After getting abused by the Boston College Eagles last Saturday in a 45-24 loss, everyone keeps wondering just what is going with the NC State football program. After all, this is a program that won nine games in both 2017 and 2018. This success from the last two years makes the Wolfpack’s downward spiral in 2019 even more noticeable.
So, what’s the explanation for NC State’s struggles after they finally started to get back into national relevance? Is it the coaching staff, the play calling, or maybe a lack of talent? Obviously, a lot is going wrong, and it’s not just one thing. But the most straightforward answer is the Wolfpack’s lack of experience and injuries to key players. Although head coach Dave Doeren doesn’t use this as an excuse for his teams’ struggles, there’s no doubt that this is the most glaring explanation for the Wolfpack’s dismal 4-3 start.
NC State Decimated By Injuries, Inexperience
In a year where the Wolfpack couldn’t afford to have a substantial amount of injuries, they have piled up. The most disappointing part has been the loss of their crucial, veteran players. These injuries to their veterans have forced the young players to fill in, even if they aren’t quite ready.
Things started poorly for the Wolfpack on the health side of things from the season-opener. As a result, the Pack’s fastest big-play receiver C.J. Riley injured his left knee on special teams and was ruled out for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, things didn’t get much better from there. NC State now has seven players that they have lost for the remainder of the 2019 season. Those players include senior left tackle Tyrone Riley, junior right tackle Justin Witt, junior tight end Dylan Autenrieth, redshirt freshman cornerback Taiyon Palmer, junior cornerback Chris Ingram, and redshirt freshman cornerback Teshaun Smith. The Pack has also been without senior defensive end James Smith-Williams for much of the season, and senior cornerback Nick McCloud has been out for six straight games.
Consequently, the Wolfpack have been down to their third-string secondary for the last three weeks. Also, neither of the offensive tackles Doeren was planning on starting this season are currently healthy. When the Pack faced the Eagles last Saturday, they were missing 12 injured players.
“I know what we’re missing,” Doeren said on Monday.
As mentioned earlier, injuries cause young, inexperienced players to have to step up, even if they aren’t fully ready to take the reigns. This has been the case for NC State, which has had to rely heavily on their young squad to fill in. When such a youthful unit takes the field, you can expect some growing pains.
Coming into the year, the Wolfpack were expecting their defense to make the most significant improvement from 2018. After ranking 108th in passing defense last season, the Pack were looking to change that narrative as they returned eight starters into the lineup. However, injuries have caused freshmen such as defensive linemen Joshua Harris and Savion Jackson and linebackers Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas to get more playing time than expected.
After losing impact offensive players such as Ryan Finley, Jakobi Meyers, and Kelvin Harmon to the NFL Draft, there was no question that this season was going to be a rebuilding year offensively. One prime example has been the revolving door at the quarterback position. The Wolfpack turned to redshirt sophomore Matt McKay from the start, but after his struggles, redshirt sophomore Bailey Hockman and redshirt freshman Devin Leary have been given opportunities. These issues at quarterback have been a major factor as to why the Pack has scored just 53 points in three ACC games.
Also, the Pack’s running game has struggled due to youth. The running depth took an even bigger hit when sophomore running back Ricky Person Jr. injured his ankle in a loss to Florida State. Due to his injury, freshmen running backs Zonovan Knight and Jordan Houston have had to carry the load.
Brighter Days Ahead
The good news for NC State and its fans is that these growing pains will only help these young players gain experience and let them progress quicker than usual. Although 2019 has been difficult to watch at times, this young core is only going to improve throughout the season and into next year. Expect the Wolfpack to start bouncing-back sooner, rather than later.