Getting to know the Pack, part one

Earlier this week, CUTigers caught up with James Henderson, publisher of the N.C. State Scout site,

In the first of our two-part Q and A with Henderson, we discuss the N.C. State offense and defense.

For those that haven't watched N.C. State's offense, what does it look like?
Henderson: One thing with them, their approach is a little different than a lot of these no-huddle or spread teams. The first couple of games, what stood out to me is they still maintain a power running game. They're in the shotgun. They utilize a lot of H-backs and fullbacks. They'll go with a triple-option look in the backfield where you'll have the quarterback lined up in a pistol formation with the halfback lined up behind him, but he'll have a fullback and an H-back lined up beside the quarterback. You'll have three backs in the backfield and you can run the ball with both of those guys lead blocking. Their offense is still based on power running. Even though it's a spread, no-huddle, they really want to run the football and run the clock. I think time of possession for them is going to be big. They're going to really try and play fast, but also run the football.

They're not going to be a team that's looking to throw for 400 or 500 yards on you. They want to be balance and run for 250 and throw for 250. Really, it's going to come down to trying to establish a power running game. The way they look to do it is try to generate different numbers. They want to have seven blockers on six guys, so they do it with a lot of motioning. They're really using the H-back, fullback and tight ends a lot in this offense, which I think is kind of unique. You don't really see a lot of that in most of these spreads these days. Teams seem to be going four and five wide receivers.

N.C. State QB Pete Thomas transferred into the football program from Colorado State. (Getty Images)
What's the quarterback situation? Is it all Pete Thomas at this point?
Henderson: That's the guy right now. The starter, Brandon Mitchell, he's out for probably another three or four weeks. Thomas is the guy. What they've been doing, they're bringing in a true freshman, Bryant Shirreffs, who's 6-3, 225-230, but he's more of just a runner. They really use a quarterback a lot in the run game. With the original starting quarterback, they were going to run it with him. It's a lot like Clemson. They'll run Tajh Boyd on second-and-9, if you get into short situations. That's kind of what State's doing with Shirreffs. They're bringing him in to run the ball. It's kind of like a Wildcat look.

In the last game, he had two touchdowns, one running and one passing. He's a guy they're going to use a lot. Thomas can run the football, but what Doeren has said, they don't want him running much. As far as passer, they don't have many behind him on the depth chart. They don't want to risk him getting hurt. When they want to start running the ball with the quarterback, they're going to bring Shirreffs in and let him run it. He also has the ability to pass. He's not just a receiver that's just back there to run the Wildcat. I think, the last game, he might have attempted four or five passes. I think that's where they are with quarterback. You'll see Thomas get 85-90 percent of the snaps. They'll bring in Shirreffs to give a different look and try and break a big play.

How about running back? What's going on there? What's going on with Shadrach Thornton?
Henderson: He missed the first game. He was out with a suspension. He came back for the second game and took a kickoff. He bobbled it, fumbled it, muffed it. He recovered it. But, after that, he never got back into the game. I think he's kind of working his way back. Right now, they have Tony Creecy, a junior, and Matt Dayes, a freshman, are rotating at running back. Both those guys will get carries. They're trying to run the football. The ideal situation is both of those backs will get between 15 and 20 carries a game. It's kind of a split situation. Dayes has been the more productive back, to this point. He was a really highly recruited kid they landed late in the process. I think he picked them over Miami, Tennessee, Arkansas. He looked at all of those schools. He's from Florida. He's a really good, young running back. He's been their most productive offensive player so far. I think he had three touchdowns in the opener. He had an 80-yard touchdown in the last game. He's the guy that's kind of starting to really making a surge there, but is still backing up Creecy for time. But you'll probably see him play more than Creecy, given his production here recently. I still think they're going to try and find a way to work Shadrach in. Some might think he's the most talented back. He had a good game, I think, last year against Clemson. I wouldn't be surprised if he came back this game and really had a bigger role, just because he's a really talented kid I think they have high hopes for. He's just kind of, I guess, caught in the doghouse a little bit.

Who's standing out at receiver?
Henderson: Probably the best receiver they have is another true freshman named Marquez Valdes. I think he's had four or five catches in the first couple of games, really explosive, 6-4, about 190, can catch the ball short and break big runs. He can beat you vertically. I've been really impressed with him. They brought back three receivers that had a lot of production last year, but he's easily been the most impressive guy. I'm not talking about from a numbers standpoint, but just kind of passing the look test. You can tell when a kid has a different gear than some others, more quick-twitch. I'm not saying he's Sammy Watkins, but that kind of a look to him where he can catch the ball and get up the field, just really quick. He's been, by far, their most impressive receiver.

