Young Wolfpack proved ready in opener

NC State will face Western Carolina on Saturday with the opportunity to get more experience

Zonovan “Bam” Knight was one of two true freshmen running backs to earn carries against East Carolina. In all, the Wolfpack played 10 true freshmen in the season opener. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — It’s still too early to make any meaningful judgments about the young NC State football team this season.

But you can already say this much for coach Dave Doeren’s Wolfpups after one game: They don’t suffer from stage fright.

No fewer than 17 players made their State debuts in their team’s 34-6 beatdown of East Carolina on Saturday, including 10 true freshmen and three redshirt freshmen. Many of them made meaningful contributions to the victory, providing hope that, despite massive graduation losses, the Wolfpack can continue to build on the momentum of the past two seasons with little or no drop-off.

“I was excited to see them play because enough of them have made electric plays in practice where you’re hoping that’s what will happen on game day,” said Doeren, whose team will get another chance to gain experience this Saturday at home against Western Carolina. “My fear was, is game day going to be too big for some of them? You just don’t know that.

“I was really proud of how they handled the moment. I thought those guys did a good job. I didn’t see anybody nervous. They probably were, but it wasn’t obvious. They just went out there and did what they did in practice, which was outstanding.”

Heading the list of new starters that distinguished themselves the most was redshirt sophomore quarterback Matthew McKay.

Not only did he become only the third quarterback in school history to record more than 300 passing yards in his college debut while contributing to the running game with a pair of rushing touchdowns, but he also showed the poise and leadership of a seasoned veteran.

And he did it without committing a turnover.

“The first play I went out there, I took a deep breath and said, ‘OK, we’re playing football.’ So I wasn’t nervous or anything,” said McKay, who saw only limited time on the field last season as a backup to NFL draft pick Ryan Finley. “I was definitely prepared for the moment.”

He wasn’t the only one.

On his offensive line, center Grant Gibson and tackle Emanuel McGirt anchored a unit that didn’t allow a sack and paved the way for an impressive ground attack that produced 191 yards and 6.2 yards per carry.

The two backs that did the most of that running were true freshmen — Zonovan “Bam” Knight and Jordan Houston.

Knight led the team with 42 yards on nine carries, including an electric 9-yard touchdown run on his first career carry. Houston rushed for 35 yards on six tries and also caught three passes out of the backfield.

Combined with sophomore Ricky Person Jr., a sophomore who rushed for 20 yards and set up a score with a 45-yard reception in his first Wolfpack start, the Wolfpack appears more than equipped to make up for the loss of 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Gallaspy.

The only question is whether Doeren can find enough touches to keep everyone happy.

“I guess it’s just a matter of who’s hot and with certain personnels, certain backs go in,” Houston said. “It’s not really like a certain rotation. He’s going to find a way to get us all touches. It really depends on how we do that week in practice.”

Although youngsters weren’t called upon to make as much of an impact in the receiving game against ECU thanks to the return of veterans Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas and C.J. Riley, along with the addition of graduate transfer Tabari Hines, their roles are likely to increase starting this week against WCU now that Riley is out of the season with a torn ACL.

Redshirt freshman Devin Carter has been moved into Riley’s starting spot at the X receiver with fellow rookie Jasiah Provillon now listed on the depth chart as the top reserve.

“We’ve got a lot of guys,” McKay said of his receiving corps. “It’s a deep group and they’re all talented, so I’m excited.”

He’s not the only one.

Maybe the player most excited about finally getting onto the field for the first time at State was linebacker Payton Wilson.

A redshirt freshman who missed part of his senior year at Orange High School with a knee injury, then missed all of last season after undergoing a second surgery on the same knee, the former four-star prospect was credited with six tackles on his 22 snaps in an emotional Wolfpack debut Saturday.

“Payton had tears in his eyes before the game, he was so excited to be playing football again,”

Doeren said. “Just playing again, making plays. I’m excited for those guys.”