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Replacing Ryan Finley: A Possible Blueprint

There’s gonna be a new quarterback, did you hear?

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Gator Bowl-Texas A&M vs North Carolina State Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

College football season is finally upon us, and for the first time since before 2016 Ryan Finley will not be the starting quarterback. Going back even further, NC State has been blessed with stability at the position for the last 5 seasons now thanks to two years of Jacoby Brissett. Good quarterback play is almost a must to be successful, and I say almost because somehow LSU has managed to win at least 8 games every year since 1999 even with suspect quarterback play. Luckily, they have the best athletes at basically every other position. Don’t believe me? Seriously, from 2008-2011 they went back and forth between Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson and still won 41 games while also appearing in a BCS Title game. But most programs can’t fill out the rest of their roster with blue chip athletes. NC State falls into that very large pool of programs, which is why there is rightfully a cloud of uncertainty heading in to the 2019 campaign. How do you replace a 3-year starter, who before becoming a 3rd round draft pick, was a two-time All-ACC selection and threw for the second most yards in school history?

Adding to the uncertainty and skepticism is the fact that out of the three guys battling for the position, only Matt McKay has taken a college snap and even he only has 8 pass attempts to his name. Now that’s not to say there isn’t talent on campus. This is probably the deepest quarterback room from a pure talent/potential standpoint in the Doeren era. All indications at the moment are that it is McKay’s job to lose early on in fall camp. He had a solid spring and looked the best in the spring game, going 14-24 with 182 yds and a TD, as well as 28 yds and another score on the ground. But this competition is far from over and will likely continue up until the week of the ECU game. Devin Leary and Bailey Hockman were both 4-star ESPN300 recruits out of high school and are very talented in their own right. A lot of who wins the job will likely come down to who shows the best command of the playbook and leadership of the offense, which is where McKay understandably seems to have the edge currently. Whoever does win the job won’t be out there on an island. Although there was a ton of offensive talent lost to the NFL, State still has plenty of intriguing pieces. *More on that later*

Replacing a successful QB mainstay in college football can be tough, and not all that common (thanks transfer portal!!). So I chose three programs who have recently had to replace a three-year starter with roughly similar statistics and success to Finley, relative to program history. I looked at how they ended up the following season, and some factors that could be applied to how this year’s Wolfpack team can continue the program’s success. This comparison excludes the Alabama’s and Clemson’s of the world because they are currently a cheat code.

Bo Wallace (2012-2014), Ole Miss

2012: 7-6 2015: 10-3

2013: 8-5

2014: 9-4

Bo Wallace came to Ole Miss with first year head coach Hugh Freeze, joining a program that had only 2 winning records in their previous 8 seasons. Wallace proved to be more than capable in year one and ended up improving on their win total each year. Out of these three programs, the Rebels are the only one that took the next step upon replacing their three-year starter. Wallace was great for the program, but his replacement was a guy named Swag Kelly; also known as Chad. It was sort of a perfect storm for Ole Miss. The schedule softened up a little bit, at least as much as an SEC schedule can, from 3rd SOS in Wallace’s senior season to 23rd. Kelly put up huge numbers throwing for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns, both of which led the SEC and were top 10 in the nation. The running game was more productive and Laquon Treadwell turned in to a star at wide receiver. The defense actually fell off a little after finishing 1st in the nation in scoring defense the prior year, but the offense picked them up.

Mason Rudolph (2015-2017), Oklahoma State

2015: 10-3 2018: 7-6

2016: 10-3

2017: 10-3

Mason Rudolph is the winningest quarterback in Oklahoma State history and led them to one of their most successful three year runs ever. Rudolph put up back to back 4,000-yard seasons and a combined 65 TDs and 13 INTs in his final two seasons. So it was realistic that they might take a step back. In his first and only year as the starter, Taylor Cornelius was actually pretty good. Even though he threw for 1,000 yards and 5 TDs less than Rudolph, he STILL ranked in the top 10 in both categories (which just shows how ridiculous Rudolph was). But Cornelius was much less efficient as he did that with the same amount of pass attempts, only completing 59.4% of those passes, throwing more picks and taking 32 sacks. The Cowboys also played a tougher schedule than any of the previous three years and went 1-5 away from home. But the biggest cause for the drop was that the defense just straight up didn’t want to stop anybody. They were abysmal across the board: 97th in scoring defense, 118th in pass, 86th in rush, and 112th in total. After the first three games, the only time they let up less than 30 points was when mighty Kansas scored 28.

