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The big 2021 NC State football preview: Let’s meet the offense

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NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 season was a solid one for NC State’s offense, and in comparison to 2019, a resounding success. Heading into last year, we weren’t sure there was an FBS-caliber quarterback on the roster. Now we know there is. We weren’t sure what Tim Beck could do in his first year calling plays after a limited offseason. He made a big difference.

Beck’s play-calling and the improved play at QB put NC State’s already-solid skill group in a better position to succeed, and those guys responded in a big way. Just about everybody involved in that bounce-back year returns this fall, leaving no question that the offense can take another step forward.

The departed

As with the defense, it’s kinda wild just to gaze at what little is gone. NC State lost some talent and experience up front and a couple of guys who combined to appear in more than 70 games at tight end, but those absences leave no obviously critical problem spots behind.

Notable Departures — Offense

Player Position 2020 GP 2020 Starts Snaps Rec Yds TD
Player Position 2020 GP 2020 Starts Snaps Rec Yds TD
Cary Angeline TE 12 8 529 27 412 6
Dylan Autenrieth TE 10 2 180 2 3 0
Justin Witt RT 9 5 349 n/a n/a n/a
Joe Sculthorpe RG/LG 12 12 859 n/a n/a n/a
TOT 43 27 29 415 6

(There’s also Bailey Hockman, who is for sure a notable loss, but I left him out of the chart lest it get too confusing with the stat columns. What, I’m gonna make two charts? You might be made out of charts, but I ain’t made out of charts.)

Angeline was a unique guy for State at tight end, a small forward with wheels who could create obvious mismatches. He tied for the team lead with six touchdown grabs last season, and his ability in that regard probably can’t be replaced, at least not right away. Autenrieth was the mirror-opposite player—an effective blocker but not much use in the passing game. He could have returned in 2021 but decided instead to begin his coaching career. (He’s a grad assistant at Colorado State.)

Joe Sculthorpe logged more snaps in 2020 than any other NC State offensive lineman, and his ability to play both guard positions was crucial as the Pack went through some injuries. Dude played in 49 games at State, making 36 starts. It’s tough to lose that combination of versatility and experience and not feel it.

Justin Witt started 22 games during his Wolfpack career but also lost 10 games to injury over his final two seasons.

The returning

It’s a party, and everyone is invited! Well, except those aforementioned guys, who’ve moved on to other, equally valid parties.

Offensive Line

There’s a wee bit of maple-syrup-earning star power, plus a mix of experience and promise, but this is also not a unit coming off a good season. NC State had to do some shuffling thanks to injuries and in general continuity was a problem.

Tyrone Riley started the season at left tackle and Ickey Ekwonu began it at left guard, then Ickey moved to left tackle because obviously, so Riley shifted to right tackle, which moved right tackle Bryson Speas to left guard. Then Riley got hurt, moving Speas back to right tackle, at which point Joe Sculthorpe flipped from right guard to left guard, and that’s when Dylan McMahon stepped in at right guard.

Everybody got all that? Good.

Projected starters:

LT: Ickey Ekwonu
LG: Chandler Zavala
C: Grant Gibson
RG: Dylan McMahon
RT: Bryson Speas

McMahon didn’t relinquish the right guard spot after he took over when Sculthorpe flipped to the other side, and Speas doesn’t have Witt to compete with at right tackle. Someone will have to replace Sculthorpe at left guard, and I’m going to guess that’s transfer Chandler Zavala, who has extensive experience—albeit at the D-II level—at left guard.

Right tackle isn’t necessarily settled with Tyrone Riley back after an injury-limited 2020 season. Riley has played in 42 games during his State career and could potentially take a starting role back—a lot depends on where he’s at, health-wise.

Derrick Eason has a little bit of experience, as does Tim McKay, but beyond them, who the hell knows. Two-thirds of the offensive linemen on the roster are freshmen (either first-, second-, or third-year freshmen, but still!) and we know little if anything about how good they are. You can see why bringing in Zavala was important.

Quarterback/Running Back

Damn, this is where it really gets tough, doesn’t it. Will Bam Knight start, officially, in week one, or will it be Ricky Person? A fun fact from last season is that Person got the first offensive snap—the “start”—at running back in every game. Does this trend end against USF?

Projected starters:

QB: Devin Leary
RB: Bam Knight

I’m setting my email on fire but fine, I’ve said it: I believe Bam Knight will get the first snap this year. Dispatch to me your missives calling me a hater; after 40 years of blogging, I cannot be hurt. (The secret: never learn to read or write, but only to dictate.)

Of the 10 NC State players to register a carry in the box score last season, nine are back. The only one missing is Bailey Hockman, who had -22 rushing yards. This is the very definition of addition by subtraction: if you subtract negative-22 yards from this team, then already it’s operating with a surplus. Dave Doeren is free to sprinkle these 22 “gravy yards,” as they are known colloquially, wherever and whenever he likes, per NCAA rules. And you were worried about short-yardage situations this fall!

Receivers

There’s intrigue here, though it isn’t at the top level. NC State’s wide receiving corps returns basically intact, and the vets are going to account for the money downs. But State does have to figure out what it wants to do with the tight end spot, and there are younger players who may push for more snaps at wideout.

Projected starters:

TE: Dylan Parham
WR: Emeka Emezie
WR: Thayer Thomas
WR: Devin Carter

The direction NC State takes at tight end is maybe the most interesting storyline among the receivers heading into 2021, given you can essentially write Emezie-Thomas-Carter in stone on that first tier of pass catchers.

Dylan Parham has quietly paid his dues—he’s played in 31 games—but isn’t the play-making type, except for that one time. Then again he’s also never gotten much of a chance to show what he can do in the passing game.

My guess is that NC State will look more to the guy who can most capably block the tight end position since it’s not going to need to hunt mismatches in the passing game. Parham seems the most likely candidate for starter in that case, but ...

... it’s also hard to ignore the potential of Trent Pennix, as a JaySam-esque hybrid, potentially giving the offense one more angle of attack. I’m fascinated by that move.

Beyond the obvious starters at wide receiver, State has Porter Rooks to work in at the slot position, and CJ Riley is back for a sixth season. Riley has played in 38 games during his State career.

Jordan Houston has been working with the wide receivers in camp, and that puts him in the x-factor category; dude is fast as hell and can do damage in the open field, but how naturally does he adjust to playing receiver, and where does he find reps?

There’s also Anthony Smith, who was a track star in high school; and Keyon Lesane, who has had little opportunity in his young career but also can run by anyone. We might not learn a whole lot about them this season, but these are guys to keep an eye on because they have a lot of time ahead of them, and if they do break out, well, that’s probably good news.