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PackWrestle: Middleweight Preview 2022

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Covid senior, Hayden Hidlay, returns for one last ride
Photo by Carie Dernlan @ Dec 22 NLWC Event

The college wrestling landscape is the toughest and deepest it has ever been thanks to COVID-19’s allowance of an extra year of eligibility. We touched on it in last week’s Lightweight preview - guys all over the country are taking advantage of this “free year” to get an extra shot at their ultimate goal of becoming a National Champion or All-American. And there are few lineups more profitable in this exchange than the Pack’s middleweights. Three of the four weights will be manned by guys from the vaunted 2016 recruiting class which was ranked #1 in the country. Between them there are eight All-American honors and five individual ACC titles.

There is a wealth of experience here, but with a couple of weight changes things aren’t as predictable as they might have been. Despite some public weight shuffling announcements, there is still some uncertainty of what we’ll ultimately see as the end product. Regardless of the way it shakes out, this will be a buzzsaw for opposing teams to go through. Let’s take a look!

149 Pounds

Projected Starter: Tariq Wilson (R-Sr) | 2021 Record: 14-1 | Preseason Ranking: #2

Depth: Hunter Lewis (R-Fr), Matt Fields (R-So)

Tariq the Freak back for more? Sign me up! The sixth-year senior returns after the second 3rd-place campaign of his career. Wilson put together a 14-1 record, his only blemish a questionable pin to Jaydin Eierman of Iowa in the NCAA semifinals. Tariq finally captured the consistency we had been asking for the past couple of years. Sure, he always had the capability to make a deep run at NCAAs, but he hadn’t yet put it together from the start of a season to the end. Here, he did. And the result was sweet. An ACC Championship over bitter rival Zach Sherman, and a 3rd-place finish which included signature wins over Sebastian Rivera, Chad Red, and Real Woods.

But now a little more uncertainty creeps back into the Tariq situation, as he will move up to 149 (the second such weight change of his career) for his final season. This move has both good and bad. The bad: Tariq had carved out a nice spot for himself at 141, and was undoubtedly a title contender. We knew what we had, and that can be a hard thing to lose. On the flip side, 149 is possibly the weakest weight class in the country as it stands right now. Tariq quickly slots into #2 in the preseason rankings and projects as a title favorite, so long as Cornell’s 2-time NCAA Champ Yianni Diakomihalis stays down at 141. In addition, it creates a needed opening for some of our younger talent like Ryan Jack & Kai Orine to start making a name for themselves in the starting lineup.

In all, I like the move. Tariq has consistently gotten bigger and bigger each summer, so a less significant weight cut could result in a more explosive Tariq - as if that’s conceivable. If the adjustment to slightly bigger competition isn’t too much to handle, then Tariq is theoretically in a weight class with far less All-American competition and a much clearer path to a title. He will be a big point scorer for us in Detroit.

157 Pounds

Projected Starter: Ed Scott (Fr) | 2021 Record: 6-6 | Preseason Ranking: HM

Depth: AJ Kovacs (Fr), Derek Fields (Fr)

Ed Scott came to Raleigh as a highly-regarded recruit and was able to jump straight into the Pack’s lineup last year as a true freshman. He held his own, but unfortunately for Ed, the abbreviated schedule left him with a brutal stretch of ACC opponents. With limited outside competition to build his wins column and his confidence, the freshman put together a 6-6 record. Four of his losses came to All-Americans - Millner of App State, Andonian of Virginia Tech (twice), and eventual National Champ, Austin O’Connor of UNC. This tough schedule wasn’t excused by the Selection Committee, and Scott ended up being our only guy not to qualify for NCAAs.

While I’m sure the season was disappointing for Ed, there was still good. He did get a win over NCAA qualifier Josh Finesilver of Duke. His match with Millner was extremely competitive and could have just as easily been a signature win for the freshman. In fact, the only match he had where he didn’t look competitive was against O’Connor. And that experience he gained from all of those tough matches will absolutely bode well for him moving forward.

Now with Hayden vacating this weight and Tariq moving up to 149, I expect Ed to slide up and man the spot at 157. He wrestles with a pitbull mentality and has plenty of strength, so I don’t believe the move up in weight will be too difficult to adjust to. He will need to expand his arsenal of attacks from his feet and cut down on some of the mental mistakes that cost him last year, but I think the second-year freshman will take a step forward this season. An All-American finish will be tough as there is a pretty well-defined top 12-15 guys at this weight, but qualifying for NCAAs and getting a couple wins there would be a success in my book. That is, if we see him in action at all this season...*

165 Pounds

Projected Starter: Thomas Bullard (R-Sr) | 2021 Record: 7-7 | Preseason Ranking: #11

Depth: Donald Cates (Fr), Derek Fields (Fr), Jacob Null (Fr)

Thomas Bullard returns for his final season in a Wolfpack singlet, and his first without brother Daniel. The other Bullard finished last year with an ACC title and 7th-place finish at NCAAs, so he was able to hang it up, satisfied. Thomas was unable to produce the same, and so now he is back to try and take the ‘identical twin’ thing to a whole new level.

