What could, and probably should, be a breakthrough season for N.C. State officially started Saturday with everyone trying desperately not to acknowledge that fact.
Ask players about the optimism that surrounds the Wolfpack, with its returning quarterback, plethora of playmakers on offense and fearsome front seven, and they’ll be happy to tell you how they’re just going “practice by practice” and intend to “attack each day” and so on.
Bradley Chubb came closest on the first day of practice to facing the reality of the expectations that are building around the team, in no small part because of Chubb’s potential to be one of the nation’s best offense-disrupters at defensive end.
“We know what we can do out here,” Chubb said. “We have to prove what we can do to the whole world. In the past, there was some doubt.”
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There shouldn’t be any doubt now. Whether they want to talk about it or think about it or not, this is still the season N.C. State has been pointing toward for years, since Dave Doeren took over. If the Wolfpack isn’t going to beat Clemson or Florida State this season, it’s fair to wonder when it will ever happen. It’s the best starting hand Doeren has had since he arrived, and that’s no coincidence: his first full recruiting class has reached its senior season, a group that includes Chubb, Kentavius Street and Jaylen Samuels, among others.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t questions N.C. State has to answer over the next month (at running back and in the secondary in particular). It’s just a completely different set of questions than last year, with answers that aren’t quite as critical as they were at this time a year ago.
With so many players back, the little differences stood out Saturday: Finley let his hair grow out, curly instead of the high-and-tight “1 on the sides, 3 on the top” he sported last year; Doeren is noticeably slimmer, down around 30 pounds from the end of last season.
“As a staff, you’re looking at your 2s and 3s differently than we were last year, when we were trying to figure out our 1s and 2s,” Doeren said. “There are still some places we talked about that are in competition and that’ll go for a while. Last year, there were so many open positions, your eyes were different.”
Translated literally from coach-speak, that means he’s worried about his reserves, not his starters. Translated figuratively from coach-speak, that means it’s a lot easier to sleep at night this time of year.
There are five weeks left between now and the season-opening game against South Carolina in Charlotte, the same neutral-site-against-the-SEC hurdle that Triangle teams have had extraordinary difficulty surmounting in recent years. The Wolfpack debacle against Tennessee in the Georgia Dome is a big reason why Doeren is here; North Carolina’s potential national title hopes died a quiet death against a bad Gamecocks team at Bank of America Stadium; the Tar Heels couldn’t beat an underwhelming Georgia team in Atlanta last year. (Those three SEC opponents finished a combined 16-21 in those seasons.)
But that’s merely the first test for a program that has gone 7-5 against Boston College, Syracuse and Wake Forest under Doeren, 2-2 against North Carolina and 0-16 against the rest of the ACC. It’s time to start winning some of those games and this team appears, on the first day of camp, equipped to have a chance to do it.
The Wolfpack may be good next year, it may be bad. It’s hard to say at this point. But it’s not hard to say that this team, right now, should be pretty good – and has the potential to be great.
Which means the biggest question N.C. State faces on the first day of practice, given all that, is a simple one: If not this season, when?
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock