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NC State Football Top 10 Countdown! #7: Whose replacement is more important, Emeka Emezie or Ickey?

Hard to replace the top pass catcher in program history, huh?

Clemson v NC State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

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 continue counting!

#7. Replacing Emeka Emezie

Excited or Worried? Quite worried, maybe cautiously optimistic, but still legit hella worried.

Essad: I loved watching Emeka Emezie’s career. From the “Emeka was in” play at Wake his freshman year, to his heroics against unc in his final home game. Seeing his growth in a Wolfpack uniform was one of my highlights as a fan in the last half decade. After the 2020 season, he toyed with the fanbase on Twitter that he was thinking about returning for his super senior year. He later made that a reality and made the most of that time by becoming the all time receptions leader at NC State. He didn’t have the same height/sheer athleticism of guys like Kelvin Harmon or Jakobi Meyers. The thing he had in common with those guys was his ability always be in the right place when it mattered most. If it’s 3rd and long and the team absolutely needed a first down to keep the drive alive, the ball is going to Emeka... and he IS going to catch it.

Is it possible that losing Emezie is a bigger loss than losing Ikem Ekwonu, the #6 pick in the draft? Well, in way, yes. Look, there will never be another Ickey, don’t get me wrong, just like there will not be another Bradley Chubb or Nyheim Hines, JaySam, etc. But you can replace Ickey with 90% of the same production and still have a very good offensive line. The question hangs over this team right now: In critical third down situations, who’s getting the ball??

Last year NC State had two of the most sure-handed receivers its ever had with Emezie and Thayer Thomas. I don’t think I’ve had higher confidence in two other players ability to come through play after play during the Doeren era, save maybe Devin Leary. Losing one of those guys is no small gap to fill. Yes, Hines and JaySam were game changers, Harmon and Myers were electric, but I’m talking about those chopping wood type guys, the ones that make up the backbone of the team, that you know you can always count on, repeatedly.

Looking to this season, yes, lots of talent remains. But losing one of the most dependable receivers in program history is hard to replace. On every third down drop we’ll be wishing he was there. Thankfully, Thayer is still here. I think there will be times where he gets slid to the outside and Porter Rooks gets put in the slot. This could be a real good combo as Rooks has been waiting patiently for more looks per game. If you asked Leary the earlier question about who’s getting the ball, he’ll give you the standard answer, “the guy who’s open.” Okay but who’s that going to be?? The offense will still be good, and I’m confident someone will emerge, or a combo of someones. But until we see them figure that out I’m going be a bit (or more than a bit) nervous.

At the end of the day, crunch moments are inevitably going to arise. So who is going to make THIS catch?

We miss you already, EE.

Alec: They’re probably pretty close to equally important. Both were major contributors without obvious heirs apparent when spring started, and both had athletic ability and developed skillsets that you won’t be able to just duplicate this year, but I do think Emezie’s contributions may be harder to replace. I’ve thought a lot about the receivers over this seemingly unending offseason, and I keep disagreeing myself about how good they can be. I certainly don’t think Emezie’s skillset exists on this current roster. He could do things on the football field that nobody on this roster has shown they can do. That’s true for Ickey also, but I would argue that Emezie impacted the game more.

He was a cheat code half the time because he didn’t even need to be open to be open, and there is so much more to that than just being big. It’s the body control, the hand strength, and the concentration. Emezie had 14 catches against Clemson, he and Leary nearly dragged State all the way back against Wake, and of course he went full god mode in the last two minutes against UNC. I hate sports cliches, but I’m going to use one. Emezie was a big-game player and in every big game he made a touchdown catch that probably should not have been a catch.

State doesn’t have to replicate his skillset to replace his contributions of course, but I’m not sure there is a guy on this team who creates the mismatches that Emezie did. There are certainly candidates, Devin Carter for one has the size but hasn’t demonstrated that ability consistently. All this new speed on the outside should be able to separate from coverage better than Emezie and create opportunities that way, which should open things up in other parts of the offense as well, and the fact that there are so many candidates gives you some confidence that at least one will break out. I think I’m watching Julian Gray the closest here.

With Ekwonu, I keep going back to this idea that his utter dominance as a run blocker just didn’t affect that many outcomes because of how little State ran the ball successfully last year. That plus the fact that State returns everyone else is kind of the basis for my take that the loss of Ekwonu is pretty manageable, at least more manageable than Emezie assuming Belton doesn’t totally whiff.

I’m not completely sold on this idea though. I’m not like a blocking schematics super expert or anything, so definitely share your take in the comments if you disagree.