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!
#5. Waves vaguely at the running backs
Excited or Worried? Worried, with reasons for optimism.
Essad: Bam Knight and Ricky Person leave big shoes to fill, there’s no mistaking it. Both really came into their own last season. Ricky, specifically. After battling injuries, he had a career year. I mean, who can forget:
Followed immediately by (I will use literally any excuse to show this gif):
Meanwhile, Bam was not shy about filling up the highlight reel:
Also his kickoff return but I can’t find the gif for that.
The point is, losing these guys adds to the list of players who left on offense after last season and now need to be backfilled. But similar to losing Ikem Ekwonu, the guys filling in need to be able to add up as a whole to Knight and Person. In the last episode, we talked about the culture Dave Doeren has established at NC State. A guy like Jordan Houston has fully bought in to this system. I bet it’s been frustrating to get so few reps the last two years. He could have jumped into the transfer portal, but he stayed the course, put in the time, and has fully earned the starting spot.
That being said, I think Houston will be the headliner of a platoon at the position. The other names bandied about recently have been Delbert Mimms and Demie Sumo, the latter of which was really turning heads in the spring. There are others on the roster as well that may see action, like Micah Crowell, but the rotation is likely to be with those three guys.
What is likely is a shift in the focus of pounding the ball, and using these backs in the passing game more than has been done in the past. If the offense goes more to 60%+ passing, then being able to use the backs as passing targets will be key. Houston fits this bill with his pass catching ability, and he has the ability to make guys miss in space. This would put him in the best position to succeed, as he isn’t going to bowl anyone over.
Meanwhile, this leaves out highly touted recruit Michael Allen. The hope is that we can see him in a couple games early in the season just so he can get a taste, even if this generally has not been Dave Doeren’s process. The goal for him is redshirting unless some other major catastrophe befalls the guys ahead of him.
Ultimately, the position is in good hands, there is enough skill in that group to have success there on the average. They likely won’t be lighting it up on the ground week after week, but doing enough to keep the defenses just honest enough to not drop eight guys in coverage to stop Leary. The bigger question isn’t on those running backs themselves, but on the offensive line making the holes for the backs. The line was stellar last year in protecting the pocket and avoiding sacks, but not as much with parting the seas to help Bam and Ricky consistently get breakaways. Without the crutch of being able to run left behind Ickey, this area remains to be seen. Obviously, if I had to pick I’d prefer them to be able to again hold in pass protection over run blocking, but can we have both?
Alec: I’m not sure how to feel about State’s running game this year, so instead, I’m going to offer two different perspectives and you can pick the one you like more.
Pessimistic: It’s hard to lose your top two backs and your best run blocker in program history and get better. I like Houston and think he’s a solid back, but he wasn’t third on the depth chart just for fun. Getting Zavala back helps but it’s not like State was particularly effective against Clemson and Mississippi State, the only power five teams he played against. I think people may be overselling themselves on that a little bit. State also loses Dylan Parham, an underrated discussion point as he was the team’s best blocking tight end.
Losing that many consequential players from an attack that was at best inconsistent last year doesn’t bode well. The math just doesn’t check out for how that is supposed to be an improvement. I think Houston will bust a few big gainers, but from a down-by-down production standpoint, I’m not sure State commands respect here.
Optimistic: You have to go back to Nyheim Hines to find a State running back whose primary attribute was his speed and explosiveness. Jordan Houston is not Nyheim Hines (cleary, because if he was, he would be older and be named Nyheim Hines), but he has that trait. This is a football team that has put a premium on physicality for a long time, and I think it shows in the running back room with the bigger more physical backs getting most of the reps. People forget that Houston averaged 5.2 YPC in 2019, and that wasn’t just in mop-up duty. He had over 100 carries on the season. He’s a good back, and his speedy, slippery nature probably makes the o-line’s job easier. I’m excited to see his burst lead to more chunk plays on the ground.
Speaking of that o-line, four starters and two guys with significant experience return. Grant Gibson is better than he played last year, and Zavala was the second best run blocker on the team. There may not be a superstar here, but all those guys back plus Belton having been in the program for a while gives you a pretty good shot at a cohesive unit. Also worth remembering State’s backs averaged 5.3 YPC over the last three games last year. If you think that’s just because teams were selling out to stop Leary and daring State to beat them on the ground, well that’s fine. If you can average 5+ in that situation, that’s more than enough to keep a defense honest, and that’s probably all State needs.