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NC State Wolfpack preview

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Jacoby Brissett is one of the many reasons for optimism at NC State. Ethan Hyman/Getty Images

A season after going winless in the ACC, the Wolfpack capped ’14 with a bowl victory. Now QB Jacoby Brissett returns along with 14 other starters, creating more buzz than Raleigh has heard inrecent memory. A soft opening slate and Clemson at home bode well for sustaining the momentum.

Offense

How the Wolfpack beat you: Brissett, a Florida transfer, wasn’t impeccable in his first year as the starter, but he showed the promise (23 pass TDs, No. 3 in the ACC; 17 from the red zone, an ACC high) and maturity (1.4 percent INT rate, No. 10 in the FBS) to be one of the league’s elite. Although leading WR Bo Hines left for Yale, Brissett does have junior TE David J. Grinnage (358 yards, 5 TDs). Another outlet for Brissett, junior RB Matt Dayes (573 yards rushing, 321 yards receiving, 13 total TDs), has said he aims to gain 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving. Dayes’ biggest hurdle might be the balance of NC State’s system: Senior Shadrach Thornton will continue to get carries, and Brissett remains a top dual threat QB (529 yards rushing, 3 TDs).

How you beat the Wolfpack: If there was one area where the passing game fell short, it was in protection: 29 sacks at a 7.1 percent clip, both 11th in the ACC. Two new starters arrive on the O-line, and the loss of Hines means junior WR Bra’Lon Cherry is the most experienced outside target (27 catches, 354 yards). Juniors Stephen Louis and Jumichael Ramos combined for just 22 catches. Brissett certainly has the wheels to escape the rush, but without a downfield threat, the margin for error becomes much slimmer.

Defense

How the Wolfpack beat you: The secondary is among the most experienced in the ACC, and coach Dave Doeren is expecting improvement (205 pass yards per game, No. 7 in the ACC). All six letter winners return at corner, led by senior Juston Burris and junior Jack Tocho, who have five years of starting experience combined. And four of the team’s top five tacklers are in the back seven: senior FS Hakim Jones, sophomore LB Jerod Fernandez, junior nickelback Dravious Wright and sophomore SS Josh Jones, who had a team-high 4 INTs. More picks (just 10 in ’14) would help prop up a young defensive front.

How you beat the Woldpack: Coordinator Dave Huxtable was frank in his assessment: “We have a lot of new faces at defensive end, so that’s a position of concern—we really have to build some depth across the whole front seven.” The major loss on the edge was Art Norman (team-high 6½ sacks), but Huxtable also lost his two-deep at one of the tackle spots in T.Y. McGill and Thomas Teal (16 tackles for loss combined), as well as weakside LB Rodman Noel (12 tackles for loss). Even with that stacked group, the Wolfpack ranked just 10th in the ACC in rush yards per game (168) and 13th in third-down conversion rate (48.5 percent).