Wolfpack sticking with pass game despite uncertainty at quarterback

Inexperienced passers won’t mean more emphasis on run

Matthew McKay (7) is one of three quarterbacks trying to succeed Ryan Finley as NC State’s starter. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — With Ryan Finley taking snaps at quarterback, the NC State offense wasn’t that hard to plan. Give Finley the chance to make plays with his arm.

“Our offense is built to be balanced, first of all,” coach Dave Doeren said, “but at the same time, I’m not going to just beat my head against the wall. We had three outstanding wide receivers last year. Ryan was one of the best throwers in the country. We took advantage of that.”

Finley passed for at least 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns each of the last three years, topping out last season with 3,928 and 25.

Last year, State called more pass plays than runs for the first time since 2012, the year before Doeren arrived, and 69 percent of the team’s offense came by air. The year before Finley took over at quarterback, it was 51 percent, and 57 percent of the team’s play calls were runs.

Year — Run plays — Pass plays
2015 — 57% — 43%
2016 — 54% — 46%
2017 — 51% — 49%
2018 — 49% — 51%

Year — Run yardage — Pass yardage
2015 — 49% — 51%
2016 — 37% — 63%
2017 — 39% — 61%
2018 — 31% — 69%

This year could be different. Finley is gone, drafted into the NFL. In his place are three inexperienced quarterbacks battling for the starting job.

Matt McKay: The sophomore took the pole position in spring ball, throwing for 182 yards and rushing for a touchdown in the Wolfpack’s spring game. He was 7-of-8 passing last year and rushed for 36 yards and a score in limited playing time behind Finley.

“He’s been here the longest,” said offensive lineman Justin Witt. “He’s definitely one of the better leaders on offense on our team. I’m comfortable with him.”

Bailey Hockman: The sophomore transfer from Florida State sat out last season but still seemed a bit behind in the offense in the spring game, although he showed flashes of brilliance, highlighted by a 61-yard scoring pass to Max Fisher.

“Coming in from Florida State, he’s a great player, great personality,” said Witt, firmly staying in the neutral Switzerland role. “I feel comfortable with him out there.”

Devin Leary: The redshirt freshman is likely the quarterback of the future. It’s just a question of if he’s ready to be the quarterback of the present.

“He’s a great quarterback, great passer, throws a great ball,” Witt said. “He’s a great person, and I definitely feel comfortable with him.”

While Doeren wasn’t ready to tip his hand on the starter, he was effusive in discussing Leary’s abilities.

“Really excited about Devin,” he said of the four-star recruit from the class of 2018. “One of the best young passers, just true arm strength, that I’ve been around. … He’s going to be a really good player for us. He’s a big part of this competition.”

The question with Leary, and, for that matter, Hockman, is whether they’ll have the offense down to the point that it’s second nature, something McKay already seems to have accomplished.

“I think what spring ball is for a guy at (Leary’s) age is his chance to show you where he’s at, what he knows,” Doeren said. “Then how does he take that information from the spring, which ended the first week in April for us, up until Aug. 1, and grow from that information? Because I think for all of our players, the less they’re thinking about what they have to do, the better they play. It takes reps to get them there. So Devin has now the opportunity to see if learning going from the spring to the fall, allows him to showcase that arm, so he’s not thinking about the offensive play, he’s thinking more about the defensive coverage or the blitz that’s coming at him. That will allow him to play faster.”

Whoever ends up playing quarterback can expect to take on a large share of the offense. Doeren has no plans to move to a run-heavy attack to help his young passers get up to speed.

“We’ll see what we end up with this year,” he said. “I’m really excited about our young backs. … Our offense is trying, constantly evolving. One thing that does remain constant is I want to be a balanced football team. I want to run it when I want to run it, I want to throw it when I want to throw it, and be able to have the confidence that they can do both. I think if you get too one-sided to that, it gets really hard now to shift to the other when you need it in a football game.”