The NC State Wolfpack went into their bye week with an undefeated 5-0 record which includes two ACC victories. The bye week comes in mid-October which is essentially the midpoint of the regular season so let’s take a look back at how the lineup has evolved over the first half of the schedule.
Ryan Finley was expected to have a great season and he certainly is. There is no question that it is easier to be a QB when you have ridiculously talented WRs to throw to and an offensive line that is keeping you clean (sacked twice - none in ACC play). But Finley is also having a lot of success because he is a talented QB who has improved every year as a starter. I’ve been really impressed with his awareness in the pocket and his accuracy while rolling out of the pocket. So far, it seems like his decision to come back to NC State for one more year is paying off as he seems to be rising on people’s draft boards.
With Nyheim Hines leaving for the NFL early, running back was a big question mark heading into this season. Everyone knew Reggie Gallaspy would be counted on as the leader since he was the only returning RB with any career carries but how would he do as the lead back? Also, who would be RGII’s backup? Would it be the high school All-American Ricky Person or perhaps R-Fr Nakia Robinson who had a year under his belt in the system? The picture is obviously much clearer here at the midpoint of the season. It took a little while to get going, but Gallaspy seems to be finding his rhythm as the lead back and Ricky Person has been phenomenal as his backup - averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Pennix showed some promise while Person was hurt and Brady Bodine has come out of nowhere to show he is capable of handling a few carries per game. Unfortunately, Nakia Robinson found himself buried on the depth chart and with a talented couple of RBs joining the Pack next season decided to transfer.
Wide receiver was seen as a strength entering the season with big things expected from Harmon, Meyers, and Louis. What people didn’t know was just how talented and deep this group is. With Meyers and Louis getting banged up early in the season, Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas, and C.J. Riley stepped up and have shown that they are also talented enough to be starting for just about any other team in the ACC. Harmon and Company have made a habit of making multiple catches per game of the highlight reel variety and have been a real joy to watch this year.
After dealing with injury and ineligibility at the tight end spot to start the season, the Pack have settled into the rotation of Autenrieth and Angeline as their top TEs. It is no coincidence that the running game started gaining some traction when Autenrieth returned and Angeline joining the team has given Finley another big weapon downfield. With Autenrieth and Angeline firmly entrenched as important pieces of the offense and both being just redshirt sophomores, Damien Darden realized he may not see the field much going forward in his career and announced he is transferring.
Entering the season, the big question for the offensive line was who would replace Will Richardson and Tony Adams on the right side of the line. Justin Witt and Joshua Fedd-Jackson won those jobs and have gotten the majority of the playing time. However, an injury to Terronne Prescod in Week 3 opened the door for Joe Sculthorpe to get some snaps and he impressed enough to earn a regular spot rotating in at guard. This group has been great in pass protection and is improving every week in run blocking - although it is no surprise that the RBs are having more success running behind the experienced combo of Prescod and Jones on the left side of the line. And how good have Bradbury and Prescod been? Good enough to make the Pro Football Focus Midseason All-American team:
At the beginning of the season, the most talked about position on the field was the defensive line - not because of who they currently have, but because of who graduated. Having lost four seniors to the first four rounds of the NFL draft, there was some serious doubt about what the defensive line would be able to do this year beyond Darian Roseboro. Though some guys of the guys got experience as backups in 2017, the remaining defensive linemen had only two collective starts between them (both from Roseboro). The new starting lineup of Roseboro, Bryant, Murchison, and Smith-Williams had a bit of a slow start, but have been very, very good the past couple of weeks. While there is no pass rusher as dominant as Bradley Chubb this year, the line as a whole has been disruptive and Smith-Williams is finding his way into the backfield frequently (20 tackles, 6 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries). The play of Murchison and McNeill has been a pleasant surprise for everyone. Unfortunately, their rise has come at the expense of Shug Frazier who was seen as the probable starter going into the Fall but an injury limited him during camp and caused him drop behind the others on the depth chart.