Connor Cook (2013-2015), Michigan State

2013: 13-1 2016: 3-9

2014: 11-2

2015: 12-2

Now here is an example of where things fell off a cliff. Much like Rudolph, Connor Cook led his team to one it’s most successful three year runs in school history. While Cook wasn’t always putting up the same gaudy numbers as some other QBs mentioned already, he was a proven winner. But no one was able to fill those big shoes. Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Conner was tabbed the starter at the beginning of the year but was pulled in week 5 on their way to a third straight loss. Brian Lewerke started the next three games (all losses) before O’Conner finished out the season as the starter. It didn’t matter who was calling the shots though as a Spartan QB threw for less than 156 yards in half of their games. There really wasn’t much firepower at the skill positions either as they had difficulty replacing their top 2 pass catchers. The only bright spot on offense was RB L.J. Scott, but when he didn’t rush for at least 90 yards they were 0-6 with a 15.8 avg margin of defeat. This season also saw a Mark Dantonio defense, which has been in the top 25 in scoring defense every year since 2010, uncharacteristically drop to 61st. A lot of factors were in play for the decline, but subpar QB performance certainly played a big role.

So About NC State…

At this point you might be asking yourself, “When is this guy going to talk about NC State?” Well, thank you for your patience. The point of this exercise has been to create a blueprint, based on past instances, for how this year’s squad can be still be successful even after graduating one of the better signal callers in school history. A recurring theme that you saw from those three programs in their transition year was defense, or lack thereof. Most new quarterbacks are not usually expected to light the world on fire from day one, so it is essential that they get help early on from the defensive side of the ball. It’s key for the defense to keep the game close and help to create some offense by forcing turnovers and/or repeatedly giving the QB good starting field position.

Last year’s defense really didn’t see any statistical drop off after losing all that NFL talent. That makes this year’s replacements, which are much fewer, seem doable. There’s a lot to like about this defense going in to 2019, with solid depth at all three levels. A senior safety who has appeared in 33 games just transferred on the third day of fall camp and no one really bat an eye, which goes to show the depth that this staff has been able to build over the years. Doeren prides himself on stopping the run, and with guys up front in JSW, Murchison and McNeill along with a deep linebacking group led by Isaiah Moore there’s no reason why they shouldn’t post a top-30 run defense for the fourth straight year. If the secondary, which has ranked outside the top 100 the past two years, can make some strides then the defense could be a strength and hold down the fort while a new QB gets comfortable.

The defense can only help out the quarterback so much. Because, you know, they’re not the ones blocking for him or catching passes. Much like last year’s defense, the offensive side of the ball is tasked with replacing the majority of their production thanks to a flurry of graduations and NFL draft picks. Those Ole Miss and Oklahoma State teams both had big time playmakers at the skill positions to make the new quarterback’s job easier, while Michigan State had next to nothing. I don’t think anyone is expecting another Kelvin Harmon because that dude was ridiculous. But can Emeka Emezie step up as the next star wide receiver in Raleigh? He did switch to #3 for this season after all. Can the combo of Thayer Thomas and grad transfer Tabari Hines replace Jakobi Meyers in the slot, especially on third downs? CJ Riley could be a breakout candidate if he can become more consistent and cut out those dumb drops. At the running back position, you obviously lose a 1,000-yard rusher for the third straight year in Reggie Gallaspy. While that group is scary young, they very well could see an upgrade with a healthy Ricky Person and true freshman stud Zonovan “Bam” Knight. Time will tell, but whoever the quarterback is will need some of these new starters to establish themselves as playmakers.

The last major key is how you’re able to manage the schedule. I look at this year’s schedule and see one guaranteed loss (Clemson), two guaranteed wins (WCU, Ball St) and two most likely wins (ECU and Louisville) … I should probably include @ Wake as a loss, shouldn’t I? Anyways, other than that you’re looking at six games that could realistically go either way. It’s not the toughest schedule out there, but there’s definitely more tricky games to maneuver than last year. If you remember from the Oklahoma State section how they went 1-5 away from home, State’s overall record could be heavily influenced by how they perform away from Raleigh. Ryan Finley had a winning record on the road, so it can be done. West Virginia and Georgia Tech both have first year head coaches. The Mountaineers are replacing a ton including Will Grier, while Georgia Tech is a complete wild card as they move away from the triple option. The other three road games (FSU, BC, Wake) are bunched together in the middle of the schedule and each one of those feels like a true toss-up. No one knows what to expect from Willie Taggart in year 2 while Wake and BC should both have good but not great teams this year. I can assure you State won’t go unscathed on the road, but if they can somehow squeak out 3-2 then they put themselves in great position. Even 2-3 would put eight wins very much in play.

So no, Matt McKay, Devin Leary or Bailey Hockman do not need to come in and be superman. They also can not flat out stink. But there is enough talent in that room to where someone is going to step up and be competent running the offense. Will some of the new starters at the skill positions take that next step and become All-Conference caliber players? Can the defense turn depth and potential in to results, in order to give the new QB some cushion? And can State take care of the games it should at home as well as steal some on the road? No one should be expecting an upgrade like what was seen at Ole Miss, but there shouldn’t be a colossal drop off either. If the new guy can be steady and some of those other questions get positive answers, then you’re potentially looking at another solid season in Raleigh. Otherwise? Sheesh.