ACC: Bryan Underwood
But here's an interesting side note to that information: None of those three teams had firmly established passing attacks, but they also just so happened to account for three of the top four spots in yards per pass attempt. Tech led the way (9.27), followed by Miami (8.31), FSU (8.23) and Pitt (7.85).
The explanation is pretty simple. Defenses load up to stop the run, and that leaves man coverage downfield for big-play opportunities. The end result of a strong running game tends to be a lot more chances to connect on the deep ball.
First off, it might be a bit of a surprise that the Wolfpack were so successful on the ground. Their offense was rarely heralded as a top rushing attack, but they averaged 5.23 yards per carry and had the league's best third-down conversion rate on the ground. If we take sacks out of the equation (something the NCAA should be doing anyway), NC State actually averaged nearly 6 yards per rush in 2015, trailing only Georgia Tech among ACC teams.
It stands to reason then that with that strong ground game, the Wolfpack were also a huge big play threat through the air, too, right? Not exactly.
NC State ranked eighth in yards per attempt (6.96), seventh in yards per completion (11.8) and eighth in percentage of completions gaining 10 yards or more. If we apply sacks to the passing game, the Wolfpack finished ninth in the ACC in yards per pass play.
So, why the disparity for NC State, particularly given the overall solid play of QB Jacoby Brissett? And given that the Wolfpack lost two of its top receivers -- Bo Hines and Marquez Valdes-Scantling to transfers, might things get worse in 2015?
The first explanation is that Brissett just isn't much of a downfield thrower, and the numbers do bear this out. Here are his completions percentages by distance, courtesy ESPN Stats & Information:
Behind the line: 88.5 percent
0-5 yards: 61.5 percent
6-14 yards: 59.1 percent
15+ yards: 37.7 percent
Worse yet, in conference play that completion rate on deep balls dropped to just 28 percent, with a woeful 7.9 yards per pass rate on throws of 15-plus yards.
But it's tough to put all that blame on Brissett. He was working with an inexperienced group of receivers, and that certainly didn't help matters. According to ESPN Stats & Info, NC State had seven drops on deep balls, the most in the ACC and the fourth-most of any Power 5 program. Three of those came from Valdes-Scantling alone. If we counted those drops as catches, Brissett's completion rate on deep throws actually jumps to a far more respectable 45.4 percent, which would've ranked fourth in the ACC.
Moreover, even on completed passes, Brissett's receivers didn't do a lot to help him out. NC State averaged just 3.5 yards after the catch this year, which ranked ninth among ACC teams.
Again, losing Valdes-Scantling doesn't seem like a major setback. While he was among Brissett's most used deep targets, he struggled overall, catching just 40.7 percent of his passes, averaging just 4.8 yards per reception and adding just 1.9 yards after catch per reception. Bryan Underwood, who also departs, was the only regularly employed receiver with worse numbers.
The loss of Hines, on the other hand, is a serious blow. His 71.4 percent completion rate was the best by an NC State wideout in 2014, his 9.8 yards per target led the team, and his 4.9 YAC per reception was also tops among wideouts. (Numbers courtesy ESPN Stats & Info.)
If there was a tradeoff in Brissett's low completion rate on deep balls, however, it's that there was little risk involved in the shots he did take, however, and the rewards tended to be big. Brissett threw 10 touchdown passes on deep balls in 2015, which tied with Jameis Winston for the ACC lead, and he had just one interception on those throws, which was the fewest by any ACC QB with at least 50 attempts. In fact, the only other Power 5 QB in the nation with at least 10 touchdowns and no more than one INT on deep balls was Baylor's Bryce Petty. So that's pretty darned impressive.
Based on that info then, the question might be whether NC State's risk-reward balance is shifted too far in the direction of safety, and whether the offense might actually benefit from Brissett trying to thread the needle on a few more throws downfield.
Regardless, given the attrition at wide receiver, it's unlikely Dave Doeren is going to want to alter that formula too much, but it's probably also worth noting that in the bowl game against UCF, when Brissett was just 15-of-26 passing overall, he was a perfect 3-of-3 for 115 yards and a touchdown on deep balls.
NC State returns the bulk of that successful ground game in 2015, so it stands to reason that the big-play threat in the passing game should remain. With a year of playing time in the Wolfpack's offense under his belt, perhaps Brissett will want to roll the dice a bit more next season, and while the losses at wideout depleted the numbers, the unit as a whole probably had nowhere to go but up anyway.
In other words, NC State's offense remains a work in progress, but 2014 established a foundation and illustrated where there are still some big gains to be made. That should be encouraging for the Wolfpack moving forward.
Soon, a pretty good drawing of receiver Bryan Underwood started to take shape. Josh Medlin, 8, submitted his artwork to a social media campaign NC State started asking kids to draw their favorite player.
Underwood saw the picture on Twitter when he got out of practice one day in November. Intrigued, he came up with an idea and decided to give the ultimate gift before the holiday season began. Underwood wanted Josh to walk onto the field with him for Senior Day.
“It was my last game here, and he doesn’t get another chance to meet me. So I figured why not meet him there?” Underwood recalled recently. “It was a pretty cool drawing for an 8-year-old to make. For anybody who takes pride in the program, I wanted to show our appreciation.”
Underwood called the Medlin home and spoke to Josh's parents. They were thrilled. He spoke to Josh, who was extremely shy and, truthfully, a little intimidated about having to walk onto a football field with 55,000 fans staring at him.
