NC State football: 10 takeaways from the Wolfpack's regular season
NC State’s regular season is over, and a year that began with hopes of the program’s 1st berth in the ACC Championship game now sees the Wolfpack at 8-4, a disappointing regular season that ended with an exhilarating Rivalry Week win Friday at No. 18 North Carolina
It was not quite the season coach Dave Doeren, the players or NC State fans had in mind but positives remain. With that being said, here are 10 takeaways from the Wolfpack’s regular season.
1. The ceiling is limited under Dave Doeren, but NC State always will fight
Let’s go big picture to start. During the final 3 seasons of the Tom O’Brien era (2010-12), NC State went 9-4, 8-5 and 7-6, respectively. When O’Brien was let go by former athletics director Debbie Yow, she said the goal was for the Wolfpack to become a Top 25 program. To get NC State to that point, she hired Doeren, who had just guided Northern Illinois (Northern Illinois!) to a 12-2 mark and an appearance in the Orange Bowl.
Giving Doeren the benefit of the doubt for his 1st year, a 3-9 campaign in 2013, his tenure in Raleigh has been strikingly similar to the final portion of O’Brien’s tenure. From 2014 until now, the Wolfpack has averaged just about 7.5 wins a year, with runner-up finishes in the ACC Atlantic Division in 2017 and 2021 and 9-win campaigns in 2017, 2018 and last year.
From a tradition standpoint, NC State is not Clemson, Florida State, Miami or Virginia Tech. But in a conference that has seen a rotating cast of characters fail to threaten the Seminoles and, since 2015, Tigers’ dominance, shouldn’t expectations be a wee bit higher?
Recruiting is doing fine, as the Wolfpack brings in roughly the same level of talent, according to 247Sports, as 2nd-tier programs such as Michigan State and Mississippi State. But those programs have reached New Year’s Six bowls during the College Football Playoff era, in perennially tougher conferences.
But considering all that, as long as Doreen is on the sideline, never count out this program. NC State came in as clear underdogs against North Carolina and was undermanned but still managed to gut out a double-overtime win. There is a lot of fight in that facility, and Doeren and his players deserve immense credit for that.
2. The Wolfpack upperclassmen deserve immense credit
The current crop of NC State upperclassmen deserve their moment in the spotlight. Coming off a 4-8 campaign in 2019 and a last-place finish in the Atlantic, the Wolfpack was gearing up for a bounce-back season that nearly was derailed by the pandemic.
But, with 2 new coordinators (Tim Beck on offense and Tony Gibson on defense), the Wolfpack persevered to win 8 games despite losing Devin Leary to a broken fibula in November. That was thanks to a group that, while young at the time, grew up in a hurry.
That includes linebackers Payton Wilson, Drake Thomas and Isaiah Moore. That includes safety Tyler Baker-Williams. That includes center Grant Gibson. That includes receivers Thayer Thomas (Drake’s older brother) and Devin Carter. Others, like left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, receiver Emeka Emezie and running back Zonovan Knight, moved on to the NFL after last season.
Each of those players had their fingerprints all over the past 3 seasons for the program, a stretch that saw NC State go from 4-8 to 3 straight campaigns with at least 8 victories. For that, they deserve immense credit.
3. MJ Morris and Ben Finley have the potential to be the quarterback of the future
Leary, while still having another year of eligibility left, took part in NC State’s Senior Day this month against Boston College. In the event he does depart, the Wolfpack will begin 2023 with a new starting quarterback, with a full offseason to prepare said signal-caller.
Based on the play of freshman MJ Morris and redshirt freshman Ben Finley, identifying NC State’s singular quarterback of the future is a tough call. Morris threw for 3 touchdowns during consecutive wins against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, and Finley stepped up in a major way in throwing for 271 yards and a pair of scores Friday at North Carolina in his 1st start — just a week after struggling against Louisville.
They still have work to do, but Morris and Finley both could be solid starters in the ACC. But …
4. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s system is too vanilla
Slow-developing routes and a lack of creativity in the run game defined Beck’s offense during 2022, as the unit came crashing down to Earth after averaging 33.1 points per game a season ago. Red-zone struggles were plentiful, and despite having what’s among the stoutest defenses in the country, the Wolfpack was either playing from behind or locked in a duel late in games.
At the end of the day, that falls on the shoulders of Beck. Losing your starting quarterback is a gut punch, but NC State adjusted well to losing Leary during 2020, as Bailey Hockman threw 13 touchdown passes, with 11 interceptions and the Wolfpack won their 4 of the final 5 regular-season games while scoring at least 28 points per contest.
