NC State football: 10 burning questions as the Wolfpack heads into the offseason
NC State, despite a host of injuries and a few head-scratching losses, notched its 3rd straight season with at least 8 victories. Now, the focus turns to the future under coach Dave Doeren.
With quarterback Devin Leary (the preseason ACC Player of the Year) officially transferring to Kentucky, Ben Finley and MJ Morris will compete for the starting job. Elsewhere, the Wolfpack will have to replace program stalwarts such as linebackers Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas, who are moving on to the NFL.
Going 8-5 (with a 16-12 loss to Maryland in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl) is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is a slight disappointment considering where things stood for the Wolfpack going into the season. With that being said, here are 10 questions regarding NC State heading into the offseason.
1. Who wins the quarterback battle?
Let’s start with the most important position. Unless Doeren lands a transfer-portal addition (per ESPN’s Pete Thamel, former Virginia signal-caller Brennan Armstrong is interested in NC State), rising sophomore MJ Morris and rising redshirt sophomore Ben Finley will duke it out for the job heading into next fall. Obviously, replacing Leary is a tall task (the New Jersey native threw 62 touchdowns against just 16 interceptions during his 4-year Wolfpack career), but the duo received a trial run during 2022.
Morris entered against Virginia Tech on Oct. 27, a game in which NC State trailed 21-3. Morris proceeded to complete 20 of 29 passes for 269 yards and 3 scores as the Wolfpack came back to win 22-21. He then completed 64.3% of his throws, with 3 more touchdown passes, in a 30-21 win against then-No. 21 Wake Forest, but Morris completed just 50% of his throws (for only 135 yards), during a stunning 21-20 home loss to Boston College.
Finley, on the other hand, saw the field during the final 3 games. Entering for a struggling Jack Chambers (who is out of eligibility) against Louisville on Nov. 19, Finley was 16-of-35 for 201 yards, 1 touchdown and a pick — NC State lost 25-10. In the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against Maryland, Finley also struggled, completing 22 of 48 attempts and tossing zero touchdowns with 2 interceptions.
But it was his performance on Black Friday against then-No. 17 North Carolina that gives him a shot at being the quarterback of the future. On the road in Chapel Hill, the Wolfpack won a double-overtime thriller, and Finley’s gutsy performance (271 yards, 2 touchdowns) were a major reason why.
So, both quarterbacks put together a mixed bag during 2022. Morris adds more in the run game, while also throwing a prettier deep ball than Finley, but both will have a shot. My guess is, absent Armstrong entering the fray, Morris gets the nod for Week 1, but Finley will push him heavily during spring ball and fall camp.
2. How does the offense change under Robert Anae?
With former offensive coordinator Tim Beck departing to become the head coach at Coastal Carolina, Doeren moved fairly quickly in finding his replacement — hiring Robert Anae on Dec. 12. Anae spent this season calling plays at Syracuse and the previous 6 doing the same at Virginia.
As a disciple of the late Mike Leach, Anae is sure to spread it around the playground a little more than Beck did, an approach that is sure to modernize a Wolfpack offense that felt stale this season — even with Leary under center. Anae worked wonders with Brennan Armstrong while in Charlottesville, Va., as the quarterback tossed 31 touchdowns against 10 picks during 2021, so Morris and Finley likely will benefit from the 64-year-old’s tutelage.
Anae’s presence in Raleigh, according to Thamel, is behind Armstrong’s potential interest in NC State. Thamel also reported Auburn and Oklahoma State have a chance at signing Armstrong, so this more of a wait-and-see situation.
3. Can you replace Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas at linebacker?
Short answer — it’s impossible. The duo combined for 183 total tackles and 10.5 sacks this season and were 2 of the 6 Wolfpack captains. Getting another set of linebackers who can stop the run, cover in space and blitz quarterbacks as effectively as those 2 would be nearly impossible.
Weakside linebacker Payton Wilson (82 total tackles) returning to school helps the cause significantly, but NC State tying Louisville for the best scoring defense in the ACC had so much to do with the brilliance of Moore and Thomas. Without them, major leap forwards will be needed elsewhere in the linebacker room — such as via rising redshirt sophomore Jayland Parker and rising junior Devon Betty.
4. Can you replace Thayer Thomas in the slot?
Another tall task. Thayer Thomas was the best friend for Leary, Chambers, Morris and Finley this season, churning out receptions — 57 of them, in fact, for 642 yards and 4 scores. With Anae likely adapting the schematics of the offense to fit his Air Raid philosophy, steady production from the slot is a requirement.