His parents assured him all would be fine. On Nov. 15, Josh Medlin and Bryan Underwood met at the 50 before kickoff against Wake Forest. Underwood handed him a pair of gloves. They posed for pictures. That would have been kind enough had Underwood stopped there.
But he decided he had to do more. Underwood walked Josh back to his seats in the north end zone, lifted him over the fence, jumped into the stands himself and climbed up to the seats.
In full uniform.
With minutes to go before kick.
The fans around him clapped. A few murmured, “Aww, how cute!”
“It just shows what a special individual Bryan is,” Josh’s father, Danny, said from his home in North Carolina. “There’s so many negative sports stories these days that when you see something like this, it makes you burst with pride.”
Underwood smiles when asked why he decided to escort Josh back to his parents.
“I figured why not?” Underwood said. “He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him, and I wanted to talk to him a little more. He was a great kid.”
Josh Medlin still wears his gloves regularly. How could he not, when they came from his favorite player? The Medlins have supported NC State for decades. Danny Medlin graduated from NC State. So did his wife and many other relatives. He has held season tickets since the 1990s, and the whole family tries to attend every home game. Josh has always admired Underwood, and he got his artistic inspiration from the cover of a publication from the Wolfpack Club.
Underwood has one game left in his NC State career -- Friday night against UCF in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl. Whether he has zero receptions or 10 receptions will not matter much to Josh Medlin. He already has what matters most.
At the end of October, you were riding a four-game losing streak and had lost 12 straight in ACC play, but by the end of November, you were playing your best football of the year. How much changed in that last month of the season?
You have talked a lot about the challenges of having such a young team, but that those players managed to bounce back from a really rough stretch midseason has to speak highly of their maturation, right?
Doeren: Yeah, we had a team meeting where I thanked our seniors for just that, keeping the guys together. The younger players followed their leadership, and I told our staff that they did a great job keeping the ship the way it needed to be kept. Guys that wanted to win were willing to throw it in there and compete, and [it] showed in the small victories as we went through that process and came out of it playing pretty good football.
Early on, it seemed like if Jacoby Brissett was playing well, the team played well. But down the stretch, it looked like you found a little more diversity offensively, playing a bit more physical and using the run game. Is that a fair assessment?
Doeren: I’ve been searching for balance ever since I got here. We had it throughout the season in most of our games. When you get behind the way we did in the Clemson game or the second half of Georgia Tech, it forces your hand. The only game I thought we abandoned who we were was Boston College. We got in a throwing mode too much. Since that game, I think our offensive staff has really done a great job of game-planning and being balanced and using Shad Thornton or Matt Dayes throughout the game, and David Grinnage in the play-action game and finding some hits for Bryan Underwood or getting Bo Hines the ball in the slot. They just used their personnel and really found the identity I want to have as a running football team that can control the clock. We’ve been able to find that.
Hakim Jones made some headlines with his comments about playing physical against North Carolina, and QB Marquise Williams in particular. I’m sure you weren’t thrilled with the bulletin-board material, but does it speak to your team’s progress that they actually went out and backed up those comments with their performance on the field?
Doeren: The first thing I did when I heard the comment was I called him and [said], 'You better back it up.' I respect Marquise Williams a lot. He’s a really good player. And I think Hakim does, too, but he got in the moment of the press conference and he definitely said what he was thinking, but he didn’t need to say it. But he backed it up, and the guys supported him. That’s not something I want to repeat, but I’m glad they did back it up, because those moments can go the other way on you in a hurry. Our defensive kids played really good football in that game. We dominated the line of scrimmage, we tackled well, and they were physical when they got there.
The other big issue you had midseason was the suspension of several key players for an off-field incident. Was that a turning point in giving those players a little bit of an eye-opening experience and getting some young guys game-day reps?
Doeren: That game was a really big learning experience for those kids that had to sit out. They had to earn their way back into the lineup, and they did. But it allowed some other kids to get out there and play, which in turn helped our depth. Bradley Chubb and Airius Moore got some really big playing time because of it, and I think when you ask about our improvement, it’s our coaching staff and players working together and buying into that process that you have to practice and prepare well to play well. As a young team, sometimes guys don’t understand how hard you need to practice, but by the end of the season we were a very different football team when it came to the effort we were giving on a daily basis on the practice field.
He does not remember how the idea came to him, or why it came to him. He just remembers grabbing a pen and some paper and writing a letter, then another, then another, until he had written letters to all his teammates on offense.
They did not say much. A few words of encouragement to one player, a thank you for being a good teammate to another. He hand delivered the letters, each time met with surprise. How many people take time to write letters anymore?
For Brissett, it was a way to grow closer with his teammates in his first season as a starting quarterback at NC State. His teammates responded so favorably, he kept handing out letters.
“It just stuck with me,” Brissett said in a recent interview. “A lot of them keep the letters. I know one week I didn’t write letters because I talked to the whole offense together and everybody was curious why they didn’t get a letter. It’s funny to see they actually pay attention to it.”
That happened to be Louisville week.
Brissett never made that mistake again. So the ritual continued all the way up to the end of the season.
“For me and my roommate, it touched us both and showed us how serious he was about the games and it showed he had faith in us,” senior receiver Bryan Underwood said. “It was good to see he was taking another step in leadership toward the team.”
Neither coach Dave Doeren nor offensive coordinator Matt Canada knew about the letter writing, though neither was surprised to hear Brissett had been doing it all season.
We are talking about a player who bakes cookies for his offensive linemen. Indeed, Brissett is not too proud to show his sensitive side, though it is easier to do that with words on a page.
