We are less than a month away from the season opener. College football is nearly upon us. In an effort to continue the June well into August, the roundtable has gathered again to prognosticate, predict, postulate, and - hold on here a second. My thesaurus app seems to have frozen. Damn iPhone. Alright here we go. Nope nevermind. It doesn’t work anymore. Anyway, here is the stuff.
The position group that excites you the most in 2021 is
Essad Malik: Wide Receivers. I was so happy when Emeka Emezie chose to come back for one last ride. I still think about that reach in Winston where he fumbled at the goal line his freshmen year, and am still convinced he was in. He leads a stellar group of pass catchers, weapons across the field for Devin Leary to get the ball to. Thayer Thomas might be the best slot receiver NC State has ever had. CJ Riley (knock on wood for health), Porter Rooks, Keyon Lesane, and Jasiah Provillon are all going to make noise. And I’ve got my eye on Micah Crowell to see action as a true freshman. Devin Leary’s talent without a full suite of dudes in the passing game around him.
JEOHankins: I am 100% sure I won’t be the only one to say the linebackers here but I’ll go ahead and say the linebackers. With Wilson and Moore already having proved themselves to be impact players plus being surrounded by Vi Jones and Drake Thomas, two guys who could easily be the best LBs on the majority of other P5 teams, I am getting real law firm of Irving, Manning, and Cole vibes. Going to be great to see some of these guys make plays for State and then go make money making plays in the NFL.
PirateWolf: I think it’s a tie for me. The linebackers excite me because of both the top end talent and the depth. The fact that a guy like Isaiah Moore gets overlooked just speaks volumes. This is the best linebacking group in the conference.
The other group that excites me is the running backs. We already know Bam Knight has the size, speed, and strength to be a gamebreaker and Ricky Person - when healthy - is a beast, but Jordan Houston looked much improved in the spring game and Delbert Mims looked like a Reggie Gallaspy clone out there. With Devin Leary keeping opposing defenses honest, this group has the potential to boom in a way we haven’t seen in a long, long time.
Steven Muma: I love the potential of the wide receivers with a steady quarterback all year—I think Devin Leary can help these guys reach another level collectively, not just because he’s better than Bailey Hockman, but because consistency is going to pay off.
These guys were still good last season despite everything, they’ve played together for a while, and they’re capable of creating a number of different matchup problems for opposing defenses.
Alec Lower: I think the linebackers are the best group on the team, but quarterback excites me the most. The small number of people who walked out on a limb this offseason and talked about Devin Leary as one of the best quarterbacks in a deep ACC are going to have the privilege of saying “I told you so” come December.
The position group that scares you the most in 2021 is
Essad Malik: I’m going to avoid the usual answer of the secondary because I think for once (hopefully), all the heavy recruiting in this area will start to pay off. It seems to be a stout group. Yes, the OL is worrisome, but I’m going with Tight End. An underrated loss to this team is Dylan Autenrieth. Unsung hero but huge in pass protection and run blocking. The group on the roster now is literally all freshmen or redshirt freshmen plus RS senior Dylan Parham. Cary Angeline was underutilized in the passing game, as has been the TE as a whole for several years, so that needs to improve in order to diversify the passing options. This means one or more of these young’ns will have to step up.
JEOHankins: This was tough because this is the most confidence I’ve had in every position group since my State fandom began. So while the OL has some holes to plug and the secondary still has to show that it is improving, one area they both seem to be solid in is depth...that is not the case for my choice here, the QB position. Ben Finley had some fun moments last year and Aaron McLaughlin appears to be very talented, but with the strength of our schedule I would be very nervous to have either behind center at any point but garbage time this season. This is also to say that I have a lot of confidence Devin Leary will perform at a high level, but we won’t know if that injury might have negatively affected his instincts when escaping the pocket or if he has fully embraced his leadership role after being unable to build that chemistry on the field in 2020. Barring injury, I still think we’ll be ok, but it's football so who knows what could happen.
