There’s a widely held perception among NC State fans that the higher the expectations on one of their school’s athletic teams, regardless of the sport, the more likely that team is to underachieve.
It’s known as the Law of the Wolf and identified by a hashtag not suitable for a family publication.
Devin Leary has been around long enough to know all about the theory and what that means heading into a football season in which he and his State teammates have been picked to finish second behind Clemson in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
“Obviously we’re aware of it,” the redshirt sophomore quarterback said recently at the conference’s Football Kickoff event in Charlotte. “Not just myself but our whole team understands the expectations and how passionate NC State fans are. I think we owe it to them to give it everything we have on the field every game.”
Effort, however, hasn’t always been the issue when it comes to the Wolfpack’s past disappointments.
More times than not, it’s been injuries, bad bounces and other sometimes inexplicable circumstances — such as the COVID-19 outbreak that sent State home early from the College World Series this summer — that have led to its downfall.
Because those pitfalls are so random, coach Dave Doeren and his team have focused their preparation on more tangible things such as conditioning, catching and throwing, blocking and tackling.
“We understand that we can control only what we can control, so we’ve had long talks about execution,” junior center Grant Gibson said. “The emphasis this offseason has been the small details on the field like false starts and presnap penalties. We can understand that those things can cost you games. But at the end of the day, we all know that we just have to go play our best.”
Unburdened by the weight of high expectations, the Wolfpack managed to overcome the coronavirus pandemic, a season-ending injury to Leary and a disastrous performance against arch-rival North Carolina to win eight games and earn a Gator Bowl berth in 2020.
With Leary back and healthy again as one of 20 returning starters (eight on offense, 10 on defense and both specialists) and key transfers added to plug holes on the defensive line and secondary, State has the potential to be even better this season.
Three State players — linebacker Payton Wilson, running back Zonovan Knight and offensive tackle Ickey Ekwonu — were selected to the preseason All-ACC team in a vote by the league’s media.
If ever there was a State team equipped to quell its fans’ worst fears and defy the Law of the Wolf, Wilson said this is the one.
“What I’d say to the fans is that they’ve had some tough luck as NC State fans, but this team is closer than any team I’ve ever been on and has more talent coming back than I’ve ever seen and a great coaching staff,” said the ACC’s leading tackler in 2020. “We’ve all bought in and jelled well together, and we’ve worked harder than we’ve ever worked at NC State. It’s a goal of all of ours to be the best team in the ACC and in the nation.”
Despite the abundance of experienced talent, improvement isn’t a given. And not just because of the Wolfpack’s history with high expectations.
State benefited from a favorable schedule that gave it a one-year break from having to play seven-time ACC champion Clemson a year ago. The elimination of nonconference play also canceled a potential date with Mississippi State of the SEC.
With the league’s return to its traditional two-division format, the resumption of a full nonconference slate and a trip to highly regarded Miami all on this year’s slate, the Wolfpack’s road to double-digit wins is filled with obstacles.
Not that the players are thinking that far ahead as they prepare for their season-opening test against South Florida on Thursday, Sept. 2 at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“Everyone always wants to look at the big picture, to know about how we’re going to finish at the end of the year or what our final record is going to be,” Leary said. “For us players and our staff’s perspective, we don’t look at it that way. We’re worried about USF right now and the day-by-day, and when the season ends, we’ll see where the chips fall.”