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College Football Preview 2022: 7. NC State Wolfpack

Devin Leary, NC State

7. NC State Wolfpack

Balanced on both sides of the ball with an elite QB under center, it could be a special season in Raleigh

2021 Review
NC State was a pleasant surprise during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, recovering from a dismal 2019 to go 8-4. They hoped to build on that in 2021, but things turn a sharp turn early when the offense disappeared during a 24-10 loss to Mississippi State in Starkville. After pounding Furman, the Wolfpack managed to pull off a program-defining victory, one of their greatest in years, by toppling Clemson in overtime. The win put them in the driver's seat in the ACC Atlantic before a heartbreaking loss to Miami in late October. They reeled off two more wins before a meeting with Wake Forest, a game that was a de facto ACC Atlantic Championship Game. The two went back and forth the entire way, but the Demon Deacons came out on top, securing the division title. NC State won their final two in the regular season and were set to play UCLA in the Holiday Bowl, before its eventual cancellation due to COVID. The 9-3 finish was a strong encore to 2020, but left NC State fans hungry for more as they look ahead to 2022.

2022 Outlook
Offense: NC State is hoping for more balance on offense this year. Despite having two capable backs in Ricky Person Jr. and Zonovan "Bam" Knight, they ranked 13th in the ACC in rushing. Meanwhile, QB Devin Leary led an aerial attack that finished Top 20 nationally.

Leary is back in the fold after a breakthrough junior campaign that saw him throw for 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns. He's proven to be an accurate passer and excellent decision-maker who has caught the eye of NFL scouts. With plenty back at receiver, he's a legitimate Heisman candidate, assuming he can stay healthy.

Knight and Person Jr. split time evenly in the Wolfpack backfield a season ago, with Knight finishing with 753 yards. Now that both have departed, expect NC State to lean on a true committee approach, which includes junior Jordan Houston, sophomore Demie Sumo-Karngbaye, and true freshman Michael Allen. Houston ran for over 500 yards in 2019 but has since seen his role diminished, while Allen has the highest ceiling of the trio.

This has a chance to be one of the ACC's best receiver corps, even in a division known for its talent at the position. Senior Thayer Thomas finished behind Emeka Emezie in receiving last fall but should now take over as the top target. Thomas isn't the most explosive, athletic wide out in the sport, but he's got incredibly reliable hands and is a polished route runner. Junior Devin Carter emerged as a real threat in 2021 and has the potential to do even more damage this year. Then there's sophomore Porter Rooks, a former big-name recruit who has flashed in his two years on campus, but is still putting it all together. The depth behind the top three is lacking, but such a skilled trio should give Leary more than enough to work for in 2022.

Tight end Trent Pennix began his career as a running back before transitioning to the tight end spot as a result of injuries. He's improved rapidly at the position and should be a solid piece of this offense, but will need to work his way back from injury, which cost him the spring. If he's not 100 percent for the opener, we could see sophomore Christopher Toudle featured more this season.

There is one massive loss on the offensive line, quite literally. Gigantic left tackle Ikem Ekwonu was an All-American in 2021 and parlayed that into a Top 10 selection in this spring's NFL Draft. Anthony Belton, a redshirt sophomore, got the start in his place in the spring game and has the edge to start. The rest of this unit is in good shape, with three starters back to anchor the interior. 

NC State finished middle-of-the-pack in both scoring and total offense last fall, but the ingredients are in place for improvement in 2022. Leary should become the great NC State QB to move on to the NFL, and the receiver corps and offensive line are strong. It wouldn't shock me if this is one of the ACC's best this time around.

Defense: Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson doesn't receive a ton of national attention for his work in Raleigh, but I firmly believe he should have been a Broyles Award contender last year. Despite this defense being plagued by injury, the Wolfpack finished 14th in the country in scoring defense and 21st in total defense. With ten starters back looking ahead to 2022, this could be one of the stingiest anywhere in the nation.

Savion Jackson and C.J. Clark both missed time with injury on the defensive line last season, but should be healthy for 2022. They'll pair with steady veteran Cory Durden, who should once again man the nose tackle spot. Sophomore Davin Vann has a good chance to round out the starting lineup up front, following a 2021 in which he totaled four sacks as a reserve. There isn't a star amongst this trio, but it should be a quality group that spearheads a stout rush defense.

The linebacker corps could seriously challenge as one of the country's best, but they absolutely need to stay healthy. Isaiah Moore and Payton Wilson, a pair of program stalwarts, missed serious time in 2021, but both returned. Wilson has been oft-injured throughout his time in Raleigh, but is an All-ACC talent when 100 percent, while Moore is coming back from a torn ACL. Moore missed the spring as he continued to rehab, but NC State is hopeful he will be the starting middle linebacker for the opener against East Carolina. 

Junior Drake Thomas took advantage of the unfortunate injuries to Moore and Wilson, enjoying a breakout campaign. He led the team in tackles, tied for the team lead in sacks, and led in interceptions, one of which he took back to the house. He took full advantage of a temporary shift to middle linebacker, but with Moore hopefully back, the Wolfpack are expecting Thomas back on the outside, where he'll have more freedom to ravage opposing backfields.

