There is no question the 2018 edition of NC State football has a lot of talent to replace. Much of the talk around that subject centers on Bradley Chubb and the defensive line or on running back Nyheim Hines and touchdown machine Jaylen Samuels.
However, two overlooked losses are key cogs from perhaps the team’s best unit last season, its offensive line. The Wolfpack has its entire left side and middle returning with redshirt senior left tackle Tyler Jones, redshirt senior guard Terrone Prescod and graduate center Garrett Bradbury, but will have to replace its right side in guard Tony Adams and tackle Will Richardson.
The favorites to do so are sophomore guard Josh Fedd-Jackson and redshirt sophomore tackle Justin Witt, both of whom gained valuable experience last year and are ready for the challenge.
“It’s next man up,” Witt said. “Everyone goes through it. Every team in the country has it, where someone has to be replaced. It’s just up to the people behind them that they can step up and do the job.”
It’s fitting that Adams and Richardson are overlooked losses, as the offensive line is traditionally one of the most overlooked positions in football.
That does not make the work it does any less important, and indeed, the Pack’s unheralded “band of brothers” was arguably the most important part of its breakout 9-4 season in 2017, paving the way for Hines to be the team’s second 1,000-plus yard rusher in as many years, and keeping a clean pocket for graduate quarterback Ryan Finley, as the Pack surrendered just 13 sacks, good for fifth in the country in that category.
The fact that they’ll be doing a crucial job without much recognition is exactly what NC State offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford imparts on his charges.
“I think it takes a village,” Ledford said. “On every team you’re going to have those guys that not everybody notices. But it’s those guys that go unnoticed and the contributions that they make that I think is big to any success of any team. As an offensive lineman, you know that you’re going to be in the shadows, and that’s fine, but you don’t substitute the work. It’s still about going out, putting in the work and having the demeanor about what it means for us to be an offensive lineman, to be the protectors of the team. To go out and set the tempo for our offense. So that’s what I want the guys to embrace; that’s what they want to exemplify and show.”
With Hines gone, the Pack’s O-line once again has the importance of paving the way for a new starting running back, something they’re confident they’ll be able to do again.
“It’s just like the year before when Matt Dayes left,” Jones said. “There were a lot of questions back there, and we ended up having another 1,000-yard back. It’s going to be all in the work that we put in this past summer and during camp to really show when the season hits. It doesn’t matter who you put back there, as long as we’re doing our job, the running backs can do their thing.”
The Pack’s contenders to step in on the offensive line may not be multi-year starters, but they aren’t devoid of experience, either. Witt started the first two games of last year with Richardson suspended, an experience that will be key for him in transitioning to his new role.
“It was a big experience,” Witt said. “It really got my feet wet. I got used to playing in the game, and now I just feel more comfortable than I was last year, knowing that I know what to expect now going into it.”
While that experience will help Witt and Fedd-Jackson, the biggest challenge for Ledford comes from bridging the gap between the returning starters and the new ones.
“Tony and Will played a lot of snaps together,” Ledford said. “That’s the thing that is [hard]. Anytime when you kind of start over with that, the left side, obviously Tyler [Prescod] and Bradbury, they’ve all been there. The good thing about Josh, and also with Witt, Bradbury’s there. So he’s able to help with the communication part with that right side. That’s what training camp’s for. There’s 25 days out here that we get where these guys can gel, come together. There’s spring ball. We try to do a lot of things out here also where they’re hanging out together. It’s not just what we do here. Trying to build that chemistry happens outside the [Murphy Center] and outside the facilities as well.”
NC State head coach Dave Doeren is confident there’s no better person to do that job than Ledford.
“He does an incredible job,” Doeren said. “Not just in coaching and having passion for the coaching but building chemistry and relationships and brotherhood. Those guys have grown so much under him.”
Seeing Richardson, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Adams, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Jags, along with others from last year’s team, move on to the NFL provides motivation to the offensive linemen left behind to follow in their footsteps.
“It’s huge motivation,” Witt said. “I’m going on Twitter and I’m looking at pictures of Chubb, Nyheim, Will, they’re all taking snaps at NFL camps. I’m just like, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ I think we all have the same mindset to why can’t we get in that position.”
While the Wolfpack offensive line has a tall task repeating last year’s performance minus Richardson and Adams, it has all the tools in place in motivated returners with some experience, and the right coach to lead them.
“This offensive line is not going to miss a beat from last year,” Witt said. “I feel like we could be good if not better because we have three seniors coming back; we have two young guys, me and Josh Fedd-Jackson to where we were thrown in. We feel ready because we got pushed by the older guys.”