“It’s a matter of saying I appreciate what you’ve done so far,” Brissett said. “Or if someone is going through a rough time, it’s a chance to say I’m here for you if you need me. Sometimes, you’ve got to joke with some of them. With the offensive linemen,nah you have to joke with them because they’re never serious, anyway.”
Brissett is a big reason why NC State made it back to a bowl game in 2014, ready to take on UCF in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 26. He started all 12 games in his first season as a full-time starter and ended up throwing for 2,344 yards and 22 touchdowns to five interceptions while running for 498 yards and three more scores.
His performance against rival North Carolina was the best of the season, as he rushed for 167 yards and accounted for four touchdowns. Getting back to a bowl and beating the rival Tar Heels qualifies as major progress for a team that went 3-9 under Doeren a year ago.
But nobody is satisfied, least of all Brissett.
“I think being a quarterback, and with the goals and expectations I have for myself, I have to put a lot more pressure on myself than everybody else does,” Brissett said. “I hold myself to a higher standard and every game, I want to make the right read, the right throw and as much as everybody says you can’t be perfect, why not? That’s always my thought process going into a game.”
He has his letter writing process, too. Seems that has worked out perfectly for Brissett and his teammates.
Previewing the 2014 season for the NC State Wolfpack:
Key returners: RB Shadrach Thornton (768 yards, 4 TD), WR Bryan Underwood (32 catches, 382 yards), OT Joe Thuney, DE Art Norman (9 TFL, 4.5 sacks), DT Thomas Teal (10.5 TFL, 3 sacks), S Hakim Jones (61 tackles, 2 INT), LB Brandon Pittman (63 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks)
Key losses: WR Rashard Smith, WR Quintin Payton, DB Dontae Johnson, LB D.J. Green, LB Robert Caldwell
Most important games: Sept. 27 versus FSU, Oct. 4 at Clemson, Oct. 18 at Louisville, Nov. 29 at North Carolina
Projected win percentage: .479
Vegas over/under: 5.5 wins
Biggest question mark: For a team that went winless in ACC play last year, there are plenty of question marks. Brissett’s emergence is chief among them, but coach Dave Doeren seems more than pleased with his QB. Who will emerge among the young receivers for Brissett to throw to? Can the offensive line protect better than it did a year ago? Can the defensive line be more consistently disruptive? Can injured veterans like Underwood, Rob Crisp and Jarvis Byrd come back to make an impact? The list goes on and on, but there’s certainly hope that the Wolfpack have far more answers than they did a year ago.
Best-case scenario for 2014: Brissett proves to be the answer to many of last year’s offensive woes and instantly transforms the Wolfpack into a more dynamic team. The running game proves a strength and the defensive line routinely disrupts the opposition’s game plan. Injured veterans return and young depth emerges. NC State improves as the season progresses, pulls off an upset or two, and returns to postseason play with seven or eight wins.
Worst-case scenario for 2014: Brissett isn’t the answer State’s fans had hoped for, and he struggles with a shaky supporting cast. The offensive line never comes together and the defensive front can’t stop the run. Early tests against FSU and Clemson sink the season, and the Wolfpack limp to another lowly finish in an increasingly difficult division.
Number to know: 100, 100, 100. State tailback Matt Dayes is one of just four returning ACC players to accumulate 100 yards rushing, receiving and in the return game last year. He’s not exactly entrenched atop the Wolfpack’s depth chart now, but Doeren did show a propensity for utilizing his most versatile talent last season, when Rashard Smith topped 100 yards rushing (121), receiving (530), on kick returns (310) and punt returns (240). Dayes could easily fill a similar all-purpose role this year.
They said it: “He wants to win, and it's personal. He's got to go do it. We've got to get players around him to help him and all those things, but he has the skill set and the intangibles that you look for when you recruit that position.” - Doeren on Brissett’s role as the team’s leader
See our previous projections here.
Next up: NC State
Class recap: Dave Doeren’s first signing class didn’t stand out in the rankings — No. 66 by ESPN’s math — but he did get some early contributions, even if it was as much out of necessity as ability. Matt Dayes played in all 12 games and scored four times. Jack Tocho started seven games at corner, finishing with 25 tackles and two picks. Monty Nelson started five games at defensive tackle and was second on the team with 8.5 sacks. Meanwhile, a bevy of freshmen receivers saw action, with mixed results.
Second-year star: WR Jumichael Ramos (6-foot-3, 197 pounds)
2013 in review: The Wolfpack’s offense was a mess throughout 2013, with rotating quarterbacks and offensive styles and, of course, a plethora of erratic receivers. But while several of the other first-year pass-catchers flashed early before disappearing down the stretch (either because of injury or inconsistency), Ramos consistently improved as the year progressed. He caught at least one pass in 10 of 12 games, and he finished the season with 11 receptions and three TDs in his final three contests, including a five-catch, 109-yard performance against Boston College. He finished the season with 24 receptions for 352 yards.
2014 potential: Projecting Ramos to be the breakout receiver among a horde of unproven talent is based largely off his strong finish to last season. The spring game was a showcase for an established veteran (Bryan Underwood) and an early enrollee (Bo Hines), while Ramos and fellow sophomore Marquez Valdes-Scantling played smaller parts. Still, the addition of Jacoby Brissett to stabilize the QB situation is good news for all of NC State’s receivers, and Ramos’ combination of speed and size should make him an inviting target. He’s got some stiff competition — in terms of both quantity and quality — throughout fall camp, but Doeren is looking for weapons in the passing game and Ramos has been the one young receiver who has shown he can be a weapon on game day.
Also watch for: Take your pick from the rest of the group of receivers. Valdes-Scantling needs maturity and consistency, and Johnathan Alston and Bra’Lon Cherry need to stay healthy to continue their development. Alston might have the biggest upside of the group. Keep an eye on Dayes getting a bigger role in the running game this season, while top signee Sean Paul shouldn’t be relegated to just special teams, as he was in 2013.
Hines, a true freshman from Charlotte, N.C., who enrolled early, was the Pack’s most consistent receiver this spring, bringing a bit of separation to a crowded group filled with youth and inexperience. Nine of the 12 receivers on the spring roster are either freshmen or sophomores. Senior Bryan Underwood was NC State’s second-leading receiver last year, but the Pack has to replace two starters from 2013, and the competition remains wide open heading into the summer.
Jumichael Ramos, who finished the last three games of 2013 strong, is one of the top sophomore candidates, along with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who led the team in receiving at one point last year as a true freshman, and Bra'lon Cherry, who suffered a season-ending injury against Duke. Ramos finished third on the team last year with 24 catches for 352 yards and three touchdowns.
“All three of them played and had some catches, but obviously as they step up here now, they have a chance to maybe separate themselves from what they did with a few catches here and there, and becoming a more consistent receiver,” Canada said. “I think that’s where having a quarterback and getting some timing down will certainly allow that to occur.”
Freshman Stephen Louis enrolled early, and redshirt freshman Gavin Locklear is also in the mix. Doeren said Underwood finished the spring strong. He is the fastest receiver on the roster, but he still needs to be more consistent. Underwood had 32 catches last year for 382 yards and a touchdown.
“He was really coming on last year when he hurt his collarbone and so missed a lot of practice and development there, and he needs to have a good summer physically to put himself in the right place,” Doeren said. “You'd like him to play the way he can and the way he was early in the year last year.
“And then Marquez Valdes and Jumichael Ramos are guys that were two true freshmen that played a lot for us a year ago that need to play better, I guess, than I thought they would in the spring. I thought Valdes had a really good finish, started a little slow, and Ramos was the opposite. So just need to get a consistent performance. A lot of times when a guy plays as a true freshman he gets a big head, and that's the one thing those guys can't do. There's good players coming in, and we've got a couple other freshmen that will be here that we'll add to the depth and competition. But those two guys need to have tremendous summers for us.”
1. Having a quarterback helps. Last spring, the NC State offense looked dismal and new coach Dave Doeren didn’t know who his quarterback would be. That problem persisted throughout the fall, and the Wolfpack went winless in ACC play. Now that Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett is eligible to play, however, there’s a consistency on offense that was missing throughout 2013. More importantly, Doeren knows who his QB is, and Brissett can play the role of leader throughout the offseason.
2. Hines is a playmaker. NC State had a huge class of early enrollees, and while all made strides this spring, it was Bo Hines who stood out. The freshman had a fabulous spring game, catching 10 passes for 132 yards. It wasn’t just a big day in front of fans either. Doeren raved that Hines made at least one play every day throughout spring practice.
3. There’s depth at tailback. Shad Thornton finished sixth in the ACC in rushing last season, but after a strong spring by NC State’s tailbacks, the starting job won’t just be handed to the incumbent. Thornton worked on the second-team offense in the spring game, while Doeren praised Tony Creecy and Matt Dayes, too, and with a QB who can force defenses to respect the passing game, there could be plenty of yards to be had on the ground in 2014 for the Wolfpack.
Three questions for the fall:
2. Has the pass rush improved? It’s hard to make any grand pronouncements based on the spring game, where QBs weren’t live, but both the first- and second-string defenses racked up five sacks on the day. That’s the good news, but the defensive front remains young and inexperienced, with nowhere to go but up after last year’s D mustered a league-worst 20 sacks.
3. Can Doeren develop depth? Doeren has been quick to point out that 70 percent of NC State’s roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores, which means there’s not a ton of experience down the depth chart. That showed up in the spring game when the No. 2 defense did little to corral Brissett and the second-string offense produced a mere 65 yards. There are reasons for optimism with early enrollee safety Germaine Pratt (an INT in the spring game) and receiver-turned-pass rusher Pharoah McKever, among others, but the staff has its work cut out for it in developing the raw materials into productive players.
One way-too-early prediction: Yes, the Wolfpack were 0-8 in ACC play last season, but there weren’t many blowouts. Doeren’s crew showed plenty of fight despite a litany of problems, and that’s a good sign for what’s to come in 2014. The big change, however, is Brissett, who breathes new life into the offense and provides some real direction for NC State going forward. A conference title probably isn’t in the cards, but a bowl appearance wouldn’t be unrealistic.
Slowly, the weekly ritual evolved into an ideal bonding experience for a group that desperately needed to build a rapport on the fast track.
“We had a lot of extra time to go out and get some chemistry,” quarterback Jacoby Brissett said. “Any time we had an opportunity to sit and talk about the things we were learning — we got the time to get to know each other better away from the field, and that’s helped our chemistry on the field.”
Brissett and the first-team offense rolled up 34 points, and the junior quarterback, who transferred from Florida last year, completed throws of 36, 60 and 72 yards. He was particularly effective on third down, converting 13 of 18 tries, often shuffling in the pocket to create more time and find receivers downfield.
Early enrollee Bo Hines led all receivers, grabbing 10 passes for 132 yards, including a nifty 40-yard run after a catch on Brissett’s 60-yard completion. His star is clearly on the rise, coach Dave Doeren said, and after just a few months on campus — and a dozen or so breakfasts with Brissett — he looks right at home.
