2016 State of North Carolina college football preview

Prior to the first snap, the North State Journal takes a look at every Big Four and Core Four teams strengths, question marks and x-factors for 2016.

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
The defense and offense stretch on the field before the East Carolina Purple and Gold spring football game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville

Thursday marks the official kickoff of the college football season across the nation. Four teams in the state open their seasons, with NC State, Wake Forest, Appalachian State and Charlotte all in action in primetime games.The rest of the in-state programs will opt for a more traditional Saturday kickoff, including a mammoth matchup between No. 22 North Carolina and No. 18 Georgia. A triumph against the Bulldogs would set up UNC to make a run at the College Football Playoff, while an early season loss for Carolina would give it the same uphill battle the Heels faced in 2015.Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at the entire landscape of the Big Four and Core Four football teams in the state. With mere hours(!) before the season kicks off, here are the biggest strengths, question marks and X-factors for all seven teams.Big FourDuke
Biggest Strength: Secondary. Yes, I’m well aware Duke’s secondary ranked 12th in the ACC last season in pass defense with 240.9 yards allowed per game. However, this year’s core has two seniors on the corners in DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders to go along with two seniors and a junior at the safety slots. In a year where Duke will face some of the best quarterbacks the ACC has to offer (DeShone Kizer, Lamar Jackson and Brad Kaaya), that experience should pay off.Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback. There were already concerns about the position with Thomas Sirk attempting to come back from an Achilles injury. After he suffered the same injury as last February in practice last week, things are wide open for Duke under center. Redshirt freshman Daniel Jones and junior Parker Boehme will battle for snaps. X-Factor: DeVon Edwards. While he might be a huge difference maker at corner (he has just five interceptions in three seasons), Edwards is an X-factor on special teams. At 5-foot-9, Edwards carved through opposing teams for 700 return yards and three touchdowns last season. Now entering his redshirt senior campaign, Edwards has a chance to break Duke kickoff return records.North Carolina
Biggest Strength: Running Backs. It’s easy to say Elijah Hood is the biggest strength for UNC, but it’s more than just one back leading the way. Hood will get most of the carries, but senior T.J. Logan proved his mettle last year with 400 rushing yards on just 66 attempts (6.1 yards per carry). While Hood might be looking to top 20 touchdowns this season, Logan gives the fast-paced offense another backfield option against tough ACC defenses.Biggest Question Mark: Rush defense. While the rush offense is clutch for the Tar Heels, the front seven is a different story. After ranking dead last in the ACC in rush defense last year (247.4 yards per game, 28 touchdowns), UNC allowed an absurd 964 total rushing yards to Clemson and Baylor in the postseason. Any hopes of making it to the College Football Playoff will rely on the ability to stop the likes of Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, James Conner and Matt Dayes this year.X-Factor: Mack Hollins. It’s hard to call the Heels’ leading receiver from 2015 an “X-factor,” but his ability to go off at any given time is unreal. After seeing just 36 catchable targets last year and turning those into 745 yards and eight touchdowns, Hollins was listed as the fifth-best NFL draft wideout by Pro Football Focus. Given his clear chemistry with Mitch Trubisky, his big-play ability across from Ryan Switzer makes the entire UNC offense dangerous.NC State
Biggest Strength: Running Backs. Similar to UNC, NC State has a loaded backfield on offense. The return of Matt Dayes gives the Wolfpack a clear leader at the position after finishing with 1,037 total yards and 12 touchdowns in just 7.5 games last year. Add the likes of Johnny Frasier, Reggie Gallaspy and versatility of Nyheim Hines and Jaylen Samuels — who finished with 927 combined rushing yards last season — and the Pack backs are loaded for the 2016 season.Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback. This one was a toss-up between the offensive line, secondary and quarterback. But with so much riding on either Jalan McClendon or Ryan Finley, quarterback was the obvious choice. With both quarterbacks having three years of eligibility remaining — Finley was granted an extra year after an ankle injury last season — Dave Doeren’s choice could have a huge bearing on the future of the position.X-Factor: Johnny Frasier. Ah, the element of the unknown. In the case of Frasier, NC State has that element working in its favor. Coming in as the No. 6 running back in the 2015 class by ESPN, Frasier redshirted his freshman year due to weight issues. Now the bulked up Frasier, listed at 5-foot-10, 224 pounds on the initial depth chart, gives the Pack another bruising option on offense.Wake Forest