The pass defense was not bad by any stretch of the imagination in 2021, but struggled in all three of NC State's losses. Fortunately, there's a bunch of experience back, and this unit should also be much healthier. Corners Derek Pitts Jr. and Shyheim Battle set the tone, two productive defenders who played well a year ago. Battle is a bit more versatile with what he can do, but Battle is a youngster still scratching surface of what he can be in an NC State uniform.

After struggling through a nagging hamstring injury in 2020, safety Tanner Ingle emerged as one of the best in the country last season. He earned All-ACC accolades after notching 82 tackles, and could be a potential Jim Thorpe Award candidate this year. It will be interesting to see what happens at the other safety spot. Senior Cyrus Fagan began last season as the starting safety but was done for the year after the Mississippi State game, forcing Jakeen Harris into action. With both set to return to action this season, there should be plenty of competition for snaps.

It's highly unlikely NC State will struggle through so many injuries this season and with so much experience returning, this has a chance to be a truly special group. There's at least four players (Ingle, Thomas, Moore, and Wilson) who will warrant All-Conference consideration and plenty more who should contribute. This not only has a chance to be the best defense in the ACC, but a Top 5-10 group on the national level.

Special Teams: Kicker Christopher Dunn is one of the best around, and a serious Lou Groza Award frontrunner. He took a step-back in 2021, going 13-19 on field goals, but has never missed an extra point in his NC State career. Punter is more of a question; Trenton Gill is gone, so the Wolfpack are hopeful Towson transfer Shane McDonough can get comfortable quickly.

Bottom Line: NC State has been one of the ACC's most consistently good, but not great, programs. In the past two decades, they've played in 13 bowls (14 if you include the cancelled Holiday Bowl), have won at least eight games nine separate times, and have sent a bunch of talent to the NFL. At the same time, they haven't hit the 10-win plateau since 2002 and haven't won a conference championship since 1979. Is 2022 the team to finally break through and become a factor on the national scene? Both sides of the ball are strong, experienced, and deep, and Devin Leary is the most talented player to start at NC State since Russell Wilson. The schedule is not exactly a breeze, particularly a brutal October stretch that includes a trip to Clemson, but you can easily find 9-10 regular season wins here. They may still be a step below Clemson inside the division, but the gap is thinner than it's been in year's past and they might actually have less questions than the Tigers entering 2022. I'm buying the stock here; the Wolfpack will be a serious CFB Playoff contender and will be playing in a New Year's Six bowl to conclude the season.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Dave Doeren enters his tenth season as NC State head man, one of the longest-tenured coaches in Power Five football. So far with the Wolfpack, Doeren has gone 64-49 overall but is sub-.500 in the ACC at 34-40. Prior to his time in Raleigh, Doeren served as Northern Illinois head coach, leading them to an Orange Bowl in 2012. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck has served at several big-name universities in the same role, but never been a head coach at the collegiate level. After stints with Nebraska, Ohio State, and Texas, Beck has taken a less high-profile gig with NC State, entering his third year running the offense. Defensively, Tony Gibson enters his fourth season with the program, his third as DC/LB coach. Prior to NC State, he spent a long time at West Virginia and before that, held several assistant coach positions across the college football landscape.

Recruiting Breakdown
Competing against several other Power Five institutions in the state, NC State's coaching staff always has their work cut out bringing in high-caliber talent. The 2022 Class ranks lower than previous groups, coming in 64th in the 247Sports Composite, a smaller class than normal. Four-stars Michael Allen, Brandon Cleveland, Torren Wright, and M.J. Morris headline the group. Allen could be a good bet to play right away with the departures in the backfield; the speedy, 5'9" tailback was a key in-state commit. Cleveland and Wright will have to bulk up on the defensive side before being viewed as contributors, while Morris is an interesting get at quarterback. He's the best athlete Doeren has had at the position since taking over at NC State, but seems like the type of signal-caller that will need time to develop. Will he be fine waiting behind Devin Leary and backup Ben Finley for a few years? Keep an eye on three-star defensive linemen Nick Campbell, out of Florida. He had a bunch of other Power Five interest and could be used several different ways; he played defensive end in high school but could be a standup outside linebacker in college.

2022 X-Factor: Jordan Houston, RB
Although NC State's rushing numbers were underwhelming in 2021, there's no denying that losing both Bam Knight and Ricky Person Jr. is significant. The combo paired for over 1,200 yards a season ago and were multi-year contributors during their time in Raleigh. NC State is likely to lean on a true committee approach this fall, but is hoping veteran Jordan Houston can emerge as the alpha in the room. Houston took advantage of an injury to Person in 2019, finishing with 526 yards on the year, despite being a true freshman. However, when Person returned, the opportunities diminished and Houston has spent most of the past two seasons playing on special teams. Entering his senior year with clear opportunities in front of him, Houston should be in store for a resurgent campaign leading a Wolfpack ground attack that hopes to be more explosiveness this fall. He looked awfully impressive in the spring game and should have ample rushing lanes to work with, as defenses key on Devin Leary and stopping the passing game.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 ACC)
Offensive MVP: QB Devin Leary
Defensive MVP: S Tanner Ingle
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Porter Rooks
Impact Freshman: RB Michael Allen

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