Deebo Samuel, Tyre Brady, and Tabari Hines are three names that will make Wolfpack fans wince. All three cooked the Wolfpack secondary in 2017. Hines and Samuel’s efforts were the lynchpins in wins over the Pack that both definitely should not have been so. The secondary questions were an underrated storyline going into last season. Naturally, everybody wanted to talk about the front four and the limitless potential of that group. A good defense needs to be well-rounded though, and the Pack couldn’t manage to pull that off.
NC State’s defense ranked 97th nationally last season in passing yards per game. The foundation of this inefficiency goes all the way back to 2014, when Dave Doeren starting building the future with his first full recruiting class. The class featured four defensive linemen that would eventually make up the experienced and dominate front four we had the pleasure of watching. The class also contained seven defensive backs that were aimed at building the secondary in the same fashion.
Four of those seven DBs never had a chance to make an impact. Kalen McCain, Elliot Davis, and Troy Vincent all exited the team early in their careers. Germaine Pratt moved to linebacker. Vincent, McCain, and Pratt were among the highest rated defensive backs State has landed in the Doeren era. The Pack would eventually lose Marquez Valdez as well, who was a promising young corner that would have been a breakout candidate this season.
State never pulled in near that number of DBs in the subsequent recruiting classes, and this high level of attrition has caused the Pack to lack depth, and thus competition, in the defensive backfield. Injuries hurt the pass defense even more last season, when State lost each of Freddie Phillips, Dexter Wright, Mike Stevens, and Marquez Valdez for at least a large portion of the season. The result was a pass defense that ranked in the bottom third of the country and secondary that managed just five interceptions on the season.
Everybody is back healthy now as we head for the season opener, but State will have to cope with the loss of Mike Stevens and Shawn Boone, the latter of which was arguably the best DB Doeren has put on the team. The Pack can bring out an improved secondary this year, but it’s going to take some stepping up, especially at cornerback.
Safety figures to be the strongest position. Jarius Morehead might be the best player back there this year, and Dexter Wright returns healthy for his final season. Tim Kidd-Glass is also back after starting the majority of the season in injury relief of Wright. The Pack has experience and some depth here, which is true of pretty much nowhere else.
The situation at cornerback is much grimmer. Nick McCloud played as a true freshman and started every game as a sophomore. He’s an exciting piece to have back and will need to be a leader at corner. Some sorting out is necessary opposite McCloud, and there’s not a lot of overly appealing options.
State could go the wide receiver convert route again this year with Maurice Trowell. Convert Jonathan Alston started all last year at corner after being a receiver his entire career. It wasn’t a particularly successful experiment though. The fact that the Pack continually has to consider this route is somewhat illustrative of the initial problem. Trowell might work out better than Alston did though. He has more prototypical cornerback size and quickness. Physically, he has what it takes to be a good cover corner, and it’s worth noting he ran with the ones this spring.
Elsewhere, State could look to junior college product Kishawn Miller, whose two years of JuCo ball are pretty much the only thing State has that resembles cornerback experience outside of McCloud. If not Miller though, It’s youth. Sophomore Chris Ingram, who has one start at nickel, or early enrollee De’von Graves would be the likely contenders from the underclassmen side.
State has made a solid effort to build something serviceable in the secondary. The staff has brought in a group of stopgap players, including receiver converts, JuCo products, and transfer Stephen Griffin. Griffin is the likely starter at nickel. They’ve also had more success recently in recruiting higher level defensive backs, such as Taiyon Palmer and Khalid Martin. That recruiting success is obviously the key for the future. As for right now, State needs some new faces to step up and some new leaders to embrace those roles if the secondary is going to improve this year, and it needs to improve.