A frontrunner appears to have emerged in the crowded battle to replace Ryan Finley as NC State’s starting quarterback next season. But it was a young runner that stole the show at the Wolfpack’s annual Kay Yow Memorial spring football game Saturday.
True freshman Zonovan Knight rushed for 139 yards on 17 carries, including an electrifying 73-yard touchdown burst, to make a strong case for playing time once State opens its 2019 season against East Carolina on Aug. 31.
As for the quarterback competition, redshirt sophomore Matthew McKay moved to the top of the depth chart heading into the summer after a strong performance that earned praise from coach Dave Doeren — whose team was one of three in the state to wrap up spring practice with an intrasquad scrimmage last weekend.
“He’s comfortable, that’s the easiest thing to see,” Doeren said of the only quarterback on his roster that has taken a snap in an actual college game. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Raleigh native saw mop-up duty in five games last season.
“He’s not pressing. He’s been through this. As a backup, he took a ton of reps last year, so he has just been more comfortable. The other guys have got to catch up because they are not as comfortable.”
McKay completed 14 of his 24 passes for 182 yards on Saturday while leading his team on two scoring drives.
The first ended with a 7-yard touchdown run by the versatile quarterback, set up by a 40-yard completion to C.J. Riley, State’s most experienced returning receiver. The second resulted in a 14-yard scoring strike to tight end Cary Angeline.
Redshirt freshman Devin Leary also led two scoring drives while going 12 of 23 for 104 yards and JUCO transfer Bailey Hockman was 12 for 23 with 135. Both threw touchdown passes. Micah Leon and Ty Evans also played, but only in a limited role.
How seriously each is able to contend for playing time in the fall will depend on the work and improvement they make during offseason workouts. Then again, as Doeren pointed out, the same can be said for virtually everyone on the roster as the Wolfpack looks to fill several gaping holes on both sides of the ball.
“We have a lot of work to do,” the State coach said. “We have 10 seniors, so we are young. It is hard to get these guys better without repping them and practicing them, so more than anything we have just got to get guys healthy. Guys that took 15 practices worth of work are going to be a lot better than guys who didn’t. We need to have a productive summer.”
Among those getting those 15 practices worth of work are several incoming freshmen that enrolled early.
Of them, 320-pound defensive lineman Joshua Harris from Roxboro had one of the most impressive performances with seven tackles, including one for a loss. Cornerback Shyheim Battle also had seven tackles and a TFL for the defense.
Offensively, the breakout star was Knight, a 6-foot, 190-pound graduate of Southern Nash High School who evoked comparisons to former Wolfpack star and current Indianapolis Colt Nyheim Hines.
“I’ve been telling you he’s explosive, he’s smart, he’s hungry,” Doeren said. “He just needs to get in shape. He gives us what we had when Nyheim was here in the backfield. That’s a guy that can change the game if you miss him.”
The Deacons were much better on offense than defense last season, and if Saturday’s Gold-Black Game is any indication, things haven’t changed much. With experienced quarterbacks Sam Hartman and Jamie Newman both playing well, Wake’s offense defeated its defense 55-45 under a specialized scoring system instituted by coach Dave Clawson.
The offense was able to score points by gaining a first down or executing a play of 25 or more yards along with the standard points for a touchdown, extra point and field goal. The defense accumulated points for each turnover, drive stop, forced fumble and stopping a drive inside the 40-yard line.
Newman, who finished the year as the starter, completed 15 of 18 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns while Hartman, the starter before suffering a season-ending injury, was 8 of 11 for 47 yards. Newman was responsible for a handful of big plays — a 72-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman A.T. Perry, a 45-yard pass to Steve Claude and a 29-yard strike to Sage Surratt.
The defense stopped eight drives and earned six points for a Kenneth Dicks III interception. Linebackers Chase Monroe and Ja’Cquez Williams tied for the team lead with seven tackles each.
Redshirt senior quarterback Quentin Harris, the heir apparent to departed starter Daniel Jones, rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another to highlight the Blue Devils’ annual Spring Showcases on Friday.
Junior running back Brittain Brown was the top rusher in the 65-play scrimmage with 51 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Sophomore wide receiver Jake Bobo was the leading receiver with five catches for 31 yards, including an 8-yard score.
Defensively, junior defensive end Victor Dimukeje recorded two tackles for loss and a pass breakup rising redshirt freshman Jeremiah Lewis intercepted a pass for the only turnover of the game.