RALEIGH — The problem with having one of the most experienced teams in college football one year is that you’re destined to end up with one of the nation’s least experienced teams the next.
That’s the tradeoff coach Dave Doeren is dealing with these days as he prepares NC State for Saturday’s 2019 opener against East Carolina at Carter-Finley Stadium.
A year ago, the Wolfpack fielded an offense that combined for 152 career starts on the way to a second straight nine-win season. This year’s lineup, by contrast, will have started just 61 times — and half of those were by tackle Justin Witt and guard Josh Fedd-Jackson.
With no one on the depth chart at quarterback, running back, center or left tackle having ever started a college game, not even Doeren knows exactly what to expect from his young team.
But that doesn’t mean he’s lowered his expectations heading into his seventh year at State.
“Last year I had eight grad students that were seniors starting for me and now I have really eight seniors, so it’s different,” Doeren said. “But it’s also a team that’s really hungry to prove itself.
“We all know we have to earn our way and earn our record, and we’re going to have youthful moments. But I’m excited to go through that with these guys and help them grow and coach and work through it. I’m not saying these things to be pessimistic. I’m excited about these guys. There’s a lot of guys trying to earn the right on the field that haven’t proven it yet.”
Of all the players that fall into that category, the one with the most to prove is quarterback Matthew McKay.
A 6-foot-4, 214-pound sophomore from Raleigh’s Wakefield High School, McKay beat out Florida State transfer Bailey Hockman and redshirt freshman Devin Leary in a three-way battle for the starting job.
It’s a competition Doeren said came down to McKay’s leadership, performance in practice and experience as the only quarterback in the program with actual game experience. He completed 7 of 8 passes for 87 yards and scored a rushing touchdown as a backup in six games last season.
“Matt’s accuracy, his leadership, ability to really protect the team with his decision-making and his consistent play really is what prevailed,” Doeren said Monday at his first weekly press conference of the new season.
“You can look at, we do anyway, the quarterbacks in three ways — your offensive system, their mastery of that; their situational IQ, how they apply the game of football to situational football; and then their ability to recognize defensive structure. Throughout the spring, this is an area that Matt has just had a lead.”
The good news for McKay is that even with the loss of 1,000-yard receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers — both of whom are on NFL rosters — he still has an experienced receiving corps to target.
Junior Emeka Emezie had 53 catches and five touchdowns last season, sophomore Thayer Thomas had 34 catches and junior C.J. Riley had 28 while graduate transfer Tabari Hines played three seasons at Wake Forest before seeing action in four games during an injury-shortened 2018 at Oregon.
There’s also plenty of familiar faces on the defensive side of the ball, where a veteran secondary led by team captains Jarius Morehead and Nick McCloud heads a unit that will be called upon to carry the team while the offense works through its growing pains.
But even on defense, freshmen and redshirt freshmen are all over the depth chart. It’s a group that includes starting end Joseph Boletepeli and backup Savion Jackson, along with linebackers Drake Thomas, C.J. Hart and Payton Wilson.
“There’s a lot of guys that got valuable reps (during camp) in positions that were open, that we had to make decisions on,” Doeren said. “We rotate a lot at certain positions, and with our tempo on offense, you’ll see a lot of different skill players at receiver and running back. We’ve always rotated on our defensive front, probably the area that we have the most depth that we haven’t had is at linebacker. And so you will see some guys throughout the game.”
NC State Wolfpack
2018 Record: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)
Coach: Dave Doeren (66-38 career record, 43-34 at NCSU)
Points Per Game: 33.8
Points Allowed Per Game: 24.9
Key Returning Players: Sr. S Jarius Morehead; DE James Smith-Williams; Jr. WR Emeka Emezie
Key Departed Players: QB Ryan Finley; RB Reggie Gallaspy; WR Kelvin Harmon; WR Jakobi Meyers
Key Additions: Fr. RB Zonovan Knight; Gr. WR Tabari Hines; Fr. DE Savion Jackson
Key Game: Clemson, Raleigh, Nov. 9