North Carolina State Football 2014 Spring Wrap Up
It’s hard to find a lot of obvious strengths from a team that was 3-9 last year and went winless in an ACC that, after Florida State, is not exactly the most impressive football conference in the land. The roster churning from the Dave Doeren regime means that the squad will have 51 true and redshirt freshmen this year. Despite that youth, there is a veteran presence on the defensive line and in the kicking game.
Senior tackle T.Y. McGill (6-1, 289), who started 10 games as a sophomore but only two as a junior, seems rededicated to becoming a disruptive force on the inside. He’s drawn a lot of praise from Doeren throughout the spring. McGill had 10.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks as a sophomore; if he can regain that form, it will really help a young linebacker core and secondary.
Redshirt senior Thomas Teal (6-1, 308) adds to the experienced depth on the defensive line. He was second on the team with 11 tackles for a loss last year. Monty Nelson, who has bulked up to 6-2, 313 pounds, had 8.5 tackles for a loss as he took snaps from McGill last year as a true freshman. This trio could make things difficult for opponents on the interior.
Another redshirt senior, Art Norman (6-0, 250), has totaled 10 sacks over the last two years and should provide steady pressure from the weak side at defensive end. Redshirt freshman Pharoah McKever (6-6, 237) is a converted wide receiver that the staff thinks will develop into a disruptive force off the edge, and the Pack also landed a five-star recruit in DE Kentavius Street (6-2, 267), who should play right away.
Both kicker Niklas Sade and punter Wil Baumann stepped up in their junior years after struggling in their first two seasons. Sade hit 19 of 23 field goals, including five from beyond 40 yards, and has the leg to get a touchback on kickoffs nearly every time. Baumann averaged 42.1 yards per punt, a number that will never lead the league but is a couple of yards better than what he did over his first two years. Unfortunately, Baumann’s butterfingers handling snaps both as a punter and holder hurt the Pack a couple of times last year. He can’t let that happen again.
As for weaknesses, it’s pretty much everywhere else until proven otherwise. Again, this is an extremely young team.
The Pack absolutely must have a breakout performance from junior Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett (6-4, 236). Pete Thomas, who has since transferred, and Brandon Mitchell, then a fifth-year senior, combined for a completion percentage under 60% and 15 interceptions to just 11 touchdowns last year.
After five years of having an NFL caliber quarterback (Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon) masking many of the team’s ills, the lack of an above-average signal caller was the biggest reason for the Pack’s precipitous fall in year one under Doeren. Brissett showed signs of being able to elevate the position back to its former glory in the spring game when he completed 24 of 37 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns.
Bryan Underwood (5-9, 179) is not exactly a breakout candidate—he caught 10 touchdown passes as a sophomore—but after missing five games due to injury last year, the redshirt senior may be a bit of a forgotten man. He re-announced his presence with authority in the spring game, catching three balls for 112 yards and two scores. Underwood has game-changing speed and will need the ball in his hands a lot for the offense to move in year two of the Doeren era.
True freshman and early enrollee Bo Hines (6-1, 190) had the most impressive spring performance, catching 10 balls for 132 yards. Hines should complement Underwood’s home run ability with a steady presence as a possession receiver from day one.
QB: Incomplete There’s not much after Brissett, though incoming freshman Jalan McClendon (6-4, 198) is highly touted and will likely be the QB of the future. Hopefully Brissett plays well and stays healthy so that McClendon can redshirt, back up Brissett next year, and take over as a sophomore. Walk-on junior Garrett Leatham (6-4, 221) will hold the clipboard in the meantime.
RB: Grade: B- (with Thornton on the field and not in jail) Shadrach Thornton (6-1, 207) could be a star if off the field woes don’t undermine his potential. The oft-arrested junior broke a 72-yard run against the Seminoles and averaged 79 yards a game in ACC play, the third-best mark in the league. Thornton averaged 4.7 yards per carry for a team that gained well under four yards per rush on average, but he has to be one more strike away from getting the boot (lesser players have been let go for less than his transgressions already).
Incoming freshman Jaylen Samuels (6-0, 225) is thought of by recruiting services as more of a fullback/H-back type, but after rushing for 1,404 yards and 39 touchdowns and catching 49 balls for 932 more yards and 16 more scores as a senior, he will likely find a more significant role in the offense than the typical fullback. And note that he put up those numbers in NC’s highest level of prep competition, not against a bunch of small private schools. Samuels could prove to be the jewel of a highly regarded class.
WR/TE: Grade: B (if Brissett has time to get them the ball) In addition to the aforementioned Underwood and Hines, true sophomores Marquez Valdes-Scantling (6-3, 207) and Jumichael Ramos (6-3, 197) give Brissett some tall, promising targets down the field. The two combined for 633 yards receiving as true freshmen and should take a step forward with more consistent quarterback play. Redshirt sophomore David Grinnage (6-5, 273) is a beast and should help both as a blocker and a pass catcher; he grabbed 10 balls for 150 yards and a score as a freshman.
