Since every preseason article that typically exists has already been written, I asked Twitter what preseason football content they might like to see. This was the winning suggestion: to rank all the position groups. So that’s what I did.
This ended up being extremely hard. There is so much experience all across the team that a lot of hairs had to be split to do this and some really exciting positions ended up at the bottom just out of pure necessity. I did my best though and here’s what I came up with.
The ACC Network’s Eric Mac Lain listed Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore among his top five linebackers in the conference, and that was far from a unique sentiment. NC State’s linebacker corps appears to check all the boxes heading into the season, and it should easily be the best group Doeren has had.
Wilson is just a different breed, posting 108 solo tackles last season, good enough for third nationally, despite missing an entire game and playing injured for at least one more. He could be an All-American. Isaiah Moore is back for an unprecedented fifth year as a full-time starter, Drake Thomas is a dang good player in his own right, and the Pack brings back a pretty solid second unit too. State has one of the best players in the country here, a starting lineup with three really good players, and depth to back it up, so it gets the number one spot.
2. Running back
Zonovan Knight headlines a deep running back room whose primary concern might be how to get all these guys on the field. Knight could be the best back in the ACC and is simply too good to not maximize his carries. Person’s size makes him a nice change-of-pace back who should get his share as well, and Jordan Houston remains as one of the most underused players on the team, simply because he’s part of a group this good. You’d like to see State get creative with a shifty back like Houston who deserves to be on the field, but you can’t be taking carries away from Knight. It’s a good problem to have. Running back and Linebacker are the top two position groups heading into the season any way you slice it. You could make an argument for either one to be the best, but the potential at linebacker feels slightly more realized at this point.
Surprised to see quarterback this high on the list? You shouldn’t be. The returning experience here is limited compared to pretty much every other position on the team, but the talent sure is not. I won’t try and rewrite this article, but the summation is that 2 minutes of watching Leary spin the ball should leave no doubt about his ability, and a full preseason and season with a good coordinator should break the door wide open. Leary is going to be fire this year, and you can write that down.
4. Wide Receiver
State finds itself in a similar situation to last year at receiver, but with another year under the belt of the young guys, which is only a good thing for a group that was solid but top-heavy last year. The Pack should be able to count on the contributions of Emeka Emezie and Thayer Thomas, who were easily the two best receivers on the team last year and could both have outside shots at being all-conference. It’s been kind of a weird run for both those guys over the last two years but a full year of good quarterback play could set them both up for career seasons. State also brings back Devin Carter, who was a solid second option opposite Emezie on the outside.
Where State is lacking here is a player who is really good in space, and it hopes to find that with some of the younger, faster guys like Porter Rooks and Anthony Smith. Rooks is a popular breakout candidate and how good this group can be as a whole will probably be closely tied to how good he can be, but the floor is high with Emezie and Thomas and that’s why it gets the nod over the defensive line and the secondary.
NC State’s secondary last year was nothing exceptional, but it was improved from years prior despite injuries that should have been debilitating. State was 6th in the league in passing yards per game in 2020 after being 11th the year prior. That’s noteworthy because almost every one of the young guys who stepped up and held their own is back, and State also returns the guys who would’ve started and adds a number of quality transfers. Overall, only 6 starts out of the 60 from last year don’t return.
There are so many players here that I’ve lost count of all the guys who could get snaps, and that’s new for a position group that has had way too many instances of trying to fill spots with wide receiver converts. This is not likely to be one of the best secondaries in the league this year (although it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility), but it does have a good chance to be the best group Doeren has had.
For now, there is a wide array of possible outcomes for a group that was on the right track last year and gets a huge transfer/returnee boost this year. The cream will have the opportunity to rise to the top, though, and it’s hard to imagine a group that was at least able to hold serve last year despite the onslaught of injuries could turn out worse.
6. Defensive line
The defensive line is one of the most interesting groups on the team. It’s tasked with replacing nose tackle Alim McNeil, who may have been the best player on the whole team and was the lynchpin in the defensive front. That’s bad. What’s good, though, is that everybody else is back. Daniel Joseph and Terrell Dawkins combined for 11 sacks last season, and both are back along with ends Ibrahim Kante and Savion Jackson as members of the rotation.
