This year’s Kay Yow Spring Game carried a bit more intrigue than it has the past few years for NC State football. With the departure of quarterback Ryan Finley, receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers and a number of key contributors on both sides of the ball, there are battles for starting jobs at just about every position going into the 2019 season.
The number one storyline is obviously the quarterback battle, as three candidates to replace Finley played Saturday, which is why we’re giving that it’s own story. You can read about the QBs here.
There was plenty more to see from the spring game, including big games for freshman running back Zonovan Knight and redshirt junior receiver C.J. Riley.
Here are some key takeaways from the 2019 spring game.
Zonovan “Bam” Knight is the real deal- Bam indeed. NC State’s freshman back showed off his explosiveness Saturday, tallying up 17 carries for 139 yards and a touchdown. Despite the Wolfpack being down three projected starters on the offensive line, Knight was consistently able to find holes for big gains.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Knight said of his first game at Carter-Finley Stadium. “A lot of athletes, they dream of this. So it’s a dream come true for me.”
The Rocky Mount native demonstrated the home run ability that made him such a coveted recruit in the second quarter with a 73-yard touchdown run. Knight made two cuts, hit the hole and was gone, taking it to the house without the nearest defender having a prayer of catching him.
If Knight’s spring game performance is any indication, he’ll be ready to make an impact from day one of his freshman year, and the Wolfpack has found itself a big-time playmaker out of the backfield. If the team can keep sophomore Ricky Person healthy as well, it should make for an impressive backfield.
“[Knight]’s an exciting player,” head coach Dave Doeren said. “He’s explosive; he’s smart. He’s hungry. He just needs to get in shape. He missed some practices when he had the sprained ankle. He’s an explosive guy. He gives us what he had when [Nyheim Hines] was here in the backfield. A guy who can change the game if you miss him.”
C.J. Riley ready to step up- With the loss of a pair of 1,000-yard receivers from last season in Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers, along with a veteran presence in Stephen Louis, the Wolfpack needs others to step up at receiver this season. The trio of junior Emeka Emezie, redshirt junior C.J. Riley and redshirt sophomore Thayer Thomas projects to start this season.
Emezie played quite a bit last season with Louis injured, tallying 53 catches for 616 yards and five touchdowns, and Thomas flashed early in the season with Meyers out.
The player the Pack’s going to need a big uptick in production from is Riley, who had 28 catches for 315 yards and two scores.
“I think it’s a big thing with [Harmon, Meyers and Louis] gone,” Riley said. “I feel like with me, Thayer and Emeka, we’re going to easily step into the roles and be able to compete like they did. Try to hold up to the standard they set.”
Riley’s speed and 6-foot-4 frame should make him a field-stretching weapon, but he struggled with drops in his first two seasons.
It’s important not to overreact to the spring game, but Riley looked good despite playing with more than one quarterback Saturday. He led the team with six catches for 113 yards, and showed off his deep-ball ability on a 40-yard pass from redshirt sophomore Matt McKay in the first half.
“I’m definitely trying to be established as a playmaker down the field,” Riley said. “Just trying to bring my speed down field to catch a lot of deep balls, just try to make a lot of plays down field.”
If Riley can step up and replace some of the production lost with Harmon and Meyers, it’ll be a big plus for an offense that will be trotting out a new quarterback.
Potentially loaded D-Line- On the other side of the trenches, however; the Wolfpack could have an embarrassment of riches. The defensive line brings back a number of players who made contributions last season, including redshirt sophomore end Xavier Lyas (who had a sack in the spring game), graduate end James Smith-Williams, redshirt sophomore end Ibrahim Kante, graduate end Deonte Holden, redshirt freshman Joseph Boletepeli, and redshirt senior tackle Larrell Murchison. Redshirt freshman Derrick Eason played in one game last season and also recorded a sack in the spring game.
“Our starting five that we thought we would have did not play today,” Doeren said. “So you’ve got to give those guys credit for playing. … We’re the opposite of what we were a year ago. Last year we were a really inexperienced front. This year we have guys who have played a lot of football.”
One returning defensive lineman who should be expected to make a big leap is sophomore tackle Alim McNeill. The 6-foot-2, 299-pound Raleigh native posted 3.5 sacks as a freshman and was a highly-touted recruit out of Sanderson High School.
NC State also brings in a number of talented freshman on the defensive line. 6-foot-4, 264-pound end Savion Jackson, the No. 3 recruit in the state, is the crown jewel of NC State’s 2019 recruiting class. He’s joined by tackles Joshua Harris and C.J. Clark and end Terrell Dawkins.
The Wolfpack should boast a deep, talented rotation in the defensive trenches both for the 2019 season and for years to come.
“It’s pretty great, because as far as going over calls and stuff like that, most of this stuff,” McNeill said. “We’ve been through it last year. Just the chemistry, being able to build as a D-Line, it helps us a lot. Even with the new guys coming in, they listen well and pay attention. Being able to gel like that, and having that experience from last year, it’s pretty good.”