For mid-tier college football programs, making a run at a title usually requires all the pieces to come together at the right time. Unfortunately, the chances of that happening are just as likely as all the pieces falling apart at the same time. The latter is where NC State found itself in 2019.
State was dealt the absolute worst-case scenario in its attempt to replace Ryan Finley, the entire roster was ravaged by injuries, the Pack faced the consequences of the worst staff management decision of the Doeren era, and the team eventually got into its own head. Some really good football players had dreadful seasons. The result was, well, it was pretty gross. Despite that, State’s prospects for the upcoming season do not necessarily have to align with the trajectory the program has taken over the last 12 months.
The core of this team is made up of the products of Doeren’s best recruiting classes. Despite the more recent dip in recruiting success, this team still figures to have plenty of talent, although some of it is still youthful. But this, coupled with the context of the injury issues that leveled last year’s team, sets the ceiling for this team notches higher than one might expect coming off a 4-8 season where State was basically blown out in every game.
The Pack is actually in a pretty good spot with the skill positions. In addition to returning two veteran players at tight end, its crop of running backs may be the most intriguing group on the field. Like every other position, it was plagued by injuries, but back healthy with another year of experience, the trio of backs is underrated.
State also returns a solid group of wide receivers that have proven to be capable of high-level play within the ACC, even if they rarely approached that level last season. A bad case of the dropsies made its way through the entire receiver room last year, which was certainly out of character for guys like Emeka Emezie. A return to form should be expected. That, combined with C.J. Riley being healthy, and there’s more here than last year would lead you to believe.
State is even in a decent spot at offensive line, where it brings back a strong tackle combo of Ikem Ekwonu and senior Justin Witt. Tyrone Riley is back for a sixth year, which will give the Pack some actual depth at tackle for once. Unexpectedly losing Joshua Fedd-Jackson was tough, but across the board, the Pack looks better here than it did coming into last season, even before the injuries started.
The big problem though is still the quarterback position, which was an unmitigated disaster last season, far worse than anyone could have anticipated. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s a pretty important part of the team. This year at least appears to be passing up the quarterback competition that nobody could manage to win last season. The arm talent with likely starter Devin Leary is obvious, but there was no question he was not ready for the role he was thrust into last season. Whether or not Leary can bring competent quarterback play this year is a fair question. If you choose to be an optimist about it, the flashes and potential are there. If you choose to be a pessimist about it, well, the stats are there. But the pieces around him figure to be more helpful than they were last year. He’ll have a year of experience under his belt and be in a better position to succeed in 2020. That’s the first step.
All this, combined with a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, makes State’s offense something of a wild card this year, but there’s no debate about how its prospects compare to last year’s final product. A function of injuries, mistake-filled play, and poor management made it painful to watch last year. The effects of this year’s coaching changes will be hard to predict, but State is certainly not lacking good players across the board. If things come together, a significant turnaround could be possible.