PirateWolf: The tight end/fullback/h-back. The offense needs that flex position that can both haul in passes and destroy opponents while run blocking. With Cary Angeline’s pass catching ability and Dylan Autenrieth’s road grading ability both no longer on the field, I’m concerned about the overall impact that will have on the overall efficiency of the offense. There’s talent, yes, but no obvious answer for replacing those guys, and we’ve seen how the offense has struggled over the last couple of years when one or both of those guys weren’t available.
Steven Muma: I’ll go with the secondary, or more specifically, cornerback. While I don’t think the concerns run quite so deep this year, I’m not just gonna be able to shake all this worry after years of conditioning. The potential at corner is fine, but it seems like the injury bug always finds these guys, in the worst ways. Now that I think about it, maybe what’s really scary to me are the football gods. Vengeful bastards. (And please keep yourself in the ballgame, Tanner Ingle.)
Alec Lower: This is a tougher question than it’s been in a long time, which is a good problem to have. Normally, I would just default to the secondary, but for the first time in years, I don’t think that’s fair. I’m going with the offensive line, which still feels crazy given that 40% of it could end up first-team all-conference. But State has some reshuffling to do outside of those two guys, and it’s coming off a season where it wasn’t particularly good at run blocking. Bam Knight being a YAC connoisseur made the group look better than it was, at least statistically speaking, but State truthfully hasn’t been a good run-blocking team for a few years now, and at this point it’s kind of a “believe it when I see it” deal.
Your prediction for breakout player of the year in 2021 is
Essad Malik: I’m picking Payton Wilson, but hear me out. YES, he was first-team all-ACC last year. YES, he ranks third among returning ACC players in career tackles. And yes, he’s on watchlists entering the year. That being said, I think he’ll leave after having a monster season this year and be the highest drafted Wolfpack player since Bradley Chubb. Is he going to be the fifth overall pick like Chubb? Probably not. But it’s been a minute since an NC State player has really had a large national profile, so when I think “breakout”, I mean at that kind of scale, like when they cut to pro scouts in the stands who’ve come to watch him play.
JEOHankins: Up and down this roster we are fortunate to have players that don’t need to breakout because they have already proven their mettle at some point. So for me, I am going to go to the secondary and say Jakeen Harris will finally start catching the ball this year. He seems to have great instinct and fortune to be in the right place to make big plays so I think with FSU transfer Cyrus Fagan right behind him, he’ll step things up back there to keep his spot. Shoutout to Shyheim Battle as well who I think will also have a breakout season at corner as he grows fully into his role as a starter.
PirateWolf: Is it cheating if I pick Devin Leary? Every Wolfpack fan knows what he can do, but nationally - and even within the ACC - he gets very little respect. I think he’s going to be the breakout player for NC State that the media talks about.
In case you all think that’s cheating, I’m going Devin Carter for the offense and Davin Vann for the defense. Carter had 8 receptions for 179 yards in what amounts to two games he played with Leary under center. In eight games without Leary, he had 21 receptions for 298 yards. Vann, meanwhile, is just a physical freak who should shine with increased playing time in the middle of the defensive line.
Steven Muma: I’m going with Porter Rooks, who is a big reason why I like the receivers so much as a whole. Rooks was scratching the surface in 2020 and I expect a signficant step forward now that he’s been in the program for a full, relatively normal offseason. He’ll also benefit from the attention drawn by Emeka Emezie and Thayer Thomas (and Devin Carter), much like Emezie benefited from the presence of Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers a few years back.
Alec Lower: C.J. Clark, who is the most likely replacement for Alim McNeil. McNeil was a freak but the talent dropoff to the guys that will try to replace him isn’t canyon-sized. Sure, it’s there, but Clark can play some football, as can the other former blue-chip recruits who will get snaps here. Those guys could be the surprise of the team by year’s end.
