Pack Pride's James Henderson, Steve Williams, Rob McLamb, and Bryant Carson answer several critical questions facing NC State's offense heading into the 2016 season.
1. What do you feel was the biggest problem for NC State last season?
James Henderson: The inability to generate consistent big plays in the passing game and production at wide receiver.
NC State had a strong rushing attack and the backs and tight ends were as good as anyone in the conference as receivers, but the wideouts didn't receive a lot of targets and were rarely featured. The lack of perimeter production allowed stronger defenses to load the box and forced State to grind out drives.
It's hard to upset opponents or win 50-50 games when you must grind out drives and the defense can focus primarily on the box.
Steve Williams: Clearly the biggest difference in State’s wins and losses last year was the inability to run the football against the tougher opponents.
In five of the Pack’s six losses they lost the rushing battle. That stat will only be magnified in importance this season as State will desperately need an effective ground game to keep pressure off of an inexperienced quarterback.
Rob McLamb: The wide receiver group struggled. Had it been more successful, it would alleviated pressure created by the attrition suffered at the running back position as the season progressed.
Bryant Carson: The untimely dismissal of Shadrach Thornton and the season-ending injury to Matt Dayes were pretty enormous problems but those things can’t be avoided sometimes.
To me I felt like the reigns were a little too tight on Jacoby Brissett. I can’t tell you if that was play calling and/or coaching to ‘play it safe’ or if it was Brissett himself that wouldn’t put the ball into jeopardy but either way there wasn’t enough effort to stretch the field.
In certain games/circumstances those chances were taken and more than a few ended in big success. I think this point has been explored plenty since the end of last season but offensively it’s hard not to wonder what could have been.
2. What do you expect to be the biggest strength for NC State this season?
James Henderson: I actually believe NC State's offensive line can be a strength this season. It's a big, physical group that is as athletic a unit I can remember at NC State.
With the switch to an uptempo, spread system that could allow those guys to use their athleticism more frequently (screen game), I believe by the end of the season Wolfpack fans will be impressed with this group, barring injury of course.
Steve Williams: I expect the ground game to be the Pack’s strength in 2016 and it better be if they hope to become bowl eligible.
Matt Dayes is one of the top backs in the ACC if not the country with a host of able bodies that can spell him. State’s offensive line should be more athletic this season and give them options on the ground that they didn’t have last season.
Rob McLamb: There is a lot to like about the offensive line despite the loss of Joe Thuney.
If there is less injuries at the running back position, and Jaylen Samuels stays healthy as well, Matt Dayes could have an All-ACC season.
Bryant Carson: Without question it’s the run game—and I’m counting screens/bubble screens in that. Anyone that paid any attention to NC State last season (which seems to be surprisingly few given pre-season media-lists) knows that State has tremendous personnel when it comes to any form of hand-offs/running.
With new OC Eli Drinkwitz running a spread which focuses on opening up the middle of the field this group could be prolific…again. The biggest concern in relation to the run-game comes in losing three offensive linemen from the 2015 squad but there seems to be at least a mild amount of optimism about the cohesiveness of the projected starting five.
3. What do you expect to be the biggest weakness for NC State this season?
James Henderson: It's not exactly "offense," but I think the kicking game is the biggest concern for NC State overall, not just on either side of the ball.
Kyle Bambard really struggled as a true freshman, and until NC State can find a reliable kicker the Wolfpack will enter games with an opportunity to leave points on the field while also impacting how Dave Doeren and his staff can call the game.
Given I haven't heard much optimism about Bambard or Connor Haskins, it is certainly a major, potential weakness.
Steve Williams: The passing game is a huge question mark. Who will throw the football and can he be effective? Who will step up and be a go-to receiver. Can the Pack’s offensive line give the QB time to throw?
Rob McLamb: If Bra'Lon Cherry or Maurice Trowell do not step up it will likely be another long season for the wide receiver group. Kelvin Harmon is another player to watch He could mask some deficiencies.
Bryant Carson: Until proven otherwise I think it’s the vertical passing game. Who knows, if the new spread offense is ultra-productive you may not have to attempt much down the sideline, but I think in order to keep the run game and the underneath passing game effective you’re going to have to prove to defenses that they must respect you down the field.
Given State’s personnel at RB/H-Back/Slot Receiver and their rushing success last season I would do my best—were I a defensive coordinator—to make whichever first-year quarterback and unproven outside wide receivers beat me as opposed to sitting back and letting the Dayes/Samuels/Hines show rip me apart.
4. Give me one player you expect to emerge this year for the Wolfpack, and why?
James Henderson: I think Nyheim Hines should be a perfect fit in Eli Drinkwitz's offensive system.
In his lone season under Drinkwitz, Boise State 5-foot-6 slotback Shane Williams-Rhodes tallied 62 catches for 521 yards and also had 100+ yards rushing in the jet sweep game for Boise State in 2015. 62 catches would have ranked No.6 overall in the ACC last year.
If Hines can approach those numbers as a true sophomore (and when you factor in his return ability), he would be a no-brainer.
Steve Williams: I think Stephen Louis will emerge. In fact, the Pack almost has to have him emerge as someone that can make that critical catch on third and long. State hasn’t had a receiver they could lean on in years and the Wolfpack needs that this year.
I feel like Louis has the ability to be that guy.
Rob McLamb: Tony Adams. He has the size, the skill and the leadership potential to be a great offensive lineman. In fact, Adams could also be in the upper echelon of the conference.
Bryant Carson: I’m going to go with Thad Moss. I know that he is a freshman, which makes this selection a little dicey, but I think Moss is ready for this stage and this opportunity. He is physically impressive for a freshman and boasts great hands. He is also an exceptionally dangerous red-zone weapon.
