It’s NFL Draft season, which means the inexhaustible barrage of hardly dissimilar content that whirls around this bloated event is about to commence. If you’re an NC State fan, it also means the Pack’s impressive crop of draftees is about to initiate the recycled talking point of “how in the world did NC State not win more games?”
This tweet began to permeate through the twittersphere on Wednesday.
I include this not to single this person out (please don’t go tweet at this person), because they certainly didn’t start this conversation, but to say that it’s actually a fair question if the right person is asking it.
It is fair, as long as it’s actually a question and not some overcooked attempt to poke at State’s longstanding mediocrity. If you’re an NFL guy, you’ve probably expended exactly zero energy observing NC State’s football program in its recent campaigns. The Pack has done a fair amount to keep itself out of the national spotlight over the years, so you can’t place too much blame on these draft folks for suddenly seeing NC State with seven picks and saying “well where the heck where they?”
Let’s answer that question
First, NC State has won a lot of games. The Pack is 18-8 in its last two seasons and 11-5 in the ACC. You can argue that the team should have won more games, but in no sound manner can you argue that isn’t a successful run for a team trying to climb the college football ladder, which is one of the most difficult ladders to climb in all of sports. State’s winning percentage the last two seasons is 69%. It is 50% over the five prior seasons. It’s hard to argue that the talent growth reflected by the NFL Draft isn’t also reflected in the overall record.
“But how come the Pack couldn’t have an even better winning percentage than that? The 2017 team was starting more than 10 draft picks and still went 9-4.”
After Germaine Pratt gets drafted this year, Dave Doeren’s recruiting classes from his foundation class in 2014 onward will have produced draftees at quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and linebacker. There’s one major position group that is not present there, and a quick examination of some basic statistics will tell you the level of impact that position group has had on State’s success over the years.
Of the eight losses State has taken in last two years, they all fall into one of three categories
- Elite teams (Clemson 2017, Notre Dame 2017, Clemson 2018)
- Explosive passing attacks (South Carolina 2017, Wake Forest 2017, Syracuse 2018, Clemson 2018 again)
- Weird shit (Wake Forest 2018, Texas A&M 2018)
The Wolfpack’s pass defense ranked a putrid 97th in the country in 2017 and a dreadfully abhorrent 120th in 2018. It’s difficult to simply move past a weak link of that magnitude. All of the losses filed under “explosive passing attacks” came at the hands of a good team, but none that were particularly amazing (sans Clemson) and none that you would examine from a distance and say were better than NC State (sans Clemson again). This is where most of the losses come from that leave people saying two years later “how did they not win more?” The Pack has more good players than these teams, but it couldn’t stop them unless it sacked the quarterback about every time, because the secondary was so vulnerable. State had a defined weakness and teams in a position to take advantage of that weakness were able to score enough points on a half-complete defense to win. Championship teams won’t have a hole in their roster that is that large.
The Pack has also had some extremely unfortunate timing regarding injuries over the last two years. In every single loss of 2017, State was down a starter who was a member of that high-profile draft class. NFL left tackle Will Richardson (not an injury, but point still stands) had to be replaced by a Freshman against South Carolina. NFL running back Nyheim Hines was mostly or entirely sidelined during the Notre Dame, Clemson, and Wake Forest games. Starting tackle Justin Witt was out at Syracuse in 2018.
NC State has a lot of NFL talent on its roster, but it doesn’t have the developed depth to avoid the receiving end of a gut punch when one of those guys is suddenly not available. The Wolfpack was 8-0 in 2017 when all of its draftees played. It was 1-4 when one of them was out. You have to have a pretty charmed season to avoid any injury issues, but the elite teams out there have the depth to mitigate those losses. That’s the next step State needs to take.
It’s also noteworthy that five of those eight losses came down to the final moments, which is to say that one play, or player, could change the outcome of those games and subsequently the entire discussion surrounding the program.
So ultimately, the cause of NC State Football “only going 9-4” has nothing to do with wasting talent and everything to do with it actually being a 9-4 caliber team that didn’t catch many breaks. It was never complete enough to be better than that, at least not yet.
That’s okay though. Elements like these that have held State back are addressable on the recruiting trail, and that’s good news because NC State has been very strong on the recruiting trail. Evidence suggests the smart money should be on the coaches starting to bridge the gaps between the players at high performing position groups and that of the secondary and the second unit.
It’s easy to look at the talent that NC State is pushing out and wonder how they haven’t been more successful. If you dig in though, it becomes clear in a hurry that they were pretty dang close and that the talent infusion occurring in Raleigh is very much in progress and not yet complete. Some more successful years on the recruiting trail and retention of those players, which has been a problem in the secondary, would go a long way towards developing a more rounded roster and winning whatever people consider the appropriate amount of games.