A 7-7 record (2-2 at NCAAs) was certainly not what we were all hoping for from Thomas, but there are still glimmers of what he can be. He is 3-0 lifetime against Jake Wentzel of Pitt, who has won this weight at ACCs the last two years, and was runner-up at NCAAs in 2021. Bullard has tools that make him a tough matchup for anyone - he is a hammer on top, has a good gas tank, and is an elite scrambler which makes him difficult to score on. The issue, which we saw Daniel improve but Thomas not as much, is with generating his own offense from his feet. What happens when you’re down one in the third period and your opponent stops shooting on your legs? It’s great to be able to score off of your opponent’s attacks, but you have to be able to score off of your own as well. The top guys are the ones who can go out and get that elusive takedown when they need it most. Thomas desperately needs to develop that this season if he wants to make that final jump to the podium.

165 is going to be a wringer this year, so Thomas has signed himself up for a challenge. There are still many of the top guys leftover from last season, and right now I see Thomas as a Blood Round type of guy. If he can find a reliable leg attack or two and get a favorable draw at NCAAs, then he could grab a podium spot, but right now I’d say he has a better shot at placing at 157*.

174 Pounds

Projected Starter: Hayden Hidlay (R-Sr) | 2021 Record: 13-2 | Preseason Ranking: #4

Depth: Nick Reenan (R-Sr), Alex Faison (R-So)

He’s back! And I couldn’t be happier! Hidlaymania returns to Raleigh for its final installment, but it won’t be the same show we’ve seen for years. Hayden has absolutely dominated the 157-pound weight class in the ACC since 2018. In that time period, he has gone 29-0 against ACC competition, is a four-time ACC Champion, four-time All-American, and 2020 ACC Wrestler of the Year. Hayden has scared guys out of this weight class. Well, 157 you are now free from the terror. Opponents, feel free to go back to your natural weight class. Because for Hayden’s final season, he will be jumping up to 174 pounds. This is the weight that Daniel Bullard vacated, and figured to be one of the bigger holes in our lineup before Hayden announced his return back in March. Now, we fill that hole (yikes) with a guy looking to be the first ever five-time All-American and five-time ACC Champion in our program’s history. What a treat.

Hayden’s decision was a thoughtful one - he wanted another year with his brother, and another year to take this program to new heights. But didn’t know if he could mentally or physically shoulder the burden of another year cutting to 157. Taking his health and sanity into account, he chose to bump up to form a dynamic back-to-back tandem with Trent, coined the Brothers of Destruction.

It will be so cool to see these two back-to-back in an electric home dual. It will also be very interesting to see how Hayden adjusts to jumping two weight classes. He moves into one of the most top-heavy weights in the country, which now features four NCAA finalists, and two NCAA Champs. Hayden certainly has his work cut out for him, but if there is anyone I would put my faith in to have success in such a unique situation, it’s HH.

*I believe that this lineup gives us the best shot at team success this season. However, rumors are swirling of Thomas Bullard dropping to 157. In fact, him and Pop have confirmed that this is a possibility on two separate occasions on the podcast. If that were the case, you have to figure Ed Scott redshirts. This is undoubtedly a better individual decision for Thomas, who I believe stands a much better chance of placing at 157 than 165, but I think it puts the team in a weaker position for a team trophy. If Bullard were to drop, we do not have an obvious immediate impact guy to replace him at 165, and suddenly we have a massive weak spot...unless Hayden were to slide down to 165 and allow Reenan to take 174. In a previous interview, Pop confirmed that Reenan would be dropping from 197 and that they had a plan for him. But with Trent at 184 and Hayden’s public announcement (and subsequent confirmations) to go 174, where does that leave the former top-10 recruit? On the bench? Maybe so. But if Thomas drops, you’d hate to see such a big hole at 165 with a guy of Reenan’s potential on the bench only a weight class above. We’ll see how it shakes out, but this is definitely something to keep an eye on. We will probably get a better idea of things at the wrestle-offs this weekend.

That concludes our Middleweight preview. This group is stacked and will be the strength of our lineup, but most importantly, they return for a proper goodbye tour. These young men have brought so much to our program and finishing out their careers in empty arenas just wouldn’t have been right. They deserve sell-out crowds as a send-off and with home duals against Virginia Tech & UNC on the docket in 2022, they should get that.

Stay tuned for the Upperweights next week!