Dave Doeren will soon be entering his sixth season as the head coach of NC State. We’ve seen a lot of Dave Doeren football by now. By now, we have a good feel for what Dave Doeren wants to do and how he wants to do it. Let’s dive into exactly what that is.
Recruit North Carolina
It’s probably safe to classify North Carolina as a second tier state as far as football talent goes. It’s not a blue chip factory that pumps out 5-star monsters every single cycle, but it has enough quality players to sustain a perennial contender. What the state doesn’t have is a perennial contender, at least not yet. It’s got an overabundance of average programs that all routinely talk about building the same stupid imaginary fence, but instead have spent the larger part of their existences stumbling around in a wasteland of whatever recruits weren’t poached by the usual suspects. Changing this was something Dave Doeren saw as not only an opportunity, but also a necessity. Homegrown talent is sustainable. Losing out on NC’s top players and being forced to fill out your class without them is not. Winning North Carolina is NC State’s way in. Of course State will continue to nab guys from surrounding states, but the Pack isn’t upgrading its talent level for the long run without its flag flying the highest in its home state.
Doeren clearly understands this. He’s made it a priority and he’s been quite successful. Players like Savion Jackson, C.J. Clark, and Triston Miller are evidence of substantial progress. Coach has done very well making inroads and impressing talent markets that State has previously fallen flat in. He has left his footprint across these markets. However, he has by no means built this almighty fence yet. The Pack is putting together a very impressive class, but the regular annoyances are still being quite annoying. State has blown away its in-state competition this year, but the likes of Clemson, Georgia, and others are still more imposing presences than NC State. When you’ve been losing the same battle for so long though, you can’t just flip a switch and suddenly come out in front, especially not in a sport where brands have as much value as they do in college football.
Little victories lead to big victories though. State has gained ground. Keeping guys like Nyheim Hines and Darian Roseboro home and winning recruiting battles over in-state rivals have all played their part in the construction of a brand that is increasingly appealing to North Carolina. Now the 2019 class is shaping up to be a big victory for the Pack. Of course, having seven draft picks and sending your entire defensive line to the NFL doesn’t hurt either. It’s a collection of different successes that turn a forgettable program into one people want to be a part of. Doing it with NC talent provides State with significantly less daunting odds and a lot more staying power if it can manage to level up the program. For all the criticisms I’ve lobbed at Dave Doeren over the last five years, most of which were deserved, I’ve never once doubted that he understood this. At least for now, it appears to be working.
Get the “Right” Players
Everybody has heard some variation of the saying “You don’t need the best players, you need the right players.” Now there’s a lot of overlap between both of the aforementioned categories, because it turns out having good football players on your football team helps make your football team good. The statement still has some gravity though.
If you want to see what type of player a coaching staff might consider the right player, look at the bottom half of their recruiting classes. Coaches will always chase after the best players in the region because duh. The lesser heralded guys in a class though tend to represent the player attributes coaches favor. What this quickly reveals about State is the emphasis they’ve placed on recruiting length. They love tall folks with long arms, especially on the lines and at receiver. The Pack has five receivers on the roster listed at 6’3 or taller with three more checking in at 6’2. Doeren has prioritized size over speed at receiver, and it’s a formula that’s working for State. These types of receivers create consistent mismatches in man coverage and have huge catch radii that take a lot of pressure off of the quarterback. Guys like Kelvin Harmon, C.J. Riley, Emeka Emezie, and Devin Carter fit this mold, and we all saw how effectively the Pack used Harmon last season.
Offensive tackle and defensive end are both places where length has been emphasized as well, although that’s definitely not a pursuit unique to NC State. Recruitments like those of offensive tackles Justin Chase and Justin Witt, as well as defensive ends such as Tyrone Riley and Xavier Lyas represent Doeren’s commitment to what he and his assistants consider the right player. A lot of State’s targets at these positions have been unheralded guys, but they fit a mold.
Interesting side note: State has had a dramatic increase in blocked kicks under Doeren, which can be attributed to targeting this profile as well.
This one isn’t as obvious, but I’ve long believed Doeren seeks out players whose games are malleable. What that means is players who are versatile and/or raw and don’t come to Raleigh pigeonholed as far as position and role go. The Pack has had a lot of success with position changes recently, some of which can attributed to the recruitment of prospects that can be shifted around and built into the position that they turn out to be best suited for. Successful examples of this include Bradley Chubb (you may have heard of him) and Germaine Pratt. It’s a practice that we’ve seen more of on the offensive line than anywhere else though, with guys like Garrett Bradbury and Tyler Jones succeeding at spots they didn’t start their career at. And if I’m going to talk about versatility, I would get banned from BTP if I didn’t at least mention Jaylen Samuels. The Pack has targeted a handful of players since his rise that can fill a Samuels type multi-faceted role. Getting players with the potential to fill multiple roles certainly seems to be a box Doeren likes to check.
Win in the Trenches
Dave Doeren said his football team was going to be a tough, hands in the dirt kind of team. His emphasis on the players that literally put their hands in the dirt has backed up this claim. The lines are the heart and soul of his football teams, and the Pack has benefited from a successful prioritization of the battle at the line of scrimmage.
Both the offensive line and defensive line were among the most productive units in the conference last season. Five of six departing starters from the lines got drafted. Big years by Finley and Hines wouldn’t have been possible without exceptional play from State’s front five. It was the culmination of 3+ years of exceptional talent identification, recruiting, and development, and the final product was a taste of the foundation future State teams will be built upon.
Doeren’s hiring of Dwayne Ledford turned out to be the catalyst for the growth in the Pack’s offensive line. Ledford is proving to be a top shelf assistant coach, as was Ryan Nielsen before his transition to the NFL. Having assistants of Ledford’s and Nielsen’s caliber and keeping them around is crucial to this part of the blueprint. Losing Nielsen was tough, and the verdict is still out on if Kevin Patrick is sufficiently capable, but a good resume and a lot to work with should keep you optimistic.
Establish the Brand
This is where it all comes together. State football has never had much of a culture to sell. The closest thing it had to a brand would probably be a 7-6 record. Doeren has a vision of what he wants State to be though, which he made abundantly clear in his media appearance after the 2014 win in Chapel Hill. He’s on the right track too. A homegrown tough blue collar football team that makes its living in the grittiest part of the game is the perfect brand for NC State. It’s also the antithesis of everything that exists within the athletic programs of cross-town rivals.
State can separate itself from those rivals, and quite a bit more, if Doeren can successfully execute his blueprint. It took him a full five years, but finally we saw some measurable growth. Now comes the crucial point for him. Can he continue to execute?