to have 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. I’m not sure if that’s possible, but his confidence is inspiring.
Up front, the Wolfpack have to replace two two-year starters at tackle, including Tyson Chandler, who recently signed with the Phoenix Suns (jk same name different guy obviously). They do return two solid starters on the interior line though with center Quinton Schooley and left guard Joe Thuney. Also, Alex Barr, who has eighteen career starts at guard, will slide out to right tackle to replace Chandler.
Finding some guys for Brissett to throw the ball to will be the biggest question mark for this offense heading into the season. There are only five returning players who hit triple digit receiving yards last season and two of them are the aforementioned running backs. Of the other three, TE David Grinnage led the way with 370 yards on 28 catches, with Bra’Lon Cherry right behind him at 27 catches for 354 yards. In other words, there is a lot of stepping up to do for these guys or someone else if this team is to take another step forward.
With five starters coming back to the back of the 4-2-5 defense, the secondary is easily the favorite to be the strength of the defense. SS Josh Jones in particular was key last season with seven passes broken up and four interceptions. Jack Tocho is the top corner with 11 PBUs and an interception. Speaking of the one interception, that is one thing this secondary will want to improve going forward. Jones was the only player in the secondary with multiple interceptions last season, and only one player other than him and Tocho recorded even one.
Unlike the secondary, the defensive line will have to find several new starters. Mike Rose is the only returning starter up front, but he’s a pretty good one to bring back. Rose led the team with 14 tackles for loss and finished second on the team in sacks with five. B.J. Hill and Kentavius Street both played a fair amount in reserve roles last year and figure to assume starting spots on the interior line this season. Bradley Chubb will step in at the other end spot. Chubb was a guy that Coach Doeren raved about in the spring.
Even with only two of them on the field, linebacker remains an important position, so it’s good that the Wolfpack at least have half of their starting linebacking group back. Jerod Fernandez was the team’s third leading tackler last season and returns at one of the linebacker positions. He was also second on the team in interceptions…with two. Airius Moore will be the other starter, and M.J. Salahuddin’s return from a knee injury after missing all of last season should help the depth.
Lots of people are predicting a step forward from last season’s 8-5 mark, including the bowl win, but with Florida State, Clemson and Louisville all still looking formidable that could prove too difficult a task. The Wolfpack will enjoy a pretty easy slate of non-conference games, all of which occur in September. Two games that will be factors in whether or not N.C. State improves on last year’s mark are road trips to Boston College and Virginia Tech. State can win these games, but they have not been very good on the road in conference play in recent years, so that will have to change if they want to push toward ten wins.
Credit Cover Photo to AP Photo/Monica Herndon and Tampa Bay Times
*This post has been edited to point out that Jacoby Brissett’s rushing yards are calculated excluding sacks