NC State football: Grading each position group for the Wolfpack
It is time for some grades as the fall semester comes to a close.
NC State entered the year 2nd to Clemson in preseason All-ACC selections, with 5 players making the cut (quarterback Devin Leary, center Grant Gibson, linebackers Drake Thomas and Payton Wilson and safety Tanner Ingle). Now, with the regular season over, let’s take stock of each Wolfpack position group, grading their respective performances along the way.
Time to dive in.
Considering 4 Wolfpack quarterbacks have taken meaningful snaps, this position group gets graded on a slight curve. Devin Leary entered the season as the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, ahead of Wake Forest counterpart Sam Hartman, but he missed the final 6 games of the regular season because of a torn labrum.
In the 6 games he played, Leary was unspectacular, tossing 11 touchdowns against 4 interceptions and completing just 61.1% of his passes. For context, in the final 6 contests of 2021, Leary threw for 20 touchdowns with 3 interceptions and completed just better than 64% of his passes.
As for the rest of the crew, Jack Chambers performed admirably in relief of Leary on Oct. 8 against Florida State, as NC State mounted a 2nd-half comeback thanks in part to Chambers’ 7 carries for 39 yards. MJ Morris, who replaced Chambers on Oct. 27 against Virginia Tech, led the Wolfpack back from a 21-3, 3rd-quarter deficit to survive at home. Ben Finley struggled against Louisville, completing 45.7% of his 35 passes, but he let it rip against then-No. 18 North Carolina — to the tune of 27-of-40 passing, 271 yards and 2 touchdowns in the dramatic win.
Ultimately, though, NC State did rank 76th nationally in passing offense, and that prevents this group from earning anything other than a “B,” despite respectable play from all 4 quarterbacks.
Running back: C+
NC State simply was not dynamic enough in the run game this season, ranking 107th nationally in yards per game. The Wolfpack averaged under 3.42 yards per carry and scored just 8 times via the ground game (with 5 coming from Leary, Chambers or Morris).
Jordan Houston is a physical runner with solid vision, and Demie Sumo-Karngbaye and Michael Allen both averaged better than 5 yards per carry. The pieces are there for NC State to get the run game going, but we will have to see it to believe it.
Wide receivers and tight ends: B
Devin Carter’s injury hurt the explosiveness of the passing game, as the Clayton native missed 3 games and only hauled in 25 catches — although his 6-catch, 130-yard, 1-touchdown performance against North Carolina was extremely impressive. However, Thayer Thomas was as solid as ever from the slot (53 catches for 588 yards and 4 touchdowns) and Keyon Lesane and Darryl Jones stepped up to set respective career highs in catches and touchdowns.
As for the tight end position, it was virtually nonexistent in the passing game, as Trent Pennix (8 catches for 111 yards and 2 scores), led the Wolfpack tight ends in every major receiving category. Pennix often was split out wide, acting more as a receiver, and his biggest moment of the season came when he reeled in a 7-yard score during the comeback win against Virginia Tech.
Offensive line: C+
The Wolfpack was experienced along the offensive line, with 2 graduate students (left guard Chandler Zavala and right tackle Timothy McKay), a redshirt junior (right guard Derrick Eason), a redshirt sophomore (center Dylan McMahon) and a sophomore (left tackle Anthony Belton) the starters against North Carolina.
Belton had massive shoes to fill, as former starting left tackle Ikem Ekwonu was a unanimous All-American in 2021 and the 6th overall pick in April’s NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers.
Facts are facts, though, and NC State ranked among the bottom half nationally in sacks allowed and rushing yards per game. The Wolfpack offense struggled to get into a rhythm for extended stretches of games, and some of that lies at the feet of the offensive line.
Defensive line: A-
The Wolfpack did not excel at getting to the quarterback, ranking among the bottom half nationally in sacks per game. But NC State was terrific at defending the run allowing just over 102 yards per contest.
End Davin Vann led the defensive line with 32 total tackles and 4.5 sacks, as the Wolfpack linebackers and secondary got most of the shine in the tackling department. Considering defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s preferred 3-3-5 alignment, expecting massive numbers from the defensive line would be unreasonable.
This is an easy call for the best position group on the roster. Drake Thomas, Isaiah Moore and Payton Wilson are a 3-headed monster at linebacker, roaming from sideline to sideline and making crucial plays when the Wolfpack needed them.
Thomas led the group with 90 total tackles and 6.5 sacks, with Moore (71 total tackles, 3 sacks) and Wilson (72 total tackles, 2.5 sacks) not far behind. Each had unique skillsets, with Moore being a menace behind the line of scrimmage (13.5 tackles for loss), Wilson having a nose for the ball and Thomas being unafraid to mix it up between the tackles or in coverage.
But the thing they all had in common? All 3 were torch bearers for what was among the best defenses in the country.
Defensive backs: A-
The Wolfpack tied for 3rd nationally in passes intercepted with 17, and all but 1 of those picks coming from the secondary. Corners Aydan White (8 passes defended, 4 interceptions) and Shyheim Battle (4 passes defended, 2 interceptions) were excellent, and Derrek Pitts (6 passes defended) set a career high in total tackles with 46.
Safety Tanner Ingle was 2nd among Wolfpack defenders in total tackles (73), and he picked off 2 passes. Nickel Tyler Baker-Williams also had a pair of picks, and safety Cyrus Fagan collected 49 tackles. This is, to put it mildly, an impressive crop of defensive backs.
The only thing holding this group back from being at the same level as the linebackers is the Wolfpack ranked 66th in the country in pass defense, giving up more than 222 per contest through the air.
Christopher Dunn has been nearly perfect across the board, knocking through all 30 of his extra-point attempts and 24 out of 25 his field-goal attempts. Punter Shane McDonough averaged almost 42 yards per boot.
In the return game, NC State had a respectable year, ranking 60th nationally in punt return average and 14th in kick return average. Safety Sean Brown also had a scoop-and-score off a blocked punt on opening weekend at East Carolina, a touchdown the Wolfpack would have lost the ballgame without.