“Bo Hines is a reliable player,” Doeren said. “He’s the same guy every day — in the right place, catches the ball well with people around him, made some one-handed catches and has the ability to catch it and run. … We’ve had 15 practices and I don’t think we’ve had one where he didn’t make a play.”
Sophomores Jumichael Ramos and Marquez Valdes-Scantling had four catches each. Bryan Underwood, the lone veteran of the ensemble, caught three passes for 112 yards and two scores.
“[Brissett] is giving us a chance,” Underwood said. “It’s a good start, leaving spring with how we did today.”
It’s worth noting, of course, that the offensive fireworks came against an overmatched second-team defense that featured few veterans, and the road back from last year’s struggles — NC State finished 11th in the ACC in yards per attempt and had more interceptions than TD throws — will be a long one. Doeren was also quick to point out Brissett’s struggles running the ball — he was sacked five times behind a line missing three starters — and his one interception. But just as last year’s struggles in the spring game portended a woeful regular season, the hope is that this year’s success will be equally prophetic.
Whether this year’s results are also a sign of things to come likely depends largely on how much more Brissett and his receivers continue to bond during the summer. But Doeren is encouraged by where things stand, and a year after NC State dealt with a massive quarterback dilemma, it soothes a lot of nerves to simply know Brissett is in charge, and there's a ringleader for the remainder of the offseason.
“I can focus my attention on certain things, and it’s his job to stay hungry, keep the chip on his shoulder and know he has to do his job the right way,” Doeren said. “I don’t have to worry about who it is, but he still has to handle his end of the responsibility. He will, and he knows that.”
RALEIGH, N.C. -- If he’s being honest, the question makes Jacoby Brissett a bit uncomfortable. He hears it routinely -- from friends, from fans, from media eager to make him the headliner in NC State’s revitalization project -- and after three years waiting to be anointed the starter, he should be thrilled.
Still, every time someone asks Brissett what it feels like now that he’s the man -- the starting quarterback and offensive ring leader -- he feels compelled to downplay the significance of it all.
“I’m not big into that stuff,” Brissett said. “I’m like, ‘You don’t have to say that.’ I’m competing to remain the starter -- competing with myself, the guys around me, the other guys in the conference. You have a national championship quarterback in this conference, so I have a lot of catching up to do.”
It’s no surprise Brissett feels like he’s playing from behind. Three years ago, he got a taste of life as the starting quarterback at Florida. That door closed quickly though, and after a year on the bench in 2012, he transferred to NC State. NCAA rules forced Brissett to redshirt, so he spent last year again waiting on the sideline for his chance.
When a 3-9 campaign marked by offensive struggles concluded in December, NC State coach Dave Doeren officially put an end to Brissett’s wait, tabbing him as the Wolfpack’s starter for 2014. But Doeren’s decision wasn’t about finally giving Brissett his chance. It was an acknowledgement of everything the quarterback had done while he was waiting for it.
“The way he plays is part of it,” Doeren said, “but the way he interacts and leads is a big part of it.”
“Brissett came to NC State just a month after Doeren arrived. He’d been frustrated by his back-up role at Florida, and he needed a fresh start. A highly touted recruit out of high school, Brissett was again a hot commodity, but NC State -- and Doeren -- felt right.
I'm not big into that stuff. I'm like, 'You don't have to say that.' I'm competing to remain the starter -- competing with myself, the guys around me, the other guys in the conference. You have a national championship quarterback in this conference, so I have a lot of catching up to do.” -- NC State QB Jacoby Brissett on the hype about him being the starting QB
“I was actually looking at West Virginia, but every time I was there, the coach kept saying something about [former quarterback] Geno [Smith],” Brissett said. “I’m like, I’m not Geno. I won’t be Geno. I just wanted to be Jacoby, and I feel like this is a place I can be Jacoby.”
That comfort level didn’t manifest overnight, however.
With just two quarterbacks on the roster last spring, Brissett got plenty of early work with the first-team offense, wowing coaches and teammates, but he was reluctant to take a leadership role. No matter how well he performed, his script for 2013 was already written. It was someone else’s team, and he didn’t want to muddy the waters.
When spring ended, however, it was clear to Doeren that he’d found his quarterback of the future. He called Brissett into his office and gave his quarterback a clear mandate.
“The guys need to know it will become your offense by how you practice, how you act, how you are in the locker room,” Doeren told him. “You can’t just be a ghost.”
Brissett offered assurances that wouldn’t happen, but even Doeren was surprised by how thoroughly he grabbed the reins.
Over the summer, Brissett helped organize practices. In the weight room and film room, he was a fixture. Once the season began, Brissett took his role on the scout team seriously, often frustrating NC State’s first-team defense in the process. It was clear the Wolfpack had a budding star.
“The other quarterbacks didn’t really look anyone off,” NC State safety Hakim Jones said. “With Jacoby, you never know what to expect from him. He seemed a lot more advanced.”
Then there was the famed road trip to Tallahassee, which is everyone’s favorite evidence of Brissett’s command of the team.
NC State had a road date with Florida State last October, but because he was a first-year transfer, Brissett couldn’t travel with the team. So he hopped in his car, made the 600-mile drive alone, and arrived -- complete with speeding ticket in Tallahassee -- in time for the game. Teammates were shocked to see him, but the image of Brissett still rallying his troops after NC State fell behind 42-0 at halftime is what stuck.
“Since he cared and he’s not even playing, it let us know it’s a serious matter, and we had to step it up,” receiver Bryan Underwood said.
