NC State fans have long complained about the team’s play in the secondary and for good reason. The Wolfpack has built up an earned reputation for its play in the trenches, and it’s had strong linebacker play under former defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable. The missing link has always come in the back end, something that will have to change as explosive passing attacks prove more and more important for winning.
It’s unfair to judge last year’s secondary by metrics like passing yards allowed per game, in which it ranked 103rd in the country, or passing efficiency allowed, in which it ranked 91st in the country. Sure, the end product on the field last year was disappointing, and it led to head coach Dave Doeren and new defensive coordinator Tony Gibson parting ways with corners coach George Barlow, but injuries tell the story of the season.
Top corner Nick McCloud played only two total games after being injured in the first game of the year, his opposite Chris Ingram was lost halfway through the season to a leg injury, and their replacements, redshirt sophomore Taiyon Palmer and junior Teshaun Smith, also suffered season-ending leg injuries. This year, three of the four return, with McCloud transferring to Notre Dame and Palmer and Smith have been cleared to play. Smith will start against Wake Forest opposite redshirt freshman Shyheim Battle.
While returning players are expected to step into larger roles, sometimes freshmen make a surprising splash on the depth chart. Doeren emphasized speed when recruiting wide receivers and defensive backs last year, and that athleticism helped a few land on the depth chart.
Freshman Joshua Pierre-Louis has carved out a niche, backing up junior Tyler Baker-Williams at nickel, while freshmen Devan Boykin and Aydan White are listed at third-string for strong safety and right cornerback, respectively. In a normal year, one might expect them to redshirt, but because COVID-19 positives could take starters out of games, coaches will likely play the majority of their rosters for experience.
The corners also have a new position coach in Brian Mitchell, who comes from Virginia Tech. Mitchell has a reputation as a teacher, having turned Caleb Farley from a three-star prospect into one of the top corners in the country and a sure-fire first-round pick. Mitchell will have a lot of potential to cultivate given all the players who saw significant time last year.
“Our corner group with Teshaun and Taiyon Palmer, we’ve got Shy Battle, Malik Dunlap, Cecil Powell, those kids have all grown so much,” Gibson said. “Coach Mitchell has done a great job of coaching those guys and working technique, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
At the safety positions, NC State has two proven players starting at free safety and nickel in juniors Tanner Ingle and Baker-Williams, respectively. The strong safety spot is a bit more up in the air. Sophomore Jakeen Harris is set to start with transfer sophomore Rakeim Ashford pushing him for time. Doeren singled Ashford out earlier in fall camp as a player who was picking up Gibson’s system well.
“Tanner Ingle and Tyler Baker-Williams are two guys that have played a ton of football,” Gibson said. “[I] was excited about Jakeen Harris as the year moved on last year and he got thrown into the fire, and I thought he responded well at times. Now it’s an every-down role for him … As we started spring ball, he was showing flashes. He was confident, able to make all the checks, have a voice back there and [I] really liked where he was at.”
Ultimately, the unit as a whole is in worse shape than it was going into last season, as a result of all the players recovering from injuries. Whether Smith, Palmer and, eventually, Ingram will be the same when they return remains to be seen and is the biggest question mark for the secondary. Whether Harris or Ashford will provide a presence in coverage that last year’s starter Jarius Morehead lacked is the second biggest. Confidence really only exists for Ingle and Baker-Williams because those are the only two proven players NC State fields in the unit.
There are a lot of unknowns this season and a lot of things to prove for both NC State’s players and coaching staff. While budget concerns make it likely no one will be fired after this year, it’s also not a time to make your seat hotter. For Gibson and Mitchell, the easiest way to quickly gain favor with NC State’s fandom will be to showcase an improved secondary this Saturday against Wake Forest.