The N.C. State football team only got five practices in before COVID hit last spring.
Head coach Dave Doeren and the Wolfpack still managed to finish the 2020 season with an 8-4 record, advancing to the TaxSlayer GatorBowl, falling to Kentucky.
Despite ending the season with a loss, there’s reason for optimism in Raleigh this season. Part of that is the return of 18 starters, including quarterback Devin Leary (more on Leary later).
State navigated the unknowns of the COVID year in 2020 and came out on the other side pretty much unaffected — the Pack had to reschedule one game before playing 12 straight with no issues. Having a better handle on how to deal with COVID and knowing they will get a full 15 practices, with an experienced roster, has Doeren excited about the potential.
“Excited to get back on the grass with these guys,” Doeren said. “It’s been a good offseason, a lot of good work.”
Coach Doeren and his staff also welcomed 14 midyear enrollees and three transfers in January. Those new faces will get the chance to get plenty of reps this spring. Several key starters will either miss the spring completely, or parts of it as they recover from injury. That list includes two starting linebackers, Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas; running backs Bam Knight and Ricky Person Jr. and wide receiver Emeka Emezie.
Doeren told the media Wilson and Thomas will not participate in any contact this spring. He didn’t elaborate on the status of the rest of the players expected to miss time. N.C. State is scheduled to conclude spring drills on April 10.
Here are four things to watch this spring at N.C. State:
The return of Devin Leary
Leary’s development had N.C. State fans excited in 2020. Then he broke his leg in October, and Wolfpack faithful had to wait another year for the Devin Leary experiment.
After having offseason surgery, Leary is cleared to fully participate with the team this spring. In four games last season, Leary threw for 890 yards, 8 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He was 2-0 as a starter before his injury against Duke. Leary was out of his boot by the time N.C. State played its bowl game and emerged as a leader this offseason.
“Having Devin back is a big deal,” Doeren said. “You always want to have your star quarterback leading you on the field in your practices and your off season program. The mental space he’s in right now is outstanding.”
Center Grant Gibson, who is also fully cleared for spring practice after an injury in the Gator Bowl, has noticed the difference in Leary as well.
“I think that he’s starting to use his voice a lot more,” Gibson said. “Devin is a guy who talks the entire time, that’s good, that’s what you want.”
It’s also important that Leary gets a full spring to work under offensive coordinator Tim Beck in his second season in Raleigh.
Speaking of Beck ...
Low staff turnover
Last spring N.C. State had five new coaches, including Beck, who coaches the quarterbacks as well as calls the plays.
Since spring practice was cut short, Beck didn’t have those 15 practices to gel with his new unit. Coaching turnover is a constant in college football and N.C. State has not been immune. This year, though, Doeren only has one new face in the building: Former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips takes over as the assistant head coach/wide receivers coach. He spent last season as the co-offensive coordinator at Maryland.
“It’s going to be fun,” Doeren said. “It’s nice to have a lot of continuity in the staff, not be showing someone else’s film when you are teaching your install with Coach Beck. He’s (Beck) already worked with Joker (Philips) prior so I feel like there is really good chemistry there. Defensively, the entire staff is back.”
Several key players took advantage of the NCAA rule that 2020 wouldn’t count against their eligibility, with last season considered a “zero year.”
The Wolfpack welcomes back starters Emezie and defensive end Daniel Joseph, as well as player who have taken a lot of snaps and started some games. Offensive tackle Tyrone Riley will be back for a seventh year, along with a sixth year for wide receiver C.J. Riley. Veteran tight end Dylan Parham will also return, looking for an expanded role after the departures of tight ends Cary Angeline and Dylan Autenrieth. Doeren explained that each player had a different reason to return to college for one more season.
“It always starts with what can you gain by coming back?” Doeren said. “Each guy has different things. For me it’s about listening and trying to give them my two cents and helping them through it. I want them to have peace, I want them to be happy.”
Emezie was the leading receiver a year ago with 47 catches for 738 yards. Joseph led the team in sacks with 6.5 and was second in tackles for loss with 10.
Replacing Alim McNeill
The biggest starter, literally and figuratively, to replace will be former nose guard Alim McNeill, who passed on another year in Raleigh for the NFL.
McNeill finished with 26 tackles in 10 starts, but his main job was to eat up space in the run game, allowing the linebackers to flow freely and make tackles. McNeill, an All-ACC first-team defender, was very good at his job. Now, who steps in and takes his place?
Last season redshirt freshman C.J. Clark was the main backup to McNeill. He figures to get the first nod, along with Florida State transfer Cory Durden should also compete for time, but he won’t be on campus until the fall. That gives a leg up to freshmen Joshua Harris and Davin Vann to push Clark for the spot.
“We’ll miss Alim, he was a really good player and we are excited for him,” Doeren said. “But we are also excited about the guys coming back. C.J. Clark has worked really hard to get to where he is. Joshua Harris, we feel like can be a force in there. Davin Vann has grown up a lot. This off season he was really impressive. At this point I can’t tell you how it’s going to play out, but I can tell you we are excited about the guys we have there.”
Clark finished with 24 tackles in 12 games a year ago.