So far we’ve broken down the running game and the passing game, both of which return a lot of guys but have to replace some of the most important contributors from last year. Now we’re on the other side of the ball where the hype train really starts to kick into gear.
A lot has been made of the number of returning starters NC State will have next year, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. But there is another number here that may be more important. State returns 10 of 11 starters but it returns 8 of 11 second-stringers too, all in all bringing back 18 of 22 players who saw any amount of significant playing time last year. It’s the returning depth here that really is the headline behind the headline, and the value of having quality depth, as we learned last year, is immeasurable.
Three of the four departures, including the only starter, can be found on the defense’s front six. These include starting defensive end Daniel Joseph, backup end Ibrahim Kante, who played sparingly, mostly as a pass-rusher, and Vi Jones, who was a backup linebacker that started the back half of the season and was really good.
The d-line was pretty good last year but it feels like it’s ready to pop this year. I realize these previews have been overwhelmingly optimistic, but if you were expecting me to rein that in when we got the defense, well I’m not sure what you want from me. Five of six on the two-deep return, and a number of those guys were just starting to approach their potential. With another full offseason under the belt and (hopefully) completely healthy, this group actually has a chance to get measurably better this year.
Cory Durden was the breakout player up front last year. He slid over to nose following C.J. Clark’s injury and ended up first-team All-ACC, a pretty incredible feat given it was Durden’s first year in the program and he was effectively a backup at the position. Durden definitely did not have to come back this year, but he has an opportunity to anchor something really special now that he did.
You can expect him to start at the nose with Josh Harris likely behind him on the official two-deep. Harris has been a lighter usage guy over his career, playing about 10 snaps a game last year, but was instrumental in some season-altering plays back in 2020. Now he’s down to a much more efficient playing weight and hopefully ready to contribute as a bigger part of the rotation.
Where State has a chance to get better quickly is at both end spots. Savion Jackson is back to being healthy and is a guy a lot of people are expecting to really explode this year. Jackson really came on down the stretch last year before an injury in the FSU game ended his season early. He scored 14 of his 23 tackles in his final three games. Jackson should have a starting role locked up next to Durden and could be in for a big year, but he may not even be the highest potential guy over there.
The opposite end spot may see a bit of a position battle between C.J. Clark, who shifts out there following Durden’s emergence, and Davin Vann. Vann is a freak of an athlete. Here he is doing a backflip at 300 pounds.
Davin Vann almost 300 pounds doing backflips https://t.co/prtdnjzte8— Jonas Pope IV (@JEPopeIV) December 20, 2021
I really like Vann. He is a versatile guy with his combo of size and athleticism. He’s not a pure pass rusher, but he’s certainly a capable one, which is an asset to a defensive front needing to replace a guy with similar traits in Daniel Joseph. Vann was second on the d-line in sacks despite playing the majority of the season as a second-stringer in the rotation. Both Vann and Clark will play plenty, but don’t be surprised if it’s Vann who gets the nod opposite Jackson as a starter.
No matter what happens there though, you feel good about the talent level and experience across the board, which is a theme across most of the team. This should be State’s best defensive line since Bradley Chubb anchored the front in 2017.
Here’s a fun stat. Five of the six players on the two-deep were blue-chip recruits, and depending on what recruiting service you use, it could be all six if Travali Price cracks the depth chart. Doeren has had a pretty good run of recruiting defensive linemen, and the 2019 class that featured Savion Jackson, C.J. Clark, and Josh Harris was his best. It is decidedly these guys’ turns, and hopefully they are ready to be stars.
I’m not sure how much really needs to be written about the linebackers. Isaiah Moore, Payton Wilson, and Drake Thomas all return and could combine to be the best linebacker corps in the country. If not the best, it’s easily top five. You know this already. But I’m going to write a bunch of words anyway
It’s funny how much resiliency State played with here last year. Payton Wilson was supposed to be a frontrunner for DPOY. After he went down against Mississippi State, Isaiah Moore was making his case before the same thing happened to him. Drake Thomas then immediately slid into the middle spot and became the best player on the entire defense and a first-teamer, leading the team in tackles, TFLs, and sacks.
With all three of these guys back, any one of them could win ACC DPOY. It really is that good.
Both Moore and Wilson had a long road back from a season-ending injury though. They’ll both be ready for fall camp, but the health of the unit is maybe the one concern you could drum up here if you were looking for one. This is especially true for Wilson, who you can argue is the best of them and has an extensive injury history already. As long as they stay healthy, this is an elite unit nationally.
Vi Jones is the unit’s lone departee. Jones stepped into a starting role for the last five games following the injury to Moore, and he was really good. The USC transfer was also a very good special teams player, and he’ll be missed. State should still be comfortable with its second unit though. Jaylon Scott and Devon Betty played a lot last year with mixed results, but that experience provides some certainty about your depth. Two names that haven’t seen the field much but you should definitely know are Jayland Parker and Caden Fordham.
It’s really exciting how much you have to nitpick to find things to worry about here. This is an elite defensive front with returning first-teamers at linebacker and d-line in addition to guys who could be all-league surrounding them. And we haven’t even gotten to the secondary yet, which should easily be Dave Doeren’s best. There is a reason why this team is getting the preseason expectations that it is. It’s the sheer amount of proof of concept here. We’re not asking “can NC State stop the run?” We’re asking “Which of the guys that played 500 snaps on a great defense last year is going to be the backup linebacker?” This should be one of the best defensive fronts in America if it stays healthy, and if it doesn’t, it should still be pretty good.