More pre-snap motion, quick passes and unique looks in the run game would be a welcome sign, but who knows whether Beck is willing to tweak his system after 11 years as a Power 5 offensive coordinator.
5. Thayer Thomas, the prototypical slot, is among the best receivers in NC State history
When NC State needed a completion, Thomas could be counted on, and he moved up in the Wolfpack record book in the process. He sits at 24 career receiving touchdowns, 2nd all-time in NC State history behind Torry Holt.
Holt, may I remind you, was part of “The Greatest Show on Turf” with the late 1990s/early 2000s St. Louis Rams and was named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. Thomas will have a ways to go to have that level of success in the pros, but with his sure hands and ability to pick up yards after the catch, he was the perfect weapon out of the slot for NC State. Those skills made him a receiver to remember for the Wolfpack.
6. Jordan Houston could be a workhorse running back
He might only be 5-foot-10, but Jordan Houston is a tough and powerful runner who moves the chains and can catch passes out of the backfield. But Houston received more than 15 carries just once this season — against Florida State on Oct. 8, when he had 24 carries for 90 yards and 2 receptions for 41 yards.
A junior, Houston still has eligibility remaining. It might be time to anoint him as the clear top dog in the backfield going into 2023. Unless …
7. Demie Sumo-Karngbaye and Michael Allen could make it a trio in the backfield
These 2 showed promise during the regular season, combining for 105 carries. Demie Sumo-Karngabye and Michael Allen actually were more efficient with their carries than Houston, with both averaging better than 5 yards per carry.
For NC State to have an elite run game in 2023, improvements along the offensive line must occur. But the recipe in the backfield might be there: rotate Houston, Sumo-Karngabye and Allen, and keep defenses on their toes.
8. Aydan White and Shyheim Battle are among the best cornerback tandems in the ACC
This is an area that NC State does not have to worry about for next year, at least when it comes to the top of the depth chart. Both are among the top 10 in the conference in interceptions, and they possess the closing speed and ball skills to excel as corners in a league filled with dynamic quarterbacks.
The Wolfpack will have to fill gaps at safety and nickel, but White and Battle each will have 3 years of eligibility remaining. Opposing receivers will have to deal with the duo for a while longer, and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson likely is pleased with that.
The duo likely will continue to make it happen in the secondary, such as when White converted an 84-yard interception return for a score against Texas Tech this year.
9. NC State has to improve on the road
Since capacity crowds returned to college football with the 2021 campaign, the Wolfpack has lost 7 times. 6 of those have come away from Carter-Finley Stadium, with 5 coming in road ACC matchups (the other was a road loss to Mississippi State during September 2021).
Even at a seemingly overmatched East Carolina this season, NC State struggled in a hostile environment. Each of its 4 road losses came by double digits. With a trip to a much-improved Connecticut next year, and road dates against Wake Forest, Virginia, Duke, and Virginia Tech, the road woes cannot continue.
The Wolfpack at least provided a roadmap towards future successes on the road on Black Friday, winning a gritty affair in Chapel Hill that had the typical animosity that North Carolina-NC State brings.
10. This is not a great time to be in a transition period in the ACC
Considering what NC State is losing (and likely is to lose) this offseason, it is possible the program could be caught between eras a little bit in 2023. But that simply is not the time for that to occur, as next year marks the new 3-3-5 scheduling model and the elimination of divisions.
NC State’s permanent opponents will be Clemson, Duke and North Carolina, as the Blue Devils get brought back into the fold after facing the Wolfpack just once since 2013. With Duke rebuilding quickly under coach Mike Elko, that has the looks of a revitalized rivalry, and Clemson and North Carolina surely are not going anywhere.
Plus, with the top 2 teams in the standings getting an invite to the conference title game, NC State will have an even harder time getting to Charlotte.
The 12-team college football playoff will arrive by 2026, but the College Football Playoff’s board of managers has encouraged conference commissioners to implement the model starting in 2024. The ACC has not had a reasonable chance at getting 2 teams into the playoff since its inception, but 12 spots (with 6 at-large bids) gives the conference a better shot at that.
If a 12-team playoff were held in 2021, NC State would have been a play (it lost to Miami by 1 and Wake Forest by 3) from being an at-large contender. Now, the window of ACC contention seems to be creaking shut in Raleigh, and it comes at an inopportune time considering the direction of the conference and college football as a whole.
Perhaps Morris or Finley (whoever wins the job during the offseason) could make a major leap, keeping NC State near the top of the ACC.