The task of actually replacing Alim McNeil is never going to be possible with one guy, but C.J. Clark and Joshua Harris are both former blue-chip recruits who made some big plays last year and give State two good options at nose tackle. The Pack also adds Florida State transfer Cory Durden. This group didn’t light the world on fire last year but it was solid. Now it returns everybody who started a game not named McNeil, making it a pretty high potential group. How much of that can they realize?
Side note: It’s pretty cool that we’re basically at the end here and still talking about groups that we expect to be pretty good.
7. Offensive line
The offensive line is kind of a puzzling deal this year. Ikem Ekwonu and Grant Gibson are two of the best at their respective positions in the league and should be in the middle of the all-conference race by season’s end. The line returns five guys with starting experience as well, which would seem to indicate a great situation, and it’s certainly closer to that than a terrible one. State has some things to sort out, though, mainly who will play the tackle spot opposite Ekwonu. This was a group that was inconsistent pretty much across the board last year and statistically poor at blocking for the run.
It dealt with a lot of shuffling, and consistency in production should see a boost if State can find consistency in the lineup. It hasn’t been a particularly good run-blocking team for a few years though, and this is the kind of thing that can really open the door for something bigger if they can figure that out, given that State has maybe the best running back group in the conference.
Dylan McMahon is a freak of an athlete who is getting starter reps for the third straight year, Bryson Speas has been around the block a few times, and Tyrone Riley is on his seventh year in the program, so it’s not as if State is searching for new pieces to the puzzle here. It just has to make the ones it has fit and keep them healthy. This is an extremely well-rounded team with experience returning everywhere, making even the least exciting position groups still pretty exciting. But if there is going to be something that breaks, the offensive line might be the best candidate. It also could come together perfectly and be one of the best groups on the team. We’ll find out soon enough.
8. Tight end
Tight end is the only position on the team that sparks little to no excitement. State lost an excellent run-blocker in Dylan Autenrieth and a critical player in the passing game in Cary Angeline. The majority of snaps at tight end over the last few years have come from these two guys. Dylan Parham, who has been used sparingly and almost exclusively in a run-blocking role, is really the only player back. Parham is an easy guy to root for, having started as a quarterback and stuck around after some early struggles switching to a much less visible role. He played in 11 games last year but with mostly limited snaps, so we’ll see what he has to offer with more field time. The Pack is also hoping to get Trent Pennix on the field in a role similar to what Jaylen Samuels did. A lot of question marks here.
Running back and linebacker are the best positions on the team. I think that’s pretty universally agreed upon. I may get some pushback on quarterback, but I’m just that high on Devin Leary. If I’m wrong about that, you can send me a link to this article in my email with the subject line “you’re a stupid idiot” if you want to. After that, there was some hair-splitting necessary.
I went with receiver next because I felt it had the highest floor of any remaining group. It returns everyone from a group that was already good last year, and I’m very convinced this is the year Emezie’s stats finally match his ability. I flip-flopped a lot deciding between the defensive line and the secondary, ultimately ranking the secondary a tick higher because it isn’t replacing its best and most important player. The pass rushers on the edge are exciting, but the depth of the secondary was enough to give it an edge as well. It’s in a better place to take a major step forward than the line will be while it tries to tread water at nose tackle.
The offensive line is first to last because somebody had to be and that other tackle position scares the crap out of me. Riley figures to be the guy but he’s very injury-prone and there’s a significant lack of experience on the second unit. The line had some shining moments last year, particularly from Ekwonu, but as a whole it was only alright. I expect it will improve this year with a full offseason and a consistent lineup, but its need to do so while still replacing two multi-year starters makes it the most concerning of non-tight end positions. Tight end is last for obvious reasons. Elected not to include special teams but Trenton Gill and Chris Dunn would have been right there at the top if I had. Where do you disagree? How would you have ranked them? Let me know in the comments.