Then, you've got Rashard Smith. He's been another guy that's really stood out. They've used him a lot of different ways. They run jet sweeps with him. He's really big in the screen game. He returns punts, returns kicks. Those are the top two receivers right now. They receive the majority of the looks when they are passing the football. I don't know the exact numbers, but I'd say they've probably made 60-70 percent of the plays right now at receiver.

Any reason why tight end Asa Watson has caught just one pass this season?
Henderson: I think it's more they rotate in and it's just kind of been the way it's been geared. The first game, they came out and really used the H-back, fullback and tight end -- they kind of group all those guys together. Asa, he'll line-up in the backfield on some plays. He'll line-up as a traditional tight end. He might flex-out some. In the first game, I think that was when he had his catch. They were using the fullback and H-back a lot. They had eight or nine catches. The last game, they didn't throw to them at all. It was kind of a different scheme, a different offensive plan for their opponent, to where they didn't use him. I think, maybe, they just kind of scaled it back a little bit for Richmond. He's a guy, I think, they're going to have to get going moving forward. He can be matchup problem in their offense and the way I think they're going to try and use the H-back and fullback. It's a big part of their offense. Those guys are blocking and leaking out, running wheel routes down the sideline. They hit a couple of big plays to them in the first game.

N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren came from Northern Illinois after winning back-to-back MAC Championships. (Getty Images)
How about the defense, what's changed there? Any major changes in philosophy?
Henderson: It's still a 4-3 look like the previous staff. It's not a drastic change that you saw on offense. One of the biggest changes is it's a lot less blitzing. The defense reminds me of Boston College. They don't really blitz a lot. They don't really sub out a lot. They're in a base 4-3. Their job is to kind of keep them in front of you and make the tackle. They don't gamble a lot. That's what this staff is doing. They're trying to rely on their front four to generate pressure. They're just trying to make tackles in space. They're not trying to be flashy. The previous staff, every other play, you're seeing five or six guys blitz, which is great when you get to the quarterback.

If you can't, you're giving up big plays. This staff hasn't done that. You haven't really seen a lot of big plays allowed. They played two spread teams in the first two games and they gave up 14 points and 21 points. Even though it's Richmond and Louisiana Tech, in college football, you play spread teams and teams are going to put up points and yards on you…they've been one of those bend, don't break-type defenses.

Chad Morris said some good things about the State d-tackles. Is that the strength of this defense, Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill?
Henderson: Without a doubt, you could make a case, they might be the two best players on the team. Those two guys could be NFL guys down the line. Both of them are run stuffing tackles. And they can rush the passer. They generate pressure from up the middle and it makes it harder on quarterbacks. They're constantly trying to push the pocket. Doeren has mentioned that might be their deepest position.

They feel they can go six-deep at defensive tackle. That's the other thing they do, they rotate in and keep those two guys fresh. And they're much improved from last year…all of those guys up front dropped weight. So, now, McGill is down to around 285. McGill is 305. They're really lighter and more explosive, generate more pressure themselves. They've really improved this year because of it, from a statistical standpoint.

Who's going to standout at linebacker?
Henderson: They brought back up D.J. Green. He had to sit out last year for NCAA rule violation. He took a banned substance and had to sit-out the year. He's back at outside linebacker. He's probably their best linebacker. At weak-side, they've got two guys, Brandon Pittman and M.J. Salahuddin, who are two athletic kids. That's the biggest change with them, defensively. At linebacker, they want more of an athletic look. Last year, they were playing guys more squatty, 230 and 240-pound linebackers. Now, they've got guys 225 pounds playing out in space. They feel like that makes them a little better, from a tackling and agility standpoint, so that's kind of what they've been doing there. Once they go on third-and-medium or third-and-long, they go with a Dime look where they have one linebacker on the field and they bringing in six DBs, which I'm sure a lot of teams do now, but that's what they've done to get more speed and better tacklers on the field. I think you'll see a lot of that as well.

Where do things stand in the secondary?
Henderson: Corner is probably their best position in the secondary. They bring back Dontae Johnson, a starter all last season. Juston Burris played a lot for them. He's a sophomore. He played a lot last year as well. At safety, they feel like they've got a couple of athletic kids there. They're just low on experience. One of the guys, Jarvis Byrd, he's a senior who spent his first three years at corner, and they've moved him over to safety to have another good cover guy out there. They're essentially playing with three corners and a safety. The other is Hakim Jones. He's a sophomore. He played a little bit last year. That's kind of been the biggest question-mark. I think those guys have played well early on this year. There really haven't been, defensively, to me, glaring issues. But you haven't faced a Clemson or a Florida State, a Georgia Tech or a team like that yet. You really don't know what you've got. Top Stories