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2023 NC State football preview: The defensive line

NCAA Football: Louisville at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

NC State’s defensive line was a critical part of the team’s success on that side of the ball in 2022, namely in serving as the foundation for a unit that was very good at shutting down opposing run games.

The line wasn’t prolific in the traditional sense—Davin Vann led all linemen with a modest 4.5 sacks, for instance—but also wasn’t tasked to be. Tony Gibson’s defense thrived by setting up its playmaking linebackers to, you know, make plays.

NC State will miss Cory Durden up front but returns the bulk of its main production from last fall, which is a good reason to be optimistic about the defensive line’s prospects this fall.

Key Losses

Player 2022 GP-GS 2022 Plays Tackles TFL Sacks QBH
Player 2022 GP-GS 2022 Plays Tackles TFL Sacks QBH
Cory Durden 13-13 576 27 2.5 0 7
Josh Harris 12-0 200 11 3.0 1.0 1
TOT ... 776 38 5.5 1 8

Durden handled the gritty work of the nose tackle spot well the last two seasons and, crucially, was able to stay healthy. The health of NC State’s defensive linemen will be the big thing this season, because the first-team group can be very good if they’re able to stay on the field.

Returning Production

Player 2022 GP-GS 2022 Plays Tackles TFL Sacks QBH
Player 2022 GP-GS 2022 Plays Tackles TFL Sacks QBH
Davin Vann 13-13 628 33 8.0 4.5 10
CJ Clark 13-6 506 18 3.5 3.0 4
Savion Jackson 7-7 261 15 3.0 0 2
Travali Price 13-0 350 16 2.0 1.5 7
Brandon Cleveland 6-0 72 7 1.0 0.5 0
Noah Potter* 12-1 ??? 18 4.0 2.5 5
TOT ... 1817 107 21.5 12.0 28

It’ll be CJ Clark’s show in the middle, with fellow vets Davin Vann and Savion Jackson flanking him. Jackson missed the second half of last season with an injury but hopefully will be no worse for wear heading into 2023. The Wolfpack has a good chance to pick up where it left off with its rush defense, and here’s a quick reminder of just how stifling that rush defense was:

(Chart via CFB Data.)

Among ACC defenses, State was on a level of its own when it came to shutting down rush attempts at the line of scrimmage, and defending in short yardage (power success). Opponents averaged barely 100 yards per game on the ground, and the only teams that gave the Pack serious problems were the ones with speedy quarterbacks. If you were just handing the ball off against State last year, it generally did not go well.

NC State could use a bit more from its pass rushers in 2023, which is where Travali Price comes in. He was pretty good as a pass-rushing specialist last fall, finishing second among the linemen in quarterback hurries; the question now is can he take the next step, become a real force off the edge? He’ll have plenty of opportunity.

Behind its four main guys, State will have Brandon Cleveland likely slotting as the backup nose tackle, and transfers Noah Potter (Cincinnati) and Red Hibbler (JUCO) add depth. Hibbler is an interesting possible x-factor, as he’s coming off an impressive season in which he had 16.5 TFLs and 9.0 sacks. But his adjustment to this level will take time.

Overall, the defensive line projects to be one of the ACC’s best units again, and with a little luck on the injury side, could be better than it was in 2022.