OL: Grade: C (which is actually a huge improvement from F-) Offensive line play was, surprisingly, a glaring weakness for Tom O’Brien’s Pack teams and it only got worse last year when senior Rob Crisp (6-7, 305), O’Brien’s most heralded recruit, was lost for all but a handful of games with a concussion. The entire line was shuffled around to fill the void left by the rangy left tackle, and Joe Thuney (6-5, 285) proved incapable of protecting the quarterback’s blind side. Crisp, granted a medical hardship for a fifth year, will be back and should stabilize the line if he can stay on the field (something that has been a problem for him his entire career).
Thuney, who is a capable on the interior, will move back to the inside to left guard. A bigger Quinton Schooley (6-4, 301), who took more snaps (or made them) than anyone on the team last year as a sophomore, will battle it out with early enrollee Tony Adams (6-2, 317) at center. Adams is nimble for his size, having played for his high school tennis team. Junior Alex Barr (6-7, 322) and senior Tyson Chandler (6-7, 354) return to form a massive right side of the line.
This unit has a chance to go from patchwork in 2013 to solid in 2014 thanks to the return of Crisp and a lot of experience; if not, Doeren has recruited well on the line in his first two classes, so there is plenty of depth waiting for a shot.
DL: Grade: B (would love to revise to an A if the front four can get pressure without the team having to blitz) We touched on the D-line above but should probably add B.J. Hill (6-4, 283) to the players to watch list. Another true freshman early enrollee, Hill drew a lot of spring praise from the staff and should get snaps right away on the interior and perhaps even at strong side defensive end.
LB: Grade: C- (good athletes but not much size or proven toughness on the interior) Seniors Brandon Pittman (6-2, 218) and Rodman Noel (6-4, 220) can run but are undersized for the position. Pittman has seen more playing time of the two, including seven starts last year. He was reasonably productive with 62 stops, including seven TFLs and three sacks. He’ll lead a linebacking unit that lost starters Robert Caldwell (105 tackles) and D.J. Green (two INTs).
M.J. Salahuddin (6-2, 223), who played in all 12 games last year, should get the first shot to replace Caldwell in the middle. Redshirt freshman Jerod Fernandez (6-1, 231) will likely work his way into the lineup eventually, and 23-year-old freshman Ty Linton (6-2, 235) is an interesting prospect who is giving football a try after his minor league baseball career stalled in the Diamondbacks’ organization.
S/CB: Grade: C+ (really this unit will be as good as the D-line allows it to be) With just four scholarship players on the spring roster, the Pack is pretty thin at corner, though junior Juston Burris (6-1, 207) returns with a couple of years of experience. He had just one pick last year and was picked on in one-on-one coverage over the top quite a bit, but Burris can be solid if the veteran and deep defensive line can generate some pressure. Jack Tocho (6-1, 196) got some run as a true freshman, picking a pair of passes in his first start, but those were his only two INTs of the season. Troy Vincent (5-10, 181), the son of the former Dolphins’ pro bowler of the same name, is another jewel of the 2014 class and could compete for playing time right away when he arrives on campus in the fall.
Dave Doeren seems to be trying to field an entire team of safeties, as the spring roster had nine of them. The most interesting name in the group is Jarvis Byrd (5-10, 190), a sixth-year senior who has suffered one catastrophic injury after another. Kudos to the NCAA for allowing him to return for one more shot at a healthy season. Byrd, who also had the misfortune of getting decked by an uppercut from a Clemson lineman last year, started alongside junior Hakim Jones (6-2, 190) when he was healthy enough to go. Both of them will be pressured by the slew of young guys behind them, the most impressive of which is probably early enrollee Germaine Pratt (6-3, 195), who picked Brissett in the spring game.
Without a lot of depth at linebacker, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pack run a lot of 4-2-5 defense in 2014 to get more of these athletic safety types on the field.
ST: Grade: B (if the kickers continue to improve and the coverage units actually run and tackle) As noted above, the kickers should be solid enough. The coverage units were pretty terrible last year; hopefully the influx of athletes (like all those safeties) will help shore that up.
With an embarrassing non-conference slate (Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, Presbyterian at home, and South Florida on the road) and having Boston College and Wake Forest at home, it’s hard to see how even a remarkably young Wolfpack squad could not improve from last season’s horrid 3-9 campaign.
Six wins and one of those pre-Christmas bowls attended by about 5,000 fans would be considered, if not a success, at least a step in the right direction.
However, I don’t think you can really measure a team that has been torn down to the studs by its W-L record. FIFTY-ONE FRESHMEN. Just think about that. The foundation has been put down for future success, but that future may be two or more seasons down the road. In the meantime, we’ll settle for glimpses.
David Sanders of Backing The Pack provided the information for our North Carolina State Football 2014 Spring Wrap Up. For more NC Statefootball information, commentary and analysis, you can follow David on Twitter @Omega_Wolf.