For all Brissett’s emotion from the sideline, NC State’s offense was a mess throughout much of last season. Starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell, an athletic runner, broke his foot in the opener. His backup, Pete Thomas, was a pure pocket passer, and Doeren was forced to adjust his game plan on the fly. The result was an enigmatic approach, and the Wolfpack never fully gelled around either QB.
This season, things are different, Doeren said. Brissett isn’t the dual-threat nightmare Doeren had in Jordan Lynch at Northern Illinois, but he can make plays with his legs. At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he’s a physical threat with an arm to match. NC State’s receiving corps is young, but Brissett has already established a standard he expects the group to meet. Even before Doeren made it official, the Wolfpack knew Brissett was in charge.
“His skill set is obviously good, and we all know that,” Underwood said. “But outside of throwing the ball and learning the plays, he’s that guy that we can say, he’s going to get us into shape.”
Underwood said he sees aspects of former Wolfpack QBs Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon -- both now starting in the NFL -- in Brissett, and that’s just the beginning of the praise for NC State’s new starter.
Fans get their first chance to see him in action Saturday when NC State holds its annual spring game, and the expectations are high. Brissett understands that, too. The wait was long, but it also served as the perfect preparation for what’s ahead.
“When you’re starting, it’s about making sure that everybody around knows why you’re quarterback,” Brissett said, “and make sure you’re being an example to look up to.”
Indeed, both freshmen safeties have impressed teammates so far. McCain is instinctive, according to senior Jarvis Byrd, looking like a ball hawk in coverage. In that scrimmage, McCain picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown, but at just 175 pounds, he needs to add some bulk. Pratt, on the other hand, is a charging bull in the secondary. At 6-foot-3, nearly 200 pounds, he plays like a linebacker -- a throwback to his high school days when he spent significant time in the box, playing the run -- and still needs refinement in coverage. But when he hits, he hits hard.
“They’re running with the twos because they have to,” safety Hakim Jones said. “We only have four safeties.”
This is the landscape in Raleigh for the nine early enrollees at NC State -- seven scholarship freshmen, along with long snapper Robert Brunstetter and preferred walk-on Ty Linton, a former North Carolina commitment who has played professional baseball for the past four years. There is opportunity at every turn, the result of a disproportionately young roster, but it is also a trial by fire.
“You go through this whole recruiting process and it seems like it should take a long time, but then you get here and it’s fast,” said Bo Hines, one of two freshman wide receivers enrolled for the spring. “Everything is moving.”
By coach Dave Doeren’s math, 71 percent of NC State’s roster this year will be freshmen or sophomores. Many saw action last year as the Wolfpack struggled to fill out a depth chart amid myriad injuries en route to a disastrous 3-9 season in which they didn’t win a game in conference play. The new arrivals, meanwhile, are getting a healthy dose of snaps on the practice field with an eye toward playing time this fall.
It’s a challenge, Doeren admits, but it’s also an investment in the viability of a crucial freshmen class this fall.
“[Many of] those guys are playing with the ones at times out there,” Doeren said. “Just imagine the learning curve for them in August when the other freshmen are coming in. It helps a lot.”
And this spring isn’t simply a chance for the freshmen to dip their toes in the pool and test the waters of life in the ACC. It’s a blank slate, with a chance for them to etch their names into permanent jobs when the Wolfpack open the 2014 season.
“Since Day 1, since we went into the first meeting, [Doeren] said nobody had a guaranteed spot,” Pratt said. “I’m pushing hard to earn my spot.”
Perhaps as important, Doeren said, is the veterans are now pushing harder to keep their spots.
With such a thin roster a year ago, Doeren had little choice but to hand playing time over to unproven players. The results were mixed. Some blossomed, like receiver Jumichael Ramos, who caught 11 passes and scored three times in the final three games of his freshman campaign last year. Some struggled, including a defensive line that featured a trio of freshmen and sophomores who earned regular playing time, but finished 103rd nationally in run defense. Others, like receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (12 catches for 174 yards in his first two games, 10 catches for 107 the rest of the way) did a little of both.
“All of that was to be expected, Doeren said. What concerned the second-year coach was that, after winning playing time by default in 2013, complacency could set in this season. The nine new faces this spring can go a long way toward alleviating those concerns.
[Many of] those guys are playing with the ones at times out there. Just imagine the learning curve for them in August when the other freshmen are coming in. It helps a lot.” -- NC State coach Dave Doeren on early enrollees
“The freshmen are coming to me, asking how to run a route and what the concepts are or just asking how we felt when we came in as freshmen and what we did to play,” Ramos said. “I do feel older. I don’t feel like a freshman anymore.”
Still, Doeren is aware of the reality. Most of the time, it’s 18-year old freshmen asking 19-year old veterans for advice, and that’s not an ideal recipe for success. That makes NC State’s real veterans -- the handful of juniors and seniors like Byrd and Jones -- an immensely valuable asset this spring.
It’s a role they’ve been happy to take on, receiver Bryan Underwood said. Last year, he was a mentor for Ramos and Valdes-Scantling. Now, he’s finding more room under his wing for the new arrivals.
Jones busies himself each night hosting his new protégés in the secondary, too. Pratt and McCain are fixtures in his room, the playbook spread open throughout the evening.
“We came to them with open arms and just -- welcome to the team,” Jones said.
That’s exactly what Doeren was hoping for, but it’s hardly the end of his concerns.
Pratt and Hines and the rest of the new arrivals are still wide-eyed and overmatched more often than not. It’s a learning experience, and for now at least, most of the lessons will be tough ones.
But that’s the other advantage of this big class of early enrollees for NC State. Even after the toughest workouts, the miserable have plenty of company.
“Having those guys around,” Hines said, “we’re all going through the same thing.”
Offensive MVP: Rashard Smith. One of the bright spots on the offense was Smith, who led the team in receiving yards (530) and all-purpose yards (1,201). Smith ended up ranked No. 7 in the ACC in all-purpose yards and No. 3 in punt return average, returning two punts for touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Robert Caldwell. The middle linebacker made quite an impact in his first year in the starting lineup. Caldwell led the team with 105 tackles, including 14.5 for loss. He ended up No. 3 in the ACC in tackles per game (8.8) and 10th in tackles for loss.
Best moment: The 40-14 victory over Louisiana Tech in the season opener. The way the Wolfpack handled a team that won nine games in 2012 gave many people hope there would be plenty to build off. But the injury to Mitchell in that game ended up costing the Wolfpack, who ended up with only two more wins (including a struggle over Richmond).
Worst moment: ACC play. We can single out the moment that could have changed the course of the season -- Bryan Underwood’s long TD run against Clemson that was called back because an official ruled he stepped out of bounds and whistled the play dead. The ACC later said it was “unclear” whether Underwood had indeed stepped out. The touchdown would have given the Wolfpack the lead. Clemson won 26-14.
NC State gets a familiar face under center this Saturday when it heads to Doak Campbell Stadium, as Mitchell will return after a five-game absence caused by a broken bone in his left foot. Recreating familiar scenes against Florida State may be a whole 'nother matter in light of the Seminoles' national statement against the Tigers this past weekend.
"We've got to go down there and play clean and play hard and take a shot at them and keep taking shots at them and hope that we can get a few takeaways and good field position and play well on special teams," Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said during his weekly press conference. "If they don't play well, that'd be great. But I'm anticipating a great Florida State team. That's what we've seen from every game that we've got on tape, is them dominating people. We know we've got to play well.
"The good things is our players have played against them and played well against them, so we know if we do things right we have a chance of winning this football game."
The narrative was similar going into last season's contest in Raleigh, N.C., before then-No. 3 Florida State stumbled in the second half, blowing a 16-0 lead and falling 17-16 to see national title hopes go up in flames with half of a season left to play. The Wolfpack have beaten the last four ranked Seminoles teams they have faced, though only the first of those games, in 2005, was in Tallahassee, Fla.
"I think from last year we learned that if we play to our potential we can play up there with the top teams in the country," offensive lineman Joe Thuney said. "We remember it and I'm sure they do, too. But it is a new year this year and we've just got to focus on taking this game and just giving it our all."
NC State finished just 3-3 after topping Florida State last season, leading to coach Tom O'Brien's firing.
After a 3-1 start this season that included a noble effort against Clemson, the Wolfpack have dropped two in a row and find themselves in an 0-3 hole in ACC play, with the offense averaging just 12.3 points per league contest under quarterback Pete Thomas.
They know the challenge that awaits this weekend against a team ranked No. 2 in the initial BCS standings.
"They capitalize on every opportunity that they have," receiver Bryan Underwood said. "The first play of the game (Clemson) turned it over, the offense came on the field and a couple plays later they scored. They forced a bunch of three-and-outs, they were attacking the players and the quarterback and disrupting a lot of routes, made Tajh Boyd uncomfortable in the pocket. So what I learned from them is they played very, very fast like they always do. They're going to come out ready to go no matter if it's home or away."
Underwood was on the receiving end of the memorable fourth-and-goal play last season, catching a game-winning two-yard pass from Mike Glennon with 16 seconds left to clinch the upset.
The redshirt junior will have a new quarterback looking for him this time around with Mitchell making his return.
Mitchell was a perfect 3-for-3 for 93 yards and a touchdown and tallied 19 yards on five rushes before leaving his Wolfpack debut in the first quarter of a Week 1 win over Louisiana Tech. The redshirt senior and Arkansas transfer dressed for NC State's last contest against Syracuse but opted to let a bye week handle the final phase of his recovery.
"That's been the hardest part," Mitchell said of being so close to a return. "I could've played, but if I got out there I wouldn't have been myself, and me not being able to play to my highest ability wouldn't do any good for the team. I didn't want to go out there and put the team in jeopardy as far as the game or then also putting myself in jeopardy for the rest of the season."
Pitt: The Panthers have played 12 different true freshmen this season, and they are led by rookies in seven different categories. James Conner is their top rusher (353 yards), and receiver Tyler Boyd is their top pass-catcher (23 receptions), scorer (30 points), kick returner (178 yards) and all purpose threat (701 yards). Kicker Chris Blewitt, meanwhile, is the team's top kick-scorer (26 points), while defensive back Terrish Webb is tied for the team lead in fumble recoveries (1).
Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech has allowed just 30 points in the second half, the second-fewest in the ACC. Pitt has scored just 38 points in the second half, the fewest in the ACC. Quarterback Logan Thomas has faced a lot of criticism over the last two seasons but has stepped up his play recently for the Hokies, as he has not thrown an interception in his last two games after getting picked off in each of his previous five games.
Duke: The Blue Devils have displayed remarkable consistency on their offensive line in recent years, as they started Perry Simmons (RT), Laken Tomlinson (RG), Dave Harding (LG) and Takoby Cofield (RT) together in 18 straight games. Simmons, Tomlinson and Harding have started 28 o the past 30 games together. Duke's starting offensive linemen have a combined 128 starts, the most in the ACC. Simmons' 42 straight starts leads the ACC. Center Matt Skura is the only newcomer to the grope this year.
Virginia: Speaking of offensive lines, and upperclassmen ... the Cavaliers have actually gone the opposite way of Duke this season, using three freshmen on their offensive line this season, the most in the nation. Eric Smith started at right tackle last week against Ball State, making him the fourth true freshman in Virginia history to start at offensive tackle. The others are D'Brickashaw Ferguson (2002, LT), Brad Butler (2002, RT) and current starting left tackle Morgan Moses (2010, RT).
Maryland: Andre Monroe had a sack against Florida State, raising his season total to 3.5. The Terrapins are now the only team in the ACC and one of only three teams in the nation (Louisville, USC) to have three different players with at least three sacks on the season, Marcus Whitfield has 5.5 and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil has three. Maryland's 18 sacks on the season are third in the ACC and and fourth nationally.
Syracuse: The Orange are making their ACC road debut this weekend at NC State. Their last conference road debut came at Pitt in 1991, when Syracuse beat the Panthers in its Big East debut, the first of six straight conference road wins the Orange had to start their Big East tenure. Conversely, the Wolfpack are 6-0 all-time against the Orange, most recently beating them 38-17 in 1998. Syracuse was ranked in the top-20 in each of the last two meetings.
NC State: The Wolfpack call it "Rushing Roulette," as they have had five different players lead them in rushing through their first five games. None of those players, however, have eclipsed the 100-yard mark. Matt Dayes (84) led NC State on the ground against Louisiana Tech, followed by Tony Creecy (56) against Richmond, Bryan Underwood (54) against Clemson, Shad Thornton (71) against Central Michigan and Pete Thomas (60) against Wake Forest.
Boston College: The Eagles have lost four of their last five meetings with Clemson, but there have been some key BC wins against the Tigers — notably, BC’s first ACC win in 2005, at Clemson. And in each of the next two years, BC beat ranked Clemson teams. Those BC wins all came before Dabo Swinney took over as Clemson’s head coach. The last time BC knocked off a team ranked third or higher in the AP Poll was 1993, when it beat No. 1 Notre Dame on the road on a last-second field goal. The win landed Boston College on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Since then, BC is 0-6 against teams ranked third or higher, though the Eagles did beat No. 4 Notre Dame 14-7 in 2002.
Clemson: Tajh Boyd continues to light it up and will look to follow up his performance last week against Syracuse when he threw for a school-record 455 yards. That broke his own record, which he set last season against Wake Forest, by 27 yards. This week he needs just 220 yards of total offense to pass Georgia Tech’s Joe Hamilton for second place on the ACC career total offense list.
Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech leads the FBS in rushing yards by the quarterback position (718), while BYU is second with 579 yards. But the Yellow Jackets' passing offense, never a strong suit since Paul Johnson became head coach, has been awful lately, even by program standards. During its last two games, Georgia Tech has completed just 30.2 percent of its throws, the nation's worst mark during that stretch, while averaging just 105 passing yards per game. They have tallied no passing touchdowns and four interceptions, with a total QBR of 30.9.
But the aftermath, receiver Bryan Underwood said, was actually not much different from any other week.
"We just pretty much watched the film, we figured it as a learning experience," Underwood said.
For NC State, it was a painful lesson, but the Wolfpack are not alone. Week 6 proved to be a turning point for a handful of ACC teams that entered Saturday with inflated expectations but ended the day dealing with the fallout of ugly losses.
The task now is to find a way to figure what went wrong last week and begin rebuilding confidence for what lies ahead.
"The mood in the locker room is pretty much determination to get back after it and prove to the fans and the world that we're not going to let one game take us down," Underwood said.
It was hardly the outcome Syracuse had envisioned, but it was an opportunity to measure itself against the ACC's best.
"They’re the No. 3 team in the country for a reason, and they showed that they are a really good football team," tailback Jerome Smith said. "That’s our goal for the future -- to become a team like that.”
If NC State's loss came as a surprise, and Syracuse's thumping was a disappointment, what happened to Maryland was potentially devastating.
The Terrapins opened the season 4-0 for the first time since 2001, and they came to Tallahassee ranked No. 25 in the nation. They left on the wrong side of a 63-0 defeat -- the worst in history for a team ranked in the top 25.
Coach Randy Edsall took the bulk of the blame in the aftermath, but he said his team would be resolved to improve moving forward.
“We weren’t very good, and Florida State’s a very good team," Edsall said. "I know the guys in the locker room. I know who they are, and I know the resolve that we have, and we will be back, and we will look at this and get better.”
But rebounding from a tough loss isn't always easy. The expectations a team worked so hard to build quickly disappear, and the risk in the aftermath is that players lose interest in the details.
Underwood knows how it works. NC State has endured its share of highs and lows during his time in Raleigh, so he knows what to watch for on the practice field after a tough loss.
"Focus and mental toughness," Underwood said. "I just want to see my guys be more focused and mentally tough to get their minds right for Saturday and be ready to go."
NC State hosts Syracuse on Saturday, ensuring one team's season will be rejuvenated, while the other will take another step in the wrong direction.
Maryland has a chance to put its blowout loss in the past when it hosts struggling Virginia.
That's the best cure for what ails a team after disappointment. Just getting back on the field marks a turning point.
"Those kids are smart enough to understand," Edsall said. "We will look at it and move on. We can’t dwell it. This one is over with. We'll learn from it just like the other ones, and now we move onto the next one.”