To illustrate how much progress N.C. State’s defense made in the span of a year, let’s compare the last two games of the 2015 season to the last two games of the 2016 season:
Remember, after those losses to end the 2015 season, most fans were surprised when Dave Doeren decided to fire the offensive coordinator (Matt Canada) and not the defensive coordinator (Dave Huxtable).
But Doeren knew the defense was young and still learning and that many of the same players would be back in 2016 (and are again for 2017).
It was unpopular at the time, but prudent to stick with Huxtable. That move paid off for Doeren last season when the Wolfpack made significant progress in scoring defense (the most important stat) and rush defense.
The group could make another jump this season with nine projected senior starters and one of the best, and most experienced, defensive lines in college football.
The key, just like the problems the previous year, is to look back at those final two games.
In 2015, N.C. State couldn’t get off the field in those games – a 45-34 home loss to UNC and a 51-28 bowl loss to an SEC team (Mississippi State).
The Tar Heels ran for 374 yards, and piled up 553 in all, and the Bulldogs threw for 380 yards, in wet conditions, and finished with 424 total yards in the bowl game.
The two teams attempted 65 passes and N.C. State was able to sack the quarterback only once.
Skip ahead to the final two games of 2016. To be fair, the SEC opponent was better and Vanderbilt didn’t have an NFL quarterback (although Kyle Shurmur did throw for 416 yards in Vandy’s 45-34 win over a top 25 Tennessee team in the final regular-season game).
Other than the obvious (not giving up 96 points), what stands out here is N.C. State was able to come up with seven sacks (albeit in 85 pass attempts).
The reason SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic (who worked State’s bowl game) loves N.C. State so much is how well the defensive line played in those two final games. The front four also had very good games against Notre Dame and Florida State.
When that group is good, State is good. When it’s not, and can’t get to the quarterback – ECU, Louisville, Miami – the results are predictable.
So the success of the new faces in the secondary, where all three new starters are, is contingent on how well the line performs. Given N.C. State’s strength there, that’s a reason for optimism that the defense’s progress will continue in 2017.
A look out how each position group shapes up:
Senior end Bradley Chubb, with 22 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, is the obvious headliner. Crazy to think, he actually got off to a slow start last season. The biggest obstacle for Chubb this season will be focusing on the task at hand and not his NFL future.
Senior Kentavius Street, a workout fiend, starts at the other end but he only played 31 more snaps than junior Darian Roseboro last season. Both Street and Roseboro have the potential to join Chubb in the NFL draft next season. James Smith-Williams, a sophomore from Millbrook, is the fourth end in the rotation.
The tackles tend to get overlooked, because it’s their job to occupy blockers, but seniors Justin Jones and B.J. Hill combined for 82 tackles last season (which is a lot for interior linemen). Junior Eurndraus Bryant (called Big E for a reason at 6-1 and 325 pounds) and redshirt freshman Shug Frazier will be used to spell Jones and Hill.
Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore, a pair of seniors, have been at this together for a long time, essentially starting since freshmen. They’ve probably played too much (Moore was on the field for 183 more snaps than Chubb last season) without enough help.
That will change this season with Riley Nicholson and Germaine Pratt available to eat more snaps and keep Fernandez and Moore fresher. Pratt, a converted safety who missed last season with a shoulder injury, has stood out in camp. Doeren is high on Pratt’s potential as a difference-maker at the weakside linebacker position.
Losing two draft picks from the No. 82 pass defense in the country doesn’t figure to help the cause. Safety Josh Jones (second-round pick of Green Bay) was the Wolfpack’s best defender last season.
Corner Jack Tocho (seventh-round pick Minnesota) and nickel Dravious Wright were two veteran defensive backs who ate up a lot of minutes (to use a basketball expression).
Senior corner Matt Stevens and senior safety Shawn Boone, who will play both strong safety and nickel, are the only two returning starters.
Sophomore Jarius Morehead made one start last season (vs. Notre Dame), at strong safety, when Boone was suspended for a half for a targeting penalty. Junior Dexter Wright, a free safety, got 45 of his 54 defensive snaps on the season in the bowl game.
The second corner spot will either go to Johnathan Alston, a fifth-year senior, or Nick McCould, a sophomore. McCloud actually started the bowl game. All three corners (Stevens) will play.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio