NC State Wolfpack — 2020 Syracuse Football preview

Dino Babers
Syracuse coach Dino Babers directs practice. Mandatory photo credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will continue its 2020 ACC schedule on November 14 against NC State.

DOWN SEASON

NC State coach Dave Doeren headed into the 2019 season with plenty of momentum. The Wolfpack was fresh off its second consecutive nine-win season, and its fifth straight appearance in a bowl game.

But a slew of injuries, instability at quarterback and the installation of a new 3-3-5 defense caused a major backslide for NC State, as they staggered to a 4-8 record, and a seventh place finish in the ACC Atlantic.

That led to a slew of offseason changes for Doeren, as he hired five new coaches, including new coordinators. He’s hoping that last year’s injuries were a fluke, his young quarterback is ready to take a step forward, and the coaching staff changes will allow NC State to reach the postseason for the sixth time in seven years.

OFFENSIVE STRUGGLES

Doeren established himself for being an offensive innovator, and 5,000 total yard seasons had become a thing of the norm. The team even came close to 6,000 yard in 2018.

But that wasn’t the case in 2019, with the team failing to top 28 points in a conference game, and falling to 12th in the ACC in total points. In fairness, the offense had key injuries along the offensive line and also at running back.

Perhaps the biggest factor for the struggles came from quarterback. Matt McKay started the first five games of the season before Doeren benched him in favor of freshman Devin Leary. McKay transferred to Montana State in the offseason, leaving Leary as the likely starter.

But the team will need a big step forward from him, as he completed just 48 percent of his passes last year. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck, freshly hired away from Texas, has other options under center, including sophomore Bailey Hockman and freshmen Ben Finley and Ty Evans.

» Related: Previewing SU’s game against Wake Forest

Beck also has the luxury of a deep and talented running back core, which returns every major contributor from last year. The best of the group is Bam Knight, who is coming off a 745 yard, five touchdown season.

If NC State can get tackles Justin Witt and Tyrone Riley, and blocking tight end  Dylan Autenriet fully healthy from injuries, expect the offense to significantly improve from where they finished last year (107th in the NCAA).

KEEPING THE 3-3-5 DEFENSE

Tony Gibson was promoted to defensive coordinator in the offseason, and will continue to show his 3-3-5 look.

That means heavy reliance on stud linebackers Payton Wilson, Drake Thomas and Isaiah Moore. That group is also bolstered by incoming USC transfer Vi Jones.

Gibson will need to lean on his LBs because his defensive line took a major hit in the offseason with linemen Joseph Boletepeli (West Virignia), Jeffrey Gunter (Coastal Carolina) and Xavier Lyas (Northern Arizona) all hitting the transfer portal. They joined star lineman Larrell Murchison (drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft) in leaving the team.

But Doeren was able to work the transfer portal in his favor, landing former Penn State defensive end Daniel Joseph for his graduate year. He’ll join a group that includes tackles Alim McNeill and Joshua Harris along with end Savion Jackson.

NC State also needs more from its secondary, which finished 103rd in the country in passing defense, and combined for a grand total of two interceptions in 2019. Both of those picks came from cornerback Chris Ingram, who is still working his way back from a knee injury.

Safety Jarius Morehead and cornerback Kishawn Miller are gone, which means the Wolfpack will need to lean on Tanner Ingle (second on the team with 68 tackles), though he struggled in pass coverage.

BACK TO A BOWL GAME?

NC State’s non-conference schedule is manageable, with games against Troy, Liberty and Delaware, though they will host Mississippi State on Sept. 12. There are three wins there, and the crossover Coastal game is against North Carolina.

The potential is certainly there to be the second best team in the Atlantic by season’s end, though to get there, Doeren will need to keep his team healthy and make sure his quarterback, defensive line and secondary take big steps forward.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2562 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also worked for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChengWes.