‘Mature’ Wolfpack open season with high expectations

Coach Dave Doeren will lead NC State against South Florida on Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium

The Wolfpack are hoping the return of quarterback Devin Leary, who played only four games last season after suffering a broken leg in NC State's home opener against Duke, can lead the team to even more than the eight wins it posted in 2020. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

NC State football coach Dave Doeren likened the opening game of a new season to “chasing ghosts” because of all the unknowns they present.

It’s a concept Doeren and his counterpart at South Florida, Jeff Scott, have taken to a new level this year by withholding their respective depth charts until just before their matchup at Carter-Finley Stadium on Thursday.

The subterfuge has created an inconvenience, especially given all the opt-outs, transfers and other unusual circumstances associated with the coronavirus pandemic. But as far as Doeren is concerned, preparing for that first game is more about knowing what his Wolfpack will do rather than scouting the opposition.

“There’s a lot more games that are lost than won at the beginning of seasons,” Doeren said. “We’ve made that a major focus here, to be the best team we can. We need to get out of our own way and not beat ourselves, minimize presnap things, minimize the postsnap things from an emotional standpoint.

“In my career and for most head coaches, the turnover margin and explosive play battle tells a lot. Those are major points of emphasis for us.”

Doeren and his staff can afford to pay more attention to their own team than the one on the other side of the ball in this particular opener. USF is coming off a 1-8 season in which it was outscored by an average of 17 points per game.

The Wolfpack, by contrast, returns 20 starters from a team that won eight games in 2020. That includes quarterback Devin Leary, who missed the final seven games with a broken leg, linebacker Payton Wilson, the ACC’s leading tackler, all-conference offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu, and two of the country’s best specialists in kicker Christopher Dunn and punter Trenton Gill.

Because of that veteran presence and the obstacles his team was forced to overcome under difficult circumstances last year, Doeren believes State has more than just experience going for it.

It also has maturity.

“It’s a team that has grown together over time and definitely understands the commitment and what it’s like,” the coach said during a media session Monday. “Just being at practice with them and seeing how they are handling game week, it’s a much more mature football team than we’ve had that way.

“It’s a one-day-at-a-time journey with these guys. That’s what they want it to be. We’re all about winning the day. It’s cliche, I guess, to stack days now. But that’s really the focus of this group. We’re trying to be the best version of ourselves each and every day.”

As much of an unknown quantity as USF is, especially with a roster bolstered by the addition of 10 transfers, there will be at least two familiar faces to State and its fans.

Scott, the second-year coach, is the former offensive coordinator at Clemson, while Cade Fortin, who was named as the Bulls’ starting quarterback last week, began his career at rival North Carolina.

Fortin saw action in only four games during his Tar Heels career, but one of them was a start against the Wolfpack in 2018. While State won the game 34-28 in overtime, Fortin played well. He completed 19 of 40 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for a score.

“When we played him, obviously, it was a long time ago in his career. He’s going to be a much better player than he was that day,” Doeren said. “We have a lot of respect for him and know that he won a battle with another ACC quarterback (Miami’s Jarren Williams) that transferred in there. Just reading as much as I could get on their situation, it sounds like he really stepped up in their offseason program and in their spring and earned a lot of respect on that roster.”

Thursday’s game won’t just be the first of the season for the Wolfpack. It will also be the first since 2019 in which it will play before a packed house at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Weekday night games at State have traditionally produced an extra jolt of energy for the Wolfpack. Doeren is hoping his team can use that home-field advantage to get the new season off to a winning start.

“We’re very excited for our team and for our fans to be back together at home on a Thursday night,” he said. “We need a four-quarter crowd. We need it rowdy. We’re asking for our fan base and our student section to be a 12th man that has one thing in mind, and that’s making life hell on the opponent and lifting the spirit of our team. I think we have a fan base that can do that.”