NSJ unveils All-North State football team

The best of the state’s high school and college products honored after the 2022 season

Duke tackle Graham Barton was an All-ACC player for the Blue Devils this past season. (Terrance Williams / AP Photo)

The college football season came to an end earlier this month, and North Carolina was well-represented in the postseason.

A total of six schools from the state participated in bowl games, with Wake Forest, ECU and Duke winning their games and NC Central taking the HBCU national championship. UNC and NC State also played in bowls as the state set a high mark for postseason representation.

Products of North Carolina high schools also highlighted the rosters of teams both inside the state and across the nation, and two players with North Carolina connections were among the top finishers in the Heisman Trophy voting.

As is our tradition, the North State Journal has come up with an All-North State team, highlighting the best seasons for players with connections to the state, either in high school or college. It’s a testament to the successful year that the state had to see how many top-shelf players were snubbed on this year’s team.

All-North State Team, Offense

Quarterback: Herndon Hooker, Tennessee

In what will look like a huge upset here in North Carolina, the Greensboro Dudley product’s season with the Tennessee Vols gets the nod over a historic season from UNC’s Drake Maye.

Both quarterbacks were in the Heisman conversation, and we’ll defer to those voters, who had Hooker in fifth with 17 first-place votes and 226 points, while Maye came in 10th, with 3 and 42, respectively.

There were plenty of other candidates who, in a normal year, would have a case, including Wake’s Sam Hartman, Duke’s Riley Leonard, ECU’s Holton Ahlers and App State’s Chase Brice.

Running backs: Will Shipley, Clemson; Keaton Mitchell, ECU

Shipley also earns the nod as the All-North State return man after earning All-ACC honors as a running back, all-purpose back and returner. The Matthews Weddington product rushed for 1,182 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Tigers.

Mitchell repeated as first-team All-AAC, becoming the first Pirate since Justin Hardy in 2014 to earn multiple first-team spots.

Wide Receiver: Josh Downs, UNC; A.T. Perry, Wake Forest

Another loaded position in the state. Downs finished with 94 catches for 1,029 yards and 11 scores, while Perry had 81 catches for 1,096 and 11 touchdowns. The two were both first-team All-ACC and eclipsed outstanding seasons by Duke’s Jalon Calhoun, UNC’s Antoine Green, NC State’s Thayer Thomas, ECU’s CJ Johnson and Charlotte’s Grant DuBose.

Tight end: Henry Pearson, App State

The Mountaineers’ fifth-year senior had career highs in catches (25), yards (329) and touchdowns (5) while earning second-team All-Sun Belt honors. UNC’s Bryson Nesbit also deserves mention.

Guards: Robert Mitchell, NC Central; Jovaughn Gwyn, South Carolina

Mitchell was named the MEAC Offensive Lineman of the Year and helped lead the Eagles to the HBCU national title. Gwyn, from Charlotte Harding, earned second-team All-SEC with the Gamecocks at right guard. NC State’s Chandler Zavala just missed out on a spot.

Tackles: Graham Barton, Duke; Cooper Hodges, App State

Another deep position. UNC’s Asim Richards, App’s Anderson Hardy, State’s Timothy McKay and Wake’s DeVonte Gordon all have legitimate beefs. But we went with the first-teamers in the ACC (Barton) and Sun Belt (Hodges).

Center: Grant Gibson, NC State

The sixth-year Wolfpack lineman and pride of Mallard Creek earned the All-North State spot in his fourth year as starter. Wake’s Michael Jurgens, UNC’s Corey Gaynor and App’s Isaiah Helms also deserve mention.

All-North State Team, Defense

Defensive end: Amir Siddiq, Charlotte; KJ Henry, Clemson

Siddiq was second-team All-CUSA, and West Forsyth’s Henry was second-team All-ACC. They beat out a pair of Wake Forest pass rushers in Jasheen Davis and Rondell Bothroyd.

Defensive tackle: DeWayne Carter; Duke; Cory Durden; NC State

Carter was the heart and soul of a Duke defense that lifted the Blue Devils to a surprisingly successful season, while Durden earned third-team All-ACC honors giving the Pack a push up the middle.

Linebacker: Cedric Gray, UNC; Drake Thomas, NC State; Nick Hampton, App State

Yet another spot where we could stock at least one more All-North State team with the talent available. Gray was first-team All-ACC and Thomas second, while Hampton was first-team All-Sun Belt. Then there’s State’s Isaiah Moore and Payton Wilson, Wake’s Ryan Smenda, Duke’s Shaka Heyward, UNC’s Power Echols and Virginia Tech’s Dax Hollifield, of Shelby.

Cornerback: Aydan White, NC State; Malik Fleming, ECU

White earned All-ACC honors, and Fleming was named to the All-AAC second team. Storm Duck battled injury for part of the Tar Heels’ season, which was enough to keep him off the team in a crowded position group. App’s Steven Jones and State’s Tyler Baker-Williams also had cases.

Safety: Tanner Ingle, NC State; Darius Joiner, Duke

Ingle earned second-team All-ACC, while Joiner was third-team. Joiner’s Blue Devils teammate Brandon Johnson was the next player up at this position.

All-North State Team, Special Teams

Kicker: Chris Dunn, NC State

When we named Dunn to the preseason All-North State team, we said, “This was not the no-brainer some may have expected,” and that was even more the case after the season played out. Dunn is the Wolfpack’s career scoring leader and earned first-team All-ACC, but on the opposite coast, Western Alamance’s Joshua Karty had a huge season for Stanford.

Dunn was nearly perfect, hitting all 30 extra point attempts and 28 of 29 field goals, including both attempts from 50-plus yards. He needed to be to hold off Karty, who was 24 of 25 on PATs and hit all 18 of his field goal attempts. He was 3 for 3 from 50-plus, including a 61-yarder, and hit another 10 from 40-49 yards.

Punter: Ben Kiernan, UNC

Kiernan earned third-team All-ACC and was able to hold off Duke’s Porter Wilson.

Long snapper: Joe Shimko, NC State

He snapped for all of Dunn’s kicks and played a key role in the placekicker’s near-perfect season, which allowed him to break UNC’s Drew Little’s recent stranglehold on this spot.

Return man: Will Shipley, Clemson

Shipley, also our team’s running back, was first-team All-ACC on special teams and held off Duke’s Jalon Calhoun, State’s Thayer Thomas and UNC’s Josh Downs.