Team: NC State Wolfpack
2012 W-L: 7-6 (4-4)
Head Coach: Dave Doeren (0-0; first season)
Returning Starters: 8 (4 Offense, 4 Defense)
As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly astutely pointed out a couple weeks back, NC State under Tom O’Brien was a perfectly average team — rarely better or worse than a six- or seven-win team. And so despite another trip to the postseason in 2012, people got antsy, things felt stale, and O’Brien was relived of his duties. Now former Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren’s the head man in Raleigh and the big question is whether or not anything will change. For what feels like forever, the Wolfpack have been a team that can play respectable football, energize a highly underrated fan base and swing an upset once a season. And that’s it. So why now, with a coach whose success is notable but not long-standing, would they suddenly turn into a 10- or 11-win juggernaut? That’s what we try and figure out today…
NC State was a highly one-dimensional team last season with Mike Glennon at the helm. They managed to throw for 310 yards per game (great!), but that was while completing 58 percent of their passes — they threw 569 passes, by the way (seventh in the FBS). So for the most part, a highly inefficient attack. And it’s not as if they didn’t turn the ball over either. Right off the bat, those points must be addressed by Doeren and his staff, but with what personnel? Three-fifths of the offensive line is gone, as is Glennon and last year’s top pass-catcher Tobais Palmer. Glennon’s replacement is also still TBD, as transfers Brandon Mitchell (Arkansas) and Pete Thomas (Colorado State) continue to vie for the job in camp. Though Thomas may be the more polished and experienced player, Mitchell’s more of an athlete in the mold of Doeren’s highly agile QB at NIU, Jordan Lynch. Mitchell also has just one year of eligibility left, which makes me think he’ll grab the inside track at the starting job early on.
Running the ball, State was terrible — mostly as a result of Glennon’s ridiculous volume of passes. They also failed to ever establish a true starter last season, resulting in inconsistent carries for those who did actually get to touch the ball. Now-sophomore Shadrach Thornton showed the most promise in that regard, however, racking up nearly 700 yards based largely on five games of 17 or more carries (and another five of 12 or less with much lesser gains). He’ll come into the 2013 season now as the starter, with some additional help from Tony Creecy too. Creecy came in as the more experienced back, but can still flourish in a relief role this year nonetheless. Both can get involved in catching the ball, which of course plays right into the type of hybrid pistol offense Doeren is likely to run this season while he works to get more players in specifically made for his system.
Defensively, the Pack are starting over, which may not be a bad thing at all. Despite several pro prospects on last year’s team (most notably in the secondary), they had one of the country’s worst pass defenses, allowing nearly 250 yards per game through the air. A lot of that was due to David Amerson’s high-risk, high-reward style that we saw both sides of in his sophomore and junior years, and it’s expected this team will go back to a much more conservative approach for 2013. The hope is that senior Dontae Johnson can come on as a leader at corner and help ramp up the others, while of course leaving out the old way of doing things. Johnson’s a tough tackler and shows flashes of real skill in coverage, though it’ll be interesting to see how he fares going up against other teams’ top receiving options.
The front seven has some experience back, as T.Y. McGill and Darryl Cato-Bishop look to keep a surprisingly strong pass-rush intact up front. They’ll be essential this season as the team changes its approach completely. Last year’s pass-rush thrived because of the idea that the Pack were strong in the secondary. Now, the roles are reversed. So can they still generate the same pressure when the DBs are more easily beaten down field? If so, we may not see much of a drop-off in production in the sack department. They’ll also snag an assist from the defense’s biggest enigma: linebacker D.J. Green. After being suspended for all of 2012 for taking a banned supplement, he’s looking to prove himself as a standout player once again. His 2011 season showed him as an up-and-comer in both the rushing and passing game, and whether or not he can jump right back into things will be a storyline to watch through the first few games of the season.
To me, this looks like a transition year for NC State, despite the very manageable schedule. But why does nearly every publication believe this team to be the third-best squad in the Atlantic Division? Over on NunesMagician.com, Dan Lyons and I spent an hour asking that question over and over again in a podcast back in July. And it’s still worth bringing up. With so many personnel changes, a coaching staff revamp and (most importantly) the large majority of last year’s top playmakers no longer on the team, I can’t buy into this team as anything more than what they are: average. Given the crapshoot nature of the Atlantic outside of Florida State and Clemson, I suppose anything’s possible. But in a rebuilding year that could set up a strong foundation for the future, I’ve got them falling short this year.
Prediction: (5-7) (1-7); no postseason