With USF’s season opener rapidly approaching, we reached out to our friends over at Backing The Pack—SB Nation’s NC State blog—to get more information on the Bulls opponent on Thursday night. [Ed. note: I was absolutely giddy writing “Thursday night. LFGOOO]
Huge shoutout to Steven Muma at BTP for answering these questions for us.
The Daily Stampede: With so many pieces returning on offense, what are the expectations for the Wolfpack this year?
Backing The Pack: I expect that group to be better and it definitely should be pending the health of Devin Leary, who missed two-thirds of last season thanks to a serious leg injury. Backup Bailey Hockman did an admirable job overall but put a lower ceiling on the offense in general. NC State also went into last season with a new offensive coordinator and I think a full offseason with that system will make a difference as well. The skill talent is excellent, and if Leary builds on the flashes he showed when he was healthy, the offense is going to be good.
The Daily Stampede: What would you consider the weakness of the offense and defense?
Backing The Pack: NC State’s offensive line was average at best on running plays last season and needs to do a better job of opening up holes. It’d be helpful, especially early as Devin Leary gets reacclimated, to take some pressure off of the passing game. The running backs are plenty capable of springing big plays but need more help if the ground game is to become a more consistent threat.
Defensively, NC State has had its problems getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. There were also times last year where the run defense just completely disappeared, including three of the team’s four losses. With so much depth back, I’m hopeful that those issues will be mitigated.
The Daily Stampede: Who are some players we should be aware of heading into the game?
Backing The Pack: Running back Zonovan Knight is the Pack’s best ball-carrier and with enough touches should have a chance at a 1,000-yard season. Knight’s ability to run through contact is what separates him—despite the line’s problems, he still managed to average 5.5 yards per carry, which was more than two yards above the team’s collective average per carry. Thayer Thomas (42 catches, 526 yards, 6 TD) and Emeka Emezie (47 catches, 738 yards, 5 TD in ‘20) are the vets of the receiving corps and should feature prominently, Thomas in the slot primarily and Emezie on the outside. Thomas also returns punts.
The defense is headlined by linebacker Payton Wilson, who had 108 tackles last fall. The linebacking corps figures to be a major strength with Wilson, Isaiah Moore (94 tackles in ‘20), and Drake Thomas (58) starting.
The Daily Stampede: Are you satisfied where the program is (consistent 8-9 wins)? Do you think it’s realistic for NC State to be better considering they’re in a division with Clemson?
Backing The Pack: I harbor no illusions that NC State will close the talent gap with Clemson, so yeah, I’m pretty good with where we’re at. There is no historical precedent for the football program being better than this for an extended stretch of time and I’m fine with a consistent run of solid winning seasons with the occasional potential for an everything-comes-together breakthrough season. (Like this one, maybe?) Win 7-8 games every year with a shot at hitting 10 wins every now and then is the realistic ideal, I think. Dave Doeren won’t be confused with Nick Saban anytime soon, but Doeren has established a good culture and he’s a good evaluator of talent. He has NC State football in a healthy place.
The Daily Stampede: What year will the team be overrun with Phillip Rivers’ kids?
Backing The Pack: Phil’s only got two sons at this point, but I figure the eventual cast of thousands that will be his group of grandchildren will be able to fill the two-deep entirely by 2060. Just gotta bide our time until then.
The Daily Stampede: Is there mounting pressure to step it up now that North Carolina is gaining momentum?
Backing The Pack: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some of that given how quickly UNC has been able to take a step forward under Mack Brown, but then again, NC State is going to get out-recruited by the Tar Heels pretty much every year, regardless of who is the coach there. That’s just something I’ve accepted, and I’m good with where State is at as a program, though no doubt there will be some extra pressure this year since the last two meetings with the Heels were not competitive.
The Daily Stampede: Outer Banks season 2...thoughts?
Backing The Pack: The only thing I know about that show is that it includes a goof that implies a ferry between the coast and Chapel Hill. Which would be one hell of a ferry. Who knows, give climate change another few decades and maybe that could be a real thing.
The Daily Stampede: Have you considered making the nWo Wolfpac theme your fight song?
Backing The Pack: NC State essentially has two fight songs already, so why not a third? Actually don’t much care for the tune myself but maybe it could provide an edge that’s been lacking