I have a lot of hope going forward. Here’s three reasons why:
1) The defense ain’t bad y’all.
Throw out the deer in the headlights performance against West Virginia in NC State’s first road game, and you will see that the defense is actually playing pretty well. Florida State has averaged 6.1 yards per play against every team on its schedule so far not named NC State, but it managed just 5.1 against the Pack. State is covering tighter and blitzing more, a combination that led to eight (!) sacks against the Seminoles. An egregious and inexcusable late hit extended one of FSU’s TD drives, and a diminutive, third-string corner’s refusal to line up correctly and even attempt to tackle Cam Akers led to FSU’s final TD. Akers was silenced other than that one run, but despite a gaffe and a guy forced to play due to injuries not executing, it was an impressive performance overall and just a couple plays away from being a great performance.
And consider that things should only get better from here as young guys grow up. Savion Jackson and Drake Thomas are playing as true freshmen; Joseph Boletepeli, CJ Hart, Taiyon Palmer, and Payton Wilson (what an absolute beast this guy is!) are redshirt freshmen; Tyler Baker-Williams, De’Von Graves, Tanner Ingle, Alim McNeil, and Teshaun Smith are sophomores; Ibrahim Kante, Xavier Lyas, and Isaiah Moore are redshirt sophomores.
The defense has a chance to be special, and it’s already pretty good. It’s not just FSU that was held well under its average yards per play. Ball State has averaged 6.3 YPP against not State but gained just 4.8 against the Pack. Eastern Carolina has averaged 5.8 YPP since managing just 3.6 in its opener against the Pack. For the season, State is allowing 4.63 yards per opponent snap, the 21st best mark in the country (one spot behind Alabama’s 4.58).
Good things are happening on this side of the ball!
2) We can matriculate the ball down the field on the ground pretty well actually.
State is going to have a good 1-2 punch at running back this season; it’s just not who we thought it was going to be. Jordan Houston is a weapon. He gained 61 yards on just nine carries against the Seminoles which actually brought his average per carry down a smidge to 7.1. That’s the 27th best mark in the country for a back with 30+ carries, and the third highest average among freshmen running backs with at least 30 totes. Zonovan Knight is slowed by a hamstring strain but is still putting up impressive numbers as a true freshman, leading State’s running backs with 293 yards (5.4 per carry) and three rushing scores. Of State’s last three 1,000-yard rushers, only Nyheim Hines averaged better than five yards a carry (5.6). Sure, there have been some glaring issues on short yardage that likely need to be addressed with more creative play calling, but on a per down basis, State’s running game is in the best shape its been in since Matt Canada patrolled the sidelines. And, like the defense, there is reason to believe that there is room for improvement with experience as guys like Iken Ekwonu (true freshman), Grant Gibson (redshirt sophomore converted from defensive tackle), Emanuel McGirt (senior getting his first playing time), and Bryson Speas (redshirt sophomore) mature. And the running game has been solid despite defenses stacking the box due to inept quarterback play, which leads me to the third thing I feel good about this morning.
3) The QB situation is going to get fixed.
You’re going to argue that it was too long in coming, but Dave Doeren and staff realized that it was time for a change at the quarterback position. Bailey Hockman was an absolute warrior against his fromer team. There should be no question about his heart after all the hits he took Saturday night. Sure, he should’ve been picked probably three times and will need to improve his decision making, but he has the competitive fire the team needs at such an important leadership position, and he has the tools to get the job done. I was particularly impressed with his pocket awareness and how he kept plays alive with his feet. His stats weren’t great (21/40 for 208 yards and a TD), but he was victimized by at least three drops, one of which likely would’ve resulted in a score. Hopefully the guys who have continually been on the other end of those drops—and I’m trying to stay positive and not attack kids in this space—will get accustomed to his lefty spin and make plays for their QB.
Of course, Hockman may not even be the QB. I’m not going to put too much stock into Devin Leary’s garbage time performance, but whoa boy can he ever sling it. He should have to have a license to carry that right arm around. Hockman and Leary are going to battle to be the guy for this team going forward, and whoever emerges has a chance to make the offense much more explosive. State has just five scrimmage plays of over 30 yards this year (115th in the country) and only two that covered 40+ (112th). That’s going to change. And with a vertical passing game, the running game will just improve (and jet sweeps can become a thing again too).
Hockman (redshirt sophomore) and Leary (redshirt freshman) are also underclassmen. See a theme developing here? We’re going to get to see all these guys grow up over the final seven (hopefully eight) games of this season, and when they put it all together—look out. With a bye week to get healthy and get to work, followed by a nationally televised Thursday night game at home, I wouldn’t bet against seeing a team-wide breakout performance against Syracuse on October 10th. But, even if the entire season amounts to nothing more than building for the future, I like where the program is going.
We have the talent. Give it some time.