Over/under 7.5 wins in the regular season
Essad Malik: I’m taking the over, because it has to be over. This is a difficult schedule, no doubt. Getting a road game at Miami as your draw from the Coastal is tough when you’ll already have your hands full with Chapel Hill Community College (CHCC). But I’m still taking the over, because now is the time. This is THE most stacked team since the 2018 squad, which was the most stacked team in years. They fell short in opportunities that I’m bullish this team can avoid. It has to be the over, because Trevor Lawrence is finally gone. Even though his replacement is still crazy good, Clemson seems slightly less invincible now. I am not totally sold on Mack Brown and Sam Howell’s ability to win with so much production having left. And Miami was on the ropes last year against State without Leary. I believe in the Dave Deoren era, BUT... if he’s ever going to compete with the top 3-4 teams in the conference or have a chance at a conference title, now is the time because next year is likely rebuilding in key spots. You build for a few years then repeat. Miami is beatable. And honestly, Dave HAS to win in Winston this time. Mississippi State is on the road, but should be a win based on their performance last year. I think if Dave is ever going to win > or = 9 wins, this team is stacked enough to where it has to happen now. I’ll take a loss to Clemson and CHCC, along with some other random loss, and ride the over to 9 wins.
JEOHankins: Since last season begin to come to a close I have been ringing the alarm over how difficult our schedule would be this year. Even playing 10 ACC games and a ranked Liberty this year’s schedule ramped things up considerbaly. All that said, I still go over 7.5 wins. I think 7 regular season wins is still very possible especially considering the known unknowns and unkown unknowns of any football season, but this team has too much top end talent, too much experienced depth, and too much competency among its coaching staff to not find 8 wins in here. My real hope though is less about wins and more about beginning to become a consistently ranked program and I believe this can be the season where that starts.
PirateWolf: I want to say over because I believe in this team, but I’m going to say under with 7. This is a difficult schedule.
Steven Muma: The schedule makes hitting the over far from a sure thing, even for an improved NC State team, but I think the Pack gets there thanks to a 4-0 run through non-conference play.
Alec Lower: I mean, I’m always going to take the over. What’s the point in watching if you don’t believe something worth watching can happen? State fans catch crap for always believing that this could be the year, but that’s a virtue in my opinion. Believing in the team that you like is a good thing, actually. So always take the over.
Good or bad, what’s one thing you think we’ll look back on at the end of the year and say “we didn’t talk about that enough”
Essad Malik: Lauding the staff’s switch to the 3-5 defensive scheme. You don’t come into the year with one of the most loaded LB rooms in the country without having a corresponding scheme you’ve recruited to build around. This switch has been criticized, but it has also led to heavy heavy crootin’ at that position, and that’s paying off this year. Wilson and Drake Thomas will obviously headline, but I’m also looking at newcomer Jordan Poole to see some action. He might play sparingly and redshirt, but he is one of so many tools. We can’t be lauding the great LB’s without also tipping the cap to the hard decision changing gears for the defense that led to this group.
JEOHankins: It's interesting to me that there has been little sustained discussion about the talent at DL compared to the convos around our LBs, RBs and at QB. There might be 3-4 future pros in that rotation and IDK if there is another position group on the field that can say the same percentage-wise (besides possibly at LB). By season’s end I think we’ll be talking about how this was one of the best defenses in years at State while the LBs do what is expected, the secondary holds their own and the DL sees a level of recognition that, IMHO, is going under mentioned as of late.
PirateWolf: Good or bad, the turnover on the offensive line. Losing Justin Witt and Joe Sculthorpe - especially Sculthorpe’s positional versatility - is going to be a big impact. When we look back at the season that was 2021 NC State Football, that’s going to be the make-or-break change from 2020.
Steven Muma: The punting. Not because it was bad—not by any means. Trenton Gill is good at his job and will average 57 yards per punt this fall. But NC State will only punt three times this season—all of them sympathy punts—and so we’ll tend to forget he’s there.
Alec Lower: Both of the lines come to mind here for me. The offensive line is probably the biggest question mark on the team, which is pretty sweet because it’s not that big of a question mark at all, but State is trying to replace some guys from a unit that could still stand to be better, and the sneakiest and fastest way to blow up an offense is with an underperforming offensive line. No idea what will happen here, and definitely not saying the line will suck, but the positions not being filled by Ekwonu and Gibson will be something to keep an eye on.
On the flip side, I think the defensive line is super underrated. Alim McNeil was sort of the face of the group, and him leaving prompts the knee-jerk reaction that the group will be worse than last year. There are so many guys here that can play McNeil’s position well, though, and so many ends that could have big years too. I think this is probably the most underrated group on the team. Watch for Terrell Dawkins to be a breakout candidate.