Though Germaine Pratt had never started a game coming into the season, the senior had big expectations because of the impact he had made in his time as a backup. He has not disappointed. Pratt has been an impact player on an improved defense and is leading the team in tackles. He is also leading the ACC in tackles per game (9.8). Isaiah Moore won the battle for the other LB spot and has been very good as a redshirt freshman. Moore has the third most tackles on the team despite missing a game due to injury.
Last season was a struggle at the nickel position. Shawn Boone - the team’s best safety - was the starter at nickel and his backup, Freddie Phillips, tore his Achilles in the first game of the season. The word around the program was that the best nickel on the team was Stephen Griffin who was sitting out after transferring from Tennessee. Everyone was excited to see what Griffin could do this year, but he was injured for the entirety of Fall camp. This opened the door for true freshman Tanner Ingle and he has made the most of his opportunity. Ingle has gotten a large majority of the snaps through the first half of the year and has shown himself to be a big hitter with room for improvement in coverage. I thought it was interesting that in this week’s episode of ONE, you overhear Doeren having conversations with both Ingle and Griffin. The conversation with Ingle was about improving his one-on-one coverage - specifically his focus. The conversation with Griffin was about the great slot receivers coming up in the second half of the schedule and Griffin saying he feels healthy. The need for better coverage from the nickel spot could be an opportunity for Griffin to get back into the rotation more consistently and make an impact in the second half of the year.
Safety is the one position on the defense that didn’t have a player graduate. Through the first half of 2018, the rotation looks similar to last year with Jarius Morehead getting the majority of snaps at strong safety and Wright and Kidd-Glass splitting the snaps at free safety. Morehead seems to have taken his game up a notch from last season and is the second leading tackler for the Pack this year.
Last season, cornerback may have been the weakest non-special teams position for the Pack. With two starters graduating, no one knew what to expect at CB. Nick McCloud, who showed flashes of potential last year, has stepped up as the leader and has played pretty well. Chris Ingram has rebounded from a nightmare experiment at nickel last season and has also been solid. Behind them, Kishawn Miller is the only player who has gotten snaps at corner in more than one game. It should be noted, though, that in the latest depth chart released for the Clemson game, 6’3” freshman Teshaun Smith is listed as the backup behind Chris Ingram instead of the shorter 5’9” Miller. No idea if that is injury related or an attempt to matchup with some of Clemson’s taller WRs. I just know that playing a true freshman in his first game at CB at Clemson against that passing attack scares me quite a bit.
Chris Dunn has been the starting kicker from pretty much the moment he stepped on campus. So far, he hasn’t disappointed. This season, Dunn is 8-11 (one blocked). If you want to see how much of an upgrade Dunn has been, just take a look at 2017’s FG kicking numbers (TRIGGER WARNING):
Coming into the season, the two first year players that seemed liked absolute locks to not redshirt were Chris Dunn and Ricky Person. Beyond that, there was enough depth at every position except cornerback to question how many first year players would play this year instead of redshirting - especially with the new rule allowing a player to appear in up to four games and keep the reshirt. Halfway through the season, Chris Dunn, Tanner Ingle, Alim McNeill, and Ricky Person have shown they belong out there on the field as freshmen. Also, JUCO transfer Kishawn Miller has become the first guy off the bench at corner. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone else plays enough to lose their redshirt. Will Pennix play anymore games with Person healthy and Bodine showing he is a capable third option at RB? Will anyone burn a redshirt as a special teams player?
Overall, the strength of the team has been the offense - especially the passing game - and the defense seems to be much improved over last year. Neither the offense nor the defense has faced an elite unit yet, though, so there is still a lot to learn about this team. Here’s a look at Pro Football Focus’s Midseason All-ACC team:
So that’s how the different positions have looked through a successful first half of the year. Hopefully, the promise the team has shown in the first five games carries through the second half of the year. The opportunity is definitely there for a historic season by NC State standards.