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NC State Football Preview: The Passing Game

Did you hear about Devin Leary?

NC State v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

If you missed it, we discussed NC State’s ground game, an enigma of a product last season that hopes to be more consistent in 2022. Next is the passing game, which was the lifeblood of the offense a year ago and brings back almost everyone.

As we’ll continue to discuss when we get to the receivers, State was pretty dependent on its downfield passing game to move the ball last year, and that’s just fine when you have Devin Leary. There isn’t a ton else to say about Leary that hasn’t already been said as he’s proven himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the whole country.

There was a strong case to be made that the sophomore was the second-best quarterback in the league last year behind Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett. During conference play, Leary tied Pickett for first in the league with 27 passing touchdowns. His 3 interceptions was the best mark of any ACC starter and gave him the best TD/INT ratio of any QB in the conference, and he had the second best completion percentage in the league, trailing only Jordan Travis who threw less than half as many passes as Leary.

With Pickett gone, Leary has a chance to be the best signal caller in a conference that runs incredibly deep with good quarterback play. This is, of course, not a surprise to anyone who was paying attention two years ago. It was clear when he first stepped on a campus that he had impressive arm strength and a knack for ball placement. As he developed a little more touch and the game slowed down around him, he’s grown into an elite college quarterback.

There really isn’t a throw he can’t make, he’s incredibly unflappable, etc etc you’ve heard all this before. None of this news. Leary is the offense’s rock this year as it looks to sort out its running game and replace its leading receiver. Having a polished QB of this level running the show should make all of that just a bit easier.

Speaking of receivers, NC State returns 4 of the 6 from its two-deep last year including two starters, but it must replace its leading receiver in Emeka Emezie.

The fear here is that we’re all underestimating just how much the Pack is going to miss Emezie’s skill set. State was very dependent on explosive passing plays to move the ball last year. 79% of its touchdown drives of more than 50 yards had at least one pass play of 20+ yards, and Emezie led the team with seven such receptions on said scoring drives. Beck had no problem putting a lot of weight on the shoulders of the Leary-Emezie connection, and why wouldn’t he? Emezie really was that good. He had elite body control, excellent hands, and was just so damn good at making a play on the ball. He was so difficult to cover when thrown an accurate pass.

There isn’t another receiver on the roster who has proven he can make contested catches near that level. Devin Carter has shown some flashes of it (the Clemson OT touchdown certainly comes to mind) and is at least as physically imposing as Emezie was, but it definitely hasn’t been a consistent part of his game to this point. When you’re as big as he is, that really needs to be where you excel unless you’re some sort of alien who can still run a 4.4 forty at 6’4. Carter’s a solid contributor regardless, but that’s where he can take things to the next level. He also wasn’t given too many opportunities to make these kinds of plays with Emezie on the roster, so maybe all he needs is a chance as the number one guy on the outside.

The good news is that what NC State gives up in physicality, it’s making up for in speed. This will be the fastest receiving corps Dave Doeren has had. With the addition of Maryland transfer Darryl Jones and the rise of Anthony Smith, State is going to put some burners on the field this year. Smith is a guy everyone is particularly excited about. He’s probably the fastest guy on the team and showed some sticky hands and good body control in the spring game. Word is that he’s grown into more of a complete receiver instead of just being able to run really fast. Smith has pretty legit star potential, and him breaking out this year would be huge for State and give it a very different look on the outside than it had last year with the Emezie/Carter combo.

It’s unclear what State will get from Jones, who is extremely fast in his own right and combines that with pretty good size at 6’3 200 lbs. Jones only had 49 catches in four years at Maryland, but did have a huge bowl game against Virginia Tech. Keyon Lesane is also a candidate who will get his opportunity on the outside, and sticking with the theme here, he’s a smaller but faster player than what State is used to having there. Lesane has 24 catches for 196 yards over his three year career, so he hasn’t been a big contributor to date, but he started the spring game with the 1s.

State has a problem in the slot, and that’s that it has two guys who should be starting. Thayer Thomas is back for his fifth season, and Porter Rooks is probably too good to keep off the field. Thomas, who is the best receiver on the team right now, may actually end up seeing some time on the outside this year as State works to get both of these guys on the field and let the Z receiver position sort itself out. The Pack also has Julian Gray in the slot, who the coaches love but probably has a hard time getting on the field this year with how filled up State is at his position

I think you feel pretty good about this group if you are receivers coach Joker Philips. There probably isn’t a guy here who is going to break the game for you, but there’s a lot of steady contributors with Carter, Thomas, and I think it’s fair to expect that from Rooks too. State will get something from the speed trio of Smith, Jones, and Lesane, and exactly how much will probably correlate heavily with how explosive the offense ends up being. Smith has made the most noise during spring practice and is your leading candidate for the type of breakout year that can change the offense. We’ll see.

State also brings back Christopher Toudle and Trent Pennix, two guys who broke in an h-back type position last year and could have big roles in the 2022 offense. Pennix was used modestly but was very effective when he did get opportunities, averaging 15 yards per reception and scoring three times on 16 catches. Toudle had 19 with 4 scores and was a redzone target with budding reliability.

Toudle and Pennix are the type of tweener players that give the OC some opportunities to be really creative. We saw some of this last year late in the Louisville game when Beck used Pennix in a variety of ways to spark an offense that hadn’t scored since early in the first quarter. They were also a big component of the outcome at Florida State, where Pennix and Toudle both had multiple explosive plays in a game where the offense struggled to find any consistency. They’ve already been difference makers and after a year of breaking in their new roles, round two could be pretty exciting.

Finally, we’re back to the offensive line, which we talked about a lot in the run game preview. I won’t rehash the whole personnel discussion, but suffice it to say that State was fine in pass protection last year and should be again this year. The Pack gave up a sack on 5.8% of dropbacks in 2021, which was good for 45th nationally. Not great, but more than a stone’s throw from really bad. It had a few head scratching performances, particularly UNC when it gave up six sacks and pass protection as a whole was pretty awful, but for the most part, everything was fine and Leary being really good at moving within the pocket only helped matters.

You hope to see more consistency with so many snaps returning, as State brings back four of the five players who started the last seven games and returns Tim McKay, who got substantial playing time despite officially being a part of the second unit. Ekwonu was a good pass protector obviously, but for what it’s worth, his strengths were more in the run game, so the damage might be slightly easier to mitigate here, especially if State can get Anthony Belton working. Pass protection is where Belton’s legit tackle size becomes more critical, and as discussed, this is probably the most interesting storyline on the team as the opener approaches. He is easily the most tackle-shaped human on the roster. As a side note, State also has no experience at running back outside of Houston, who is small, so a potential concern at the less-discussed aspect of pass protection.

When you put it all together, you like what you have here. The only real holes are left by Emezie and Ekwonu, neither of which can be replaced but both of which can be overcome by the continued development of the pieces that were around them. With a faster group of receivers, it might look a little different but State should be explosive again and can probably expand its screen game a bit too, which can hopefully add a little bit more offensive consistency and do some mitigation of potential run game struggles. Tie it all together with elite quarterback play and this should be the strength of NC State’s offense again.

Other previews: Running game