Thomas’ backups were rising junior Porter Rooks and rising redshirt sophomore Jalen Coit. Rooks has racked up 66 career catches, with an 11-yard per-catch average to boot over 3 seasons. With Coit only at 2 career catches in 2 seasons of play, Rooks is the guy to watch in this area. Replicating Thomas’ production, in your 1st year as the starting slot, is a tough ask for Rooks, but the Charlotte native at least could be a consistent option in the passing game.
5. Can the Wolfpack develop a consistent rushing attack?
NC State ranked 12th in the ACC in rushing yards per game (113.8) during 2022 as rushers averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Jordan Houston, Demie Sumo-Karngbaye and Michael Allen all pose threats in the run game, though, as each averaged at least 4 yards per carry — Sumo-Karngbaye and Allen averaged more than 5 yards per tote.
Much of this has to do with improving the offensive line, which is heavy on younger players ready to play heavy snaps. An underrated part of the Air Raid offense is its use of the pass to set up the run, so Anae will not simply abandon this section of the playbook. Fixing the run game is another top priority for the Wolfpack’s new offensive coordinator.
6. Does the weak link of the defense — the secondary — improve?
When it comes to NC State’s spectacular defense (which tied for 11th nationally in points per game allowed at almost 19.2), the term weak link is extremely relative. Cornerback Aydan White was an All-ACC 1st-teamer, and his fellow starter at corner Shyheim Battle was terrific as well with 2 interceptions and 5 passes defended.
But NC State ranked 7th in the ACC in pass defense, allowing more than 225 yards per contest. With a potentially elite list of quarterbacks on the schedule in 2023 — Duke’s Riley Leonard, Clemson’s Cade Klubnik, North Carolina’s Drake Maye, Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman all are on the docket — shoring up the back end is paramount.
7. Can NC State make it 3 straight against North Carolina?
Beating your top rival, along with winning your conference and, for a select few, making a run at the grand prize of a national title, is the goal of every program going into a season. NC State has accomplished that 1st goal the past 2 years in dramatic fashion, as Leary led an incredible 2021 comeback and the Wolfpack sent Maye and North Carolina into the ACC title game on a down note via a thrilling double-overtime road win.
Doeren is 6-4 against the Tar Heels and 2-1 against North Carolina coach Mack Brown. If he pulls it off again next season, despite North Carolina having, on paper, a decided talent edge, the 51-year-old might develop a reputation as 1 of the most hated men in Chapel Hill.
8. What does Triangle football look like this time next year?
With the ACC’s new 3-5-5 scheduling format, each of NC State, North Carolina and Duke will play the other 2 programs in the Triangle every year — along with a 3rd annual opponent; in NC State’s case, Clemson.
In 2022, Duke exceeded outside expectations to go 9-4, while North Carolina faltered late to go 9-5. NC State, by a hair, actually notched the worst record from among the group at 8-5. Is the landscape now set for competitive races to the top among the 3 programs?
9. Can the Wolfpack pick up more signature road wins?
NC State had its chance during early October, as a top-10 road matchup against Clemson presented the opportunity for back-to-back victories over the Tigers. But alas, the Wolfpack came up short, losing 30-20 and dropping to 4-1. As we know, NC State ended the regular season with a massive road win in Chapel Hill, but by then, the Wolfpack was out of contention for a conference title appearance — a preseason goal for the program.
In 2023, NC State will travel to face Duke and Wake Forest, a pair of potential conference contenders. Securing those caliber of road wins will be crucial to taking that next step.
10. How high is the ceiling at NC State?
There is no doubt that under Doeren, the Wolfpack will fight tooth and nail, no matter the situation (exhibit A: NC State’s dramatic win against North Carolina after 2 consecutive losses entering the contest). But coming into the fall, the Wolfpack was an experienced bunch with 17 wins under its belt over the previous 2 seasons yet failed to take the leap and qualify for the ACC title game.
This might not even be a Doeren issue. Despite star NFL quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson being part of the program during the past two decades — along with a host of other pro talent, such as pass rusher Bradley Chubb — NC State still has failed to win an ACC title since the Carter administration, unbelievably. The Wolfpack seems to simply be among those programs that never can quite get over the hump.
Maybe 2023 is the year, and Doeren finally notches his first 10-win season after missing the chance in 2021 when the Holiday Bowl against UCLA was cancelled because COVID-19. But all prior evidence suggests NC State, as usual, is stuck in the middle.