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NC State’s defensive front ranked No. 5 nationally by ESPN analyst Cole Cubelic

Justifiable optimism begins up front.

Clemson v North Carolina State Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

NC State had one of the most productive defensive lines in the country last season, whether the bench mark is statistics or the good ol’ eye test. That position group, and the front seven in general, is easily the biggest reason why the Wolfpack will have to be taken seriously heading into 2017, regardless of doubts elsewhere on that side of the ball.

ESPN analyst Cole Cubelic thinks this is a top-five front seven, and he’s not just pulling his opinion from thin air, since he actually watches quite a bit of film.

State’s front seven is littered with multi-year starters and/or major contributors, and this also happens to be the area where Dave Doeren’s staff has done probably its best recruiting. That’s not a coincidence.

The Pack’s defense was above average in a number of categories associated with strong play up front in 2016: 12 in DL havoc rate, 13th in sack rate on standard downs, sixth in line yards per carry on standard downs. Opponents ran the ball only 47.4% of the time on standard downs, way way below the national average of 60.2%.

If you ignore everything else, note that: opposing coaches know the deal, and they were trying to avoid running the ball against State’s front even in theoretically run/pass-neutral situations. They preferred throwing it rather than challenging NC State’s front seven. That says plenty.

NC State returns its front seven almost completely intact, and it has a potential first-round draft pick in Bradley Chubb back to create more nightmares for quarterbacks off the edge. This is as healthy that part of the defense has been since the Mario Williams era.

Football, for all its moving parts, can be pretty straightforward if you are good at the line of scrimmage, and no doubt NC State has that going for it on the defensive side heading into this fall. If the Pack is due a breakthrough season, this is where it will start.