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NC State Football Preview: The Secondary

It’s been an incredible turnaround here

NC State v Wake Forest Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It’s not exactly a hot take to say that the secondary has been the weakest link for the Wolfpack over the majority of Dave Doeren’s tenure at NC State. After a decent outing in 2015, the pass defense tumbled downhill in a hurry, bottoming out with a couple horrid efforts in 2018 and 2019.

If NC State could have put something merely serviceable on the field, it almost certainly wins 10 games and is playing in a NY6 bowl game in 2018. It probably does the same in 2017 with a better season as well. Alas, it did not do that, and State’s defense was taken apart by anybody who could throw an accurate deep ball. It continued in 2019 but you may not have noticed because everything else was also on fire.

A tremendous amount has changed since that low point in 2019 and the turnaround in the secondary has become one of the more interesting stories in the ACC. NC State took this dreadful unit, and in two years time and with no discernible change in recruiting success, turned it into possibly the best DB unit in the league.

State turned over all three position coaches, which was the biggest change. Doeren added Joe DeForest from USC to coach the safeties, Brian Mitchell from Virginia Tech to coach the cornerbacks, and brought former Pack LB Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay back to coach the nickel spot. The job these guys have done is far beyond commendable.

Here is how State stacks up nationally in YPA over the past 5 seasons.

  • 2017: 49th (7.0)
  • 2018: 79th (7.5)
  • 2019: 80th (7.7)
  • 2020: 39th (6.9)
  • 2021: 8th (6.0)

In addition to the staff remodel, State finally shed some of the attrition issues that had been crushing the defensive backfield since day one of Doeren. They finally built up some depth that allowed competition to ensue, and that’s helped a lot too. Being able to fill your two-deep with DBs that have beaten out other DBs is a nice change of pace from trying to fill the two-deep with converted wide receivers.

DBs by recruiting class that graduated/are still on the roster

  • 2014: 2 of 6
  • 2015: 2 of 2
  • 2016: 1 of 6
  • 2017: 1 of 2
  • 2018: 3 of 6
  • 2019: 3 of 4
  • 2020: 5 of 5
  • 2021: 6 of 7

I realize this isn’t a perfect metric because those later numbers are still subject to change, but it’s definitely noteworthy that, as of now, 17 of 22 players taken in the last 4 classes did not leave. Only 6 of 14 guys in the four prior classes saw their way to graduation or the NFL Draft. It’s no wonder State was hurting for useful DBs for so long.

Since the changes, State has seen an explosion of player development that has led us here. It really started in 2019 in a way, when the Pack was just throwing warm bodies at the football field in hopes of finding somebody with a set of fully functioning limbs. That experience ended up being valuable for a number of guys who have blossomed into playmakers now and, in some places, are at the top of a very deep depth chart.

So now we’re here, entering the third season since the inflection point for Dave Doeren, and nowhere have things changed more than in the secondary. In 2022, State should have the best secondary it’s had in Lord knows how long. It should easily be the best under Doeren, and that’s not even remotely debatable. There is no weak link back here anymore. With almost every piece returning, it may in fact end up being the best DB unit in the ACC.

It’s not a hot take to say that NC State could have the best defensive backfield in the ACC. Just think about 2018 for a minute and then let that simmer . . . Right? Right? That was pretty fun, like punching a personal demon right in the face.

The only player who played a non-garbage time snap last season that is not returning for NC State is backup corner Chris Ingram. State brings back its top three corners in Shyheim Battle, Derrek Pitts, and Aydan White. Battle and Pitts in particular were excellent last year and will combine to be one of the best CB duos in the league. Here is ESPN’s David Hale on Battle and Pitts.

Battle and Pitts should see as much action as they can handle this year. Pitts was third on the defense in snaps in 2021 and Battle would have been right there with him if he didn’t get booted out of the Wake Forest game for targeting. In addition to them just being really good, the second unit at CB might be the shakiest spot on the defense. It’s basically just Aydan White at this point, who had some good and bad moments in 2021.

State does bring back Teshaun Smith, who won a starting job a couple different times but has had rampant injury issues in his career. If Smith is healthy, he could get on the field and be a valuable depth piece, but State has helped itself a lot with that question mark by adding Auburn transfer Dreshun Miller. The Pack could end up being pretty deep here, but you’re not sure what you’re going to get yet from anyone after White.

Outside of maybe the second unit at cornerback, the Pack is pretty rock solid all the way through. Tyler Baker-Williams, who is an under-discussed diamond-in-the-rough success story, will lock down as many snaps as he can get as the starting nickel. TBW is backed up by Joshua Pierre-Louis, who is a budding star. Something about hyphenated last names playing nickel, I guess.

State is incredibly deep at safety. It’s probably the deepest position on the team and you’d feel pretty comfortable with any combination of the top four guys playing 70 snaps per game. Obviously though, Tanner Ingle would be your first pick. Ingle is another first-team All-ACC guy who didn’t have to come back this year but chose to. He is the best defensive back on the team and should be in for a big final season.

Across from Ingle, Devan Boykin was one of the breakout names of last year. Cyrus Fagan started the first two games before his injury sidelined him and put Jakeen Harris back into the number one role. Boykin eventually surpassed Harris and was playing the majority of the time at strong safety before he, in a mind-bending twist, also got injured. One of these guys will start at strong safety alongside Tanner Ingle. I don’t know which one, but I do know that whoever it is, they’ll have earned it, because all three of these guys are plenty capable.

It’s been so exciting to watch this group of players grow into what it is now. 6.0 YPA is the best mark for NC State since it had the number one pass defense in America in 2004, almost 20 years ago. It’s not often you can put a group like that on the field and return 99% of it the next year, which underscores two important points for the secondary and for the Pack as a whole: This is a massive opportunity for NC State and this is a rare opportunity for NC State. Come September 3, we’ll see what they do with it.