Football is just around the corner, folks, can’t you feel it!? We figured what better way to get us all ready than counting down the top storylines heading into this season. Here’s the wrinkle: These are all things we’re either excited or worried about. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows with the team receiving their highest preseason ranking in program history. We know that dreaded SSUPO wants to rear its ugly head, so while we’re mostly gaga over this team, there will be a few areas that are still question marks. Alec and Essad will break down the top 10 topics their thinking about as kickoff fast approaches.
And with that, let’s get to counting!
#9. Replacing Ikem Ekwonu
Excited or Worried? Pretty worried but things might be okay...
Essad: Obviously, it is not easy to slot in a replacement for your multi-year starter LT who went 6th overall in the NFL Draft and is about to be a rookie starter. Ickey made the pancake mindset a national storyline the last few years.
These guys clearly don’t grow on trees, if they did Dave Doeren would have a bushel of them. We just shouldn't discount the other members of the offensive line. Those fellas more than held their own last year. Yes, NC State ran a lot of action to the left, because Ickey. But it's not like that's all they did.
While Ickey was deservedly getting all the publicity last year, guys like Chandler Zavala, Grant Gibson, Bryson Speas, etc were putting in real work. Zavala, specifically, will be an anchor at LG while Anthony Belton gets his feet set at LT. As a RS sophomore, he has his work cut out for him, with the experience around him and the expectations of the team. He openly admits that Coach Thunder has put him in better shape to best use his 6'6 frame. He cut some weight from 342 to 335, but mostly he says he's toned up. He has huge size and huge potential. I've reached a point with this coaching staff where I accept they know better than I do about how to evaluate talent. If coach Doeren says he's the best pick to replace the highest drafted O-lineman in school history, then I'm willing to believe them. I will still be cautiously nervous until Sep 3rd. If he pancakes some pirates into the dirt to open a hole for Jordan Houston than I'll know the worry was for nothing.
Alec: This is one of those things that’s hard to know for sure if you’re not a professional football evaluator with access to practice, so there is some speculation here. That said, I’m not as worried about this as maybe I should be. I try to look at these things from the perspective of “what are the coaches willing to do,” and the fact that State is comfortable putting Belton out there despite having McKay and Speas, two guys it was comfortable playing at right tackle last year, says to me that he must have come on quite a bit in the offseason. Measurables be damned, they’re not going to run a guy out there who isn’t ready, especially when they have two guys who, according to their snap count, are ready.
Belton is unbelievably huge. He has a chance to develop into an NFL Draft pick down the line, so if you can unlock enough of that to create an adequate pass protector this year, I really think State will be fine here. That’s not to say that Ekwonu’s ability is replicable. Of course it is not, but I’m not sure Ekwonu’s ability to just wipe dudes off the face of the earth impacted the game as much as it could have in 2021. Name one game last year that NC State won that it would have lost if it had been less effective running the ball.
When you factor in the return of Zavala and the year-to-year improvement of the other linemen, I think State finds gains elsewhere that limit the effect on the whole unit of replacing Ekwonu. It’s not often that people are this apprehensive about an offensive line that returns four starters and its top two reserves. This is a unit after all, and 90% of the two-deep is back. If Belton can adequately protect Leary’s blindside, I think State will be okay replacing its best lineman in a very long time.