Biggest Strength: Red zone defense. While Wake Forest’s offense ranked near the bottom of the league last year, its red zone defense ranked second overall. Opponents scored 26 times on 33 red zone attempts, with just 17 of those resulting in touchdowns. Returning eight juniors or seniors — six of which are in the front seven — Wake will be stingy again near the goal line.Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback. John Wolford has been tabbed as the starting quarterback by Dave Clawson, but with one caveat. “John Wolford’s going to be our starter. And Kendall [Hinton]’s going to play too.” That’s exactly how the system worked for Wake last year with mixed results. Wolford is the better passer (60.9 completion percentage) while Hinton can run with authority (390 rushing yards, seven touchdowns on 93 attempts). How each performs will be the difference between another losing season and a possible bowl berth.X-Factor: Tyler Bell. As a freshman, Bell led the Deacs with a meager 451 yards on the ground despite six games where he had 30 rushing yards or less. But after finishing the season with more than 100 total yards against Notre Dame and Duke, Bell is set for a breakout campaign in 2016. With several favorable matchups against the likes of Tulane, Duke, Delaware, Indiana, NC State and Syracuse to start the season, Bell should hit the ground running in the first half of the season.Core FourAppalachian State
Biggest Strength: Quarterback. Taylor Lamb was a steady hand yet again for the Mountaineers in 2015, finishing with nearly identical numbers in passing yards, completions and interceptions. Where he saw a vast improvement was in the end zone, with Lamb throwing for 31 touchdowns — 14 more than his freshman season. While he loses leading receivers Simms McElfresh and Malachi Jones, having Shaedon Meadors and Barrett Burns back means Lamb is set for another huge season.Biggest Question Mark: Wideouts. There is plenty of confidence in Lamb, but how will Jaquil Capel respond after injury? Can Jaylan Barbour make a huge leap after hauling in just three receptions for 49 yards all last season? Losing their top wideouts last year means there’s a lot on Meadors and Burns’ shoulders. But with the cast this team has, the unproven receivers have plenty of time to develop thanks to a loaded backfield and proven quarterback.X-Factor: Jalin Moore. No running back is taking the reins from Marcus Cox after two straight 1,400-plus yard seasons, but Jalin Moore is the future of the program at the position. Despite receiving 99 touches in 10 games last year, he still finished with 731 yards and five touchdowns. In the one game Cox missed in 2015, Moore rushed for 244 yards — albeit it was against Idaho’s porous defense. Expect App State to have a two-headed backfield en route to the Sun Belt championship.Charlotte
Biggest Strength: Running Back. While Kalif Phillips’ stats took a dip in 2015, Charlotte’s first 1,000-yard rusher is ready to tear up the Conference USA again. After totaling 100 or more yards in four games last season, Phillips was named a preseason All-Conference USA First-Team running back. If he can stay healthy and has a reliable signal-caller, Phillips could be saving his best for last.Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback. After starting his career with Miami, Kevin Olsen has landed the starting job with the 49ers. While it’s a great story — having Greg Olsen’s brother starting in Charlotte and all — Olsen has yet to actually prove himself at the Division I level. But after leading Riverside Community College to an 8-3 record with 1,080 passing yards and 13 touchdowns, he’s better than the three quarterbacks last season, who combined for 12 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.X-Factor: Trent Bostick. Charlotte has seniors all over the depth chart who have been with the program since its inception, including its two leading wide receivers. Austin Duke may be the leader after hauling in the most receptions (53) and yards (534) last year, but it’s Trent Bostick who can take the top off a defense. After averaging 14.3 yards per catch last season, look for Bostick to be one of Olsen’s favorite option down the field.East Carolina
Biggest Strength: Wideouts. Scottie Montgomery steps into a great situation when it comes to the Pirates’ receiving corps. A former Duke wide receiver and receivers coach at the NFL and college level, Montgomery inherits Zay Jones, Trevon Brown and Davon Grayson. The three wideouts all exceeded 400 yards last season, with Jones leading in receptions (98), receiving yards (1,099) and touchdowns (five). There’s a new signal-caller under center, but this receiving corps is dynamic enough to change games for the the Pirates every Saturday.Biggest Question Mark: Quarterback. Notice a trend here? Yeah, of the seven teams listed in the state, just one has a healthy potent quarterback returning this season. Kurt Benkert transferred to Virginia and, in less than four months, has stolen the starting role. Meanwhile, Philip Nelson is left for the Pirates. After transferring from Minnesota to Rutgers only to be dismissed for an arrest on felony assault charges, Nelson has landed in Greenville. With a completion percentage near 50 percent, 17 passing touchdowns and 14 interceptions in his career, Nelson is the epitome of a question mark.X-Factor: Yiannis Bowden. In a 3-4 scheme that fits perfectly for a player with speed off the edge, Yiannis Bowden is finally getting his chance to start. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound linebacker is a former defensive end who added extra muscle during his redshirt season. Starting alongside proven linebackers in Jordan Williams and Joe Allely, Bowden will wreak havoc in opposing backfields this season with his athleticism and ridiculous 4.5 speed.