- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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One year after finishing without a conference victory, the tide has turned for NC State and the summertime pundits are offering plenty of love for the Wolfpack as potential dark-horse candidates for an Atlantic Division title. And, of course, there’s plenty to like about Dave Doeren’s bunch, as Jared Shanker outlined earlier this week.
The concerns are clear, too. Jacoby Brissett lost his top receiver when Bo Hines decided to transfer. Depth is still an issue at several key spots, and the roster remains one of the youngest in the ACC. And, as SB Nation notes in its preview of the Wolfpack’s season, the run defense has some serious weak spots:
“The run defense might get worse. The Pack ranked 91st in Rushing S&P+ and must now replace their top two defensive tackles, two of their top three ends, and run-stuffing linebacker Rodman Noel, who led the team with 11 non-sack tackles for loss.”
A cursory look at NC State’s run defense doesn’t really tell the story. Overall, NC State allowed 4.2 yards per carry (56th nationally) and 169 yards per game (67th), which puts the Wolfpack roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of performance.
Dig a little deeper, however, and the problems are clear. While NC State’s aggregate numbers were average, the Wolfpack faced some of the weakest rushing offenses in the country, including five teams from outside the Power 5 and five others that ranked 40th or worse among Power 5 schools in yards per carry. Given the size of NC State’s defensive line, those are battles it should’ve won more handily.
Then there’s the boom-or-bust factor. For the season, 20.8 percent of non-sack rushing plays went for a loss or no gain against NC State, which was decent (28th among Power 5 teams). But on the other 79 percent of rushing plays, the Wolfpack surrendered 6.71 yards per carry, which ranked 45th among Power 5 schools and ninth in the ACC. Not coincidentally, NC State also ranked 45th among Power 5 schools and ninth in the ACC in yards-after-contact allowed on designed runs.
So, between the personnel losses and problematic numbers, we shouldn’t expect the Wolfpack to stop a lot of runners this year, right? Well, defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable doesn’t sound too concerned.
“I feel very positive about it at this point,” he said. “In the middle to the latter part of the season last year, our guys started performing at a much higher level, and going into this spring and finishing this spring, our guys have a very good understanding of where they’re supposed to be in the structure of the defense, and I think we’ve grown in fundamentals and techniques, position by position.”
And that’s the key. As the SB Nation story noted, scheme was an issue at times, and Huxtable contends it’s simply a matter of improving the football IQ to make the scheme work. And that’s something he saw as last season progressed.
Aside from the Georgia Tech game, when the Yellow Jackets had a whopping 5.6 yards before contact per rush, NC State’s defense really did take a step forward against the run (albeit against some bad rushing offenses), and given the personnel stepping into bigger roles this year, it’s possible those numbers will continue to improve.
NC State’s 2.2 yards before contact per rush on designed runs between the tackles (per ESPN Stats & Information) wasn’t awful last year, but there’s ample enthusiasm that sophomores B.J. Hill (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) and Kentavius Street (6-2, 310) can be elite run-stuffers in starting roles. Both had impressive springs, and Huxtable raved about what the duo might accomplish.
“B.J. really played well and just grew with confidence,” Huxtable said. “He’s a guy who’s just Mr. Steady, plays with his hands and controls his gap. He does a great job of setting blocks and pursuing the ball. … [Street] is a hard worker and a tough kid. And he’s got the size and strength, and he’s a tremendously quick kid. We’re hoping he can be a big playmaker for us.”
Containing the outside runs, however, is a lingering concern. NC State allowed an ugly 3.6 yards before contact on designed runs outside the tackles last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information, with 21 percent gaining 10 yards or more. Teams averaging 5.8 yards per carry outside the tackles.
Again, however, Huxtable sees potential. Linebackers Airius Moore and Jerod Fernandez bring a lot of athleticism to that unit, and they might be better equipped to counter the outside runs. Nickelback Dravious Wright turned some heads this spring, too, and Huxtable is confident he’ll can be a force closer to the line of scrimmage. But the biggest question might be at end, where Mike Rose returns as the team’s leading pass-rusher (five sacks in 2014), but established depth is in short supply. Bradley Chubb is at the top of the depth chart now, and NC State fans continue to wait on the development of Pharoah McKever. The real wild card might be freshman Darian Roseboro, who checks in at 280 pounds and has the potential to be a game-changer.
“He got a whole lot of reps this spring with Mike Rose being out, and he really started to flash during the latter part of spring,” Huxtable said. “He has great movement and can run, but at the start of the spring, he was thinking a lot and trying to figure things out. But I saw him getting more and more confidence and understanding the defense, and that allows him to play fast. And when he figures it out, he’s a big, strong kid who can be a disruptive player for us.”
Of course, maybe all the development up front won’t need to happen overnight. NC State’s schedule is once again favorable, particularly when it comes to running games. Its 11 FBS foes averaged just 3.93 yards-per-carry last year — meaning the tests won’t be routine for NC State’s defensive line.
Still, the narrative for the Wolfpack right now is all about growth. It’s a team that’s improved by leaps and bounds, so the optimism — even in areas with real question marks — is understandably high.
“We’re excited about the group of guys on the defensive line,” Huxtable said. “I’ve seen them work very hard this offseason. We were very young last year, but a lot of those guys who played for the first time last year have that experience. I’m very excited about the whole group.”