In a season where your quarterback will not enter the season with much experience, having a sure-handed target 6-12 yards off the line of scrimmage should be a consistently viable option.
Cole Cook and/or Pharaoh McKever could well end up being that guy instead of Moss, but I have to believe there’s a reason why you’ll see Moss burn the redshirt and hit the field in 2016.
5. Who do you think MUST emerge this year for the Wolfpack and why?
James Henderson: I think State needs to find a go-to perimeter wide receiver and that will likely be either sophomore Stephen Louis or freshman Kelvin Harmon. Harmon has received a lot of buzz during fall camp, but all spring and summer the talk was that a lot is expected of Louis this year with senior Jumichael Ramos out for the season.
If Louis can become a productive playmaker NC State's offense should be really, really dangerous.
Steve Williams: For me it’s really the same as question number four. It must be Stephen Louis.
State knows what to expect from Nyheim Hines, Jaylen Samuels, Matt Dayes all of their known playmakers. To create balance offensively the Pack has to have Louis step up and be a goto receiver.
Rob McLamb: Jalan McClendon.
In theory, McClendon may not even end up as the starting quarterback but he has two years experience in the program and has been groomed specifically for this moment. He has the skillsets to be one of the great quarterbacks in NC State history and is at the program in a time where it is poised to ascend in the conference and on the national level.
This season is one that will set the table for Dave Doeren's tenure and McClendon's play could impact whether the head coach enters 2017 with comfort or uneasiness in terms of job security.
Bryant Carson: Without a doubt it’s either Jalan McClendon or Ryan Finley but that point is already belabored so I’ll go with Steph Louis.
I really believe if State can give defenses/d-coordinators a real outside/deep threat that they have to respect it will really help the Pack’s run and underneath games.
Kelvin Harmon could fit in this role as well but I think Louis is the safer bet.
6. At the end of the season, _____ will be the team's Most Valuable Player. Fill in the blank, and explain.
James Henderson: It has to be Matt Dayes.
I'm probably in the minority, but I think State could have won one or two more games last year if he was healthy. When he went down the Wolfpack had to shift guys like Samuels and Hines around and instead of allowing them to flourish at their intended positions they were slotted in the backfield where opposing defenses could key on them.
Not to mention, this offense is tailor-made for Matt's skillset. Last year Jeremy McNichols entered the season with just 159 career rushing yards. No one knew who the Boise State tailback was, but that didn't stop him from finishing with over 1,300 yards and 20 rushing scores in Drinkwitz's system. We all know Dayes can run and catch the football, and McNichols also totaled 51 catches and another six scores.
All Matt Dayes has to do is stay healthy and he should easily be NC State's Most Valuable Player on offense. He's poised to have a huge year with how he could be utilized.
Steve Williams: Jaylen Samuels will be the MVP when all’s said and done. He was grossly underutilized last year with Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator and I highly doubt Eliah Drinkwitz will make the same mistake. Samuels is so versatile and can do so many things, he’ll emerge as a nationalcaliber offensive weapon in 2016.
Rob McLamb: At the end of the season, Matt Dayes will be the team's Most Valuable Player. Jaylen Samuels could be the league's player of the year and yet it will be Dayes the is the team's MVP.
If Dayes remains healthy and produces at a level similar to last season prior to his injury Samuels will be free to be the utility-type of performer that bounces around in the offense -- which is where he is at his best.
Bryant Carson: I would be shocked if anyone else answering this question doesn’t say either Matt Dayes or Jaylen Samuels and, in all honestly I probably should too. However, I’m going to go with Nyheim Hines.
Hines showed some promise early in his freshman year but at times it seemed he was thinking too much which kind of slowed him down.
Toward the end of the year, once he settled in, Hines started showing us what he can really do. He’s coming in to year 2 now with a new spread offense that should really focus on getting him in match-up problems beyond the LOS. He will also be aided by the mere presence of Dayes and Samuels on the field—a type of ‘pick your poison’ for defenses.
While I certainly expect Dayes and Samuels to have very productive seasons, I could see Hines getting those mind-blowing highlight-reel plays that can moisten the britches of opposing defensive coordinators.
7. What are realistic expectations for the Wolfpack's offense in 2016?
James Henderson: I expect the offense to be productive. It may take a couple of games to get going given the new system and question about who will be the quarterback, but there's plenty of talent around the signal-caller.
I think it should be one of the best offenses in the ACC, however the schedule is grueling so that could impact statistically when compared to the other teams that miss out on the league's best programs.
Steve Williams: I don't know if I can quantify it in numbers but I feel like State's run game has to lead the way offensively. The Pack's record over the last 20 years when they rush for over 200 yards has been stellar and I think that needs to be the goal week in and week out.
I don't know that State necessarily has an established deep threat so screens, dump downs and passes to the tight end are things that I think the Pack needs to be good at and is certainly doable given State's skilled athletes.
Rob McLamb: If NC State gets consistent play from the quarterback position it will be in the top-half of the ACC. If the Wolfpack can conjure some magic from the wide receiver corps then the potential to be one of the best in the league is real.
Bryant Carson: I would guess that, especially early on, State will be relatively conservative with the QBs—asking them to make smart decisions and keep the defense out of bad spots. However, if Eli Drinkwitz’s offense hits like it could then the combination of relatively high-percentage passing and rushing could lead to much more scoring than in 2015.
State’s total team offense in 2015 was nothing to be ashamed of gaining 5367 yards in 953 plays for a total per play gain of 5.63 yards and an average of nearly 413 yards per game. Surpassing that would be quite an accomplishment but I believe it can and will happen.