The North Carolina State Wolfpack have nowhere to go but up after last season, which was marred by seven fourth-quarter collapses with wins up-for-grabs and zero victories in ACC play for the first time since 1959. After letting head coach Tom O’Brien go for producing mediocre teams, Dave Doeren‘s 3-9 record in his first season was a step in the wrong direction.
However, 2014 offers a fresh start for the Wolfpack, who have found their leader at quarterback in Florida Gators transfer Jacoby Brissett. North Carolina State will also be boosted by the return of healthy senior wide receiver Bryan Underwood and junior running back Shadrach Thornton, who is on the verge of solidifying his status as one of the conference’s best backs.
NC State was pitiful on offense in 2013, finishing 70th in total offense (403.5 ypg) and 97th in scoring (22.8 ppg) with more interceptions than touchdowns (15-11). The 6-foot-4, dual-threat Brissett should offer stability at the very least, as he enters the season with the complete confidence of the coaching staff as the team’s starter. While the junior offers an improvement for the Pack under center, his offensive line will have to show maturation this season if the team is going to cash in. After surrendering 35 sacks in 2013, the line will look to senior LT Rob Crisp, who earned an additional year of eligibility after missing most of 2013 with a concussion, to lead a resurgence.
Brissett will at least have Underwood and Thornton for playmaking and experience. After hauling in ten touchdowns on just 44 receptions in 2012, Underwood was limited last season by his teammates and a broken collarbone that cost him the final five games. If he can stay on the field, he could make plenty of return trips to the end zone. Thornton ran for 768 yards (4.7 yards per carry) as a sophomore, including 173 yards and two touchdowns against the eventual National Champion Florida State Seminoles. An improved line and capable quarterback could easily push him past 1,000 yards this year. Freshman receiver Bo Hines is another name to watch.
The Wolfpack have switched to a base nickel defense with the influx of spread offenses in the ACC, which also helps shore up the lack of experience at linebacker, a position that was previously a strength of the program. Something needed to be changed after the 2013 squad finished 120th nationally in red zone defense. Thankfully, North Carolina State does return significant playing time in the secondary with corners Juston Burris and Jack Tocho and safety Hakim Jones. Redshirt freshman Josh Jones projects as a solid tackler who will figure into the mix.
NC State lost Robert Caldwell‘s 105 tackles at middle linebacker, which will now be manned by M.J. Salahuddin. The outside linebacker spot will rely on seniors Rodman Noel and Brandon Pittman to provide some leadership.
Up front the Wolfpack appear to feature a lot of talent, but the unit needs to produce more than 20 sacks this year. Seniors T.Y. McGill and Thomas Teal offer 39 combined starts in the middle, but freshman B.J. Hill could displace Teal. Art Norman and Mike Rose return at the top of the depth chart at the end spots, and highly-rated incoming freshman Kentavius Street should also get playing time.
NC State’s schedule will play a significant role in their shot at a 6-6 record — and maybe a bowl game — in 2014. The Wolfpack could navigate the non-conference slate fairly easily to a 4-0 record, with home games against the Georgia Southern Eagles, Old Dominion Monarchs and Presbyterian Blue Hose all looking winnable and a road game against the South Florida Bulls also leaning in NC State’s favor. The ACC portion of the schedule is another story.
With North Carolina State looking like the underdog in all of their toughest games, they will likely have to secure wins in at least two of the following three games to become bowl-eligible: Oct. 11 vs. Boston College, Nov. 8 vs. Georgia Tech and Nov. 15 vs. Wake Forest. Though all three are at home, the final game of the bunch against the rival Demon Deacons could decide the bowl fates of both schools.