Finley returns to unfinished business at State

Graduate quarterback passed up draft for one more year of college

Ryan FInley, Kelvin Harmon and the NC State football team face a tougher than usual opener Saturday against defending FCS runnerup James Madison (Melina Vastola /USATODAY Sports)

CHARLOTTE — Draft exodus? What draft exodus?

While NC State sent its entire defensive line to the NFL in this past spring’s draft, as well as offensive playmakers like Nyheim Hines, the talk among the Wolfpack players is about who’s back, not who left early.

“It’s very rare that you have this many playmakers all coming back in one year, with this much experience,” said quarterback Ryan Finley. “Our whole wide receivers room is back, with Kelvin (Harmon), Steph (Louis), Jakobi (Meyers), Emeka (Emezie), C.J. (Riley), down the line.”

Indeed, State returns 66 percent of its catches from last season and 76 percent of its receiving yards. The bulk of the departed production came from the running back spot, where Hines and departed senior Jaylen Samuels were both threats coming out of the backfield. Among receivers, the Pack needs to replace Gavin Locklear (three catches, 17 yards) and JuMichael Ramos (2 for 49).

“I want to cherish my last year in college football, with this team. I want to just be in the moment.”

Ryan Finley

But that’s not all.

“We’ve got our center back,” Finley continued, “and two guys on the left coming back, and two guys on the right with a lot of game experience. You just don’t get that in college football.”

Finley is also burying the lead. The graduate quarterback, who on Tuesday was named a Preseason All-ACC quarterback, is coming back for his third year as NC State’s starter and passing up a chance at the draft himself.

The decision was a relief to coach Dave Doeren, if not a complete surprise. The quarterback approached his future the same way he approaches upcoming opponents — methodically and completely.

“I wasn’t sure what he would do,” Doeren said. “But I knew he would be very thoughtful. He would gather all the data and information that he could. I was impressed with not only him but his family and how they went through it, talking to everybody they could get information from.”

Despite all the data collection, the decision boiled down to emotion for Finley.

“I think college football is just such a special opportunity, and I wasn’t ready to let it go,” he said. “So many relationships and friendships I’ve made in Raleigh and on our team that were just too special to me. I just wanted to enjoy it one last time. I think that’s what college football is all about.”

Finley definitely doesn’t sound like the typical football player as he approaches his final season.

“I want to cherish my last year in college football, with this team,” he said. “I want to just be in the moment.

“I had somebody close to me tell me that they’d give their right arm to play another college football game,” Finley added. “So I took that to heart, and that was one of the big things for coming back. Just everything it stands for, just the day-to-day stuff throughout the year as a student-athlete, and just with so many of your different friends, it’s just — there’s really nothing else like it in life, and I just wanted one more chance.”

State will certainly benefit from his return. Finley is on the watch list for the Maxwell Award, given to the top college player. He’s on the shortlist of NFL Draft quarterback prospects, and he should put his name among Wolfpack greats at the position. Finley is already fifth in school history in yards, completions and total offense, seventh in touchdowns and second in interception avoidance.

“It has a huge impact on a football team to have your quarterback back — the offseason, your spring, your summer — to have that leadership back,” Doeren said. “If you’re dealing with a quarterback competition, it’s not the same.”

While Finley passed up the draft, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t go pro following last season. Like Bradley Chubb, who parlayed last season’s success into a high draft pick, Finley is starting his NFL career now, with a year to go in school.

“Watching (Chubb) conduct himself as a professional last year at college, I learned a lot,” Finley said. “He truly was a professional. I learned a lot about taking care of your body, about what he said with all the hype in the press, about how he handled nutrition, sleep, hydration. He really attacked the game of football with everything, like he had a job to do.”

Job one for Finley this year will be to serve as the experienced leader of the team.

“It boiled down to this,” Doeren said. “It’s his team now. If he left early, he could never say that again. It’s his last time to lead a college football team. The guys all believe in him. I’m proud of him. I’m excited for him.”