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NC State Football preview: the running game

“Houston, we have a running back. Actually five of them. There are five.” - Tom Hanks in Apollo 13

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 USF at NC State Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NC State’s ground attack was the subject of a lot of scrutiny last year as the Wolfpack seemed to abandon it entirely, for better or worse, quite often. Compensated for by a great defense, elite quarterback play, and Emeka Emezie’s magic hands, its absence wasn’t frequently critical, but it was noticeable on a unit that itself was inconsistent and heavily dependent on the explosive pass play to move the ball.

A dependable running game breeds offensive consistency, and if NC State can pair that with what it should have through the air, there really is no limit to what this team can do. That’s a big ask though for a team that wasn’t particularly compelling on the ground last season and has to replace its three most important pieces, which include its top two backs. Let’s start there.

Bam Knight and Ricky Person both had eligibility remaining but opted for the NFL, the correct decision for physical running backs that traditionally have an early expiration date in the pros. Knight and Person accounted for 92% of NC State’s rushing yards last season. The Pack didn’t utilize much beyond the fundamentals of its zone run scheme to move the ball on the ground, and the load was carried by these two who accounted for 80% of the carries on the season.

That’s a fair amount of production to replace, maybe the one place on the team where you can say that, but NC State is not at a loss for options here. Jordan Houston is a good running back, and his willingness to stick around despite near-zero usage has the chance to be immeasurably important to NC State this year.

Houston’s entering his fourth year in the program. Despite getting slotted behind Knight and Person the last three years, he’s been around the block and is basically a veteran, so this should be pretty close to plug-and-play. Houston also accounts for 96% of returning carries. There is basically zero experience behind him with three guys who have never recorded a carry and Delbert Mimms making up the roster’s top five backs. Mimms has six career touches. While Houston is not an every-down back, having him allows State to work its young players into the game and establish a rotation without the need for any training by fire.

Houston gives a little bit of a different look too as a smaller but more explosive player. He’s 20 pounds lighter than Knight and 30 pounds lighter than Person, but he brings a little more zip than both of them did, which I think might actually be an easier skillset to block for. That could prove a benefit if you’re scared to buy stock in the offensive line.

Behind Houston, the name drawing the most excitement is Demie Sumo-Karngbaye, a sophomore that the staff made clear could be a gem when they pulled him out of Willingboro High School in New Jersey. State’s done pretty well with players from New Jersey lately. Sumo-Karngbaye could be the next in line.

While Houston should be a lock to start, Sumo-Karngbaye is probably your best bet to grab the number two spot in the rotation, and his size at 6’1 210 should complement Houston well. State also returns redshirt sophomore Delbert Mimms while adding touted recruit Michael Allen and hoping to activate receiver-convert Micah Crowell.

There are a lot of names here, four of which carry pretty big question marks having basically never played. I think it’s fair to expect a lot out of Jordan Houston though, and if State can find some compliments for him from the rest of the depth chart, I don’t think it sees a huge dropoff at running back.

Effective ground games really have more to do with the offensive line than the ball-carrier anyway. State’s options in the backfield are plenty good enough to make things happen with good blocking. So let’s talk about that.

The offensive line has an enormous lead on every other position group on the team when it comes to preseason apprehension. It really feels like this is the hinge State’s season swings on, and you’d probably feel good about that when you hear about four returning starters, but there is of course the massive, enormously giant caveat to that. State loses All-American tackle Ikem Ekwonu, who was the best run blocker in program history. The Pack must now make a futile attempt to replace him.

State really has four options to fill two tackle spots, one of which was vacated by the aforementioned Ekwonu. These include veteran Bryson Speas, who can play guard or tackle, Tim McKay, who didn’t start last year but played about 25 snaps per game, Anthony Belton, who ran with the ones in the spring, or a transfer portal acquisition. Given State’s activity in the portal, that seems to be the preferred route. State’s top three targets have all committed elsewhere though (Miles Frazier of FIU, Tyler Steen of Vanderbilt, and Raiqwon O’Neal of Rutgers). This is definitely one area of the team where the roster is not set in stone, as State would still take a portal tackle and is still fighting the NCAA for Chandler Zavala’s eligibility at guard. But for now, this is the group they ride with.

The final starting five last season was Ekwonu, McMahon, Gibson, Eason, Speas. Despite a lot of angst about the o-line, State actually ran the ball pretty well behind this group. In fact, Knight and Person combined to run for 5.5 yards per carry over the final three games. It seemed like things started to come together later in the year after getting past Zavala’s injury, and that should be a nice boost of optimism for you. Now it’s not as if Wake Forest, UNC, and Syracuse were world-beaters on defense. They beat themselves more often than anyone else, but it’s not as if the ACC is bursting at the seams with elite rushing defenses this year either.

The point is that, while Ekwonu is impossible to replace, totally crapping your pants over the offensive line is probably an overreaction, likely fueled by how high the expectations are for literally everywhere else. State returns a lot of production here from a group that blocked pretty well down the stretch. If it can sort out the tackle situation and minimize what will definitely be a sizable dropoff at left tackle, State’s zone blocking scheme could be plenty effective enough to tilt the offense back towards a more balanced approach.

The Pack would really like that left tackle to be Anthony Belton, as he has much more prototypical tackle size at 6’6. Belton’s development and Zavala’s NCAA case will be big storylines leading up to the opener, and if both of these things break State’s way, you’d have to feel pretty good about your rotation. McKay is probably set at right tackle, so Belton at left tackle could allow State to shore up the interior a bit with a veteran like Speas sliding over. If you end up with some combination of McKay, Speas, Gibson, Zavala, Belton, you’d have to feel pretty good knowing you also have some experienced depth there with McMahon and Eason. We’ll see how those two situations develop. Belton did start the spring game at left tackle, which is a good sign, but that probably had more to do with Gibson being out.

State is also looking to replace Dylan Parham, who officially occupied the TE-Y spot on the roster. Parham played about 30 snaps a game last year in what was primarily a run blocking role (he had five receptions in 2021.) State has several tight ends on the roster, but Chris Toudle and Trent Pennix are listed at TE-X and play much more of a swiss army knife type receiver role. We’ll discuss these two more in the passing game preview.

The Pack likely addresses this position with a dramatic surge in playing time for Kam Walker and/or Ezemdi Udoh, who combined for three offensive snaps last year. It also has the Seabrough twins, of which the Frederick variety made some waves in the spring game as a receiver. It’s far from the sexiest position on the field but how State approaches this might be a bit of an underrated storyline in the running game.

As a whole, State is probably not going to blow the gates off the stadium running the ball this year, but it probably doesn’t have to. With its golden arm QB and an elite defense, a strong year from Jordan Houston and continued growth from its returning offensive line pieces should be plenty to elevate the ceiling to where we think it can be. I don’t see how that’s anything less than a distinct possibility. NC State becomes the very serious player for the ACC Title we want it to be if it can hold its own up front and on the ground. Anything beyond that and, well, take me away to the land of sunshine and rainbows.