On Sept. 14, 2020, NC State released its first official depth chart ahead of the team’s first matchup of the season against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. While the Pack will be playing in its first game of the year, Wake Forest is coming off a 37-13 loss against the ever-impressive Clemson Tigers.
While Wake’s offense doesn’t look as scary as years past, with former quarterback Jamie Newman gone and star receiver Sage Surratt opting out of the season, it will still provide a true test for the NC State defense. Let’s take a look at how the Wolfpack’s defense might fare against the Demon Deacon offense.
NC State secondary vs. Wake Forest quarterback and receivers
Last season, the cornerback position was a huge problem for NC State and the game against Wake Forest put that on full display, with Wake receivers accounting for 295 total yards and its tight end going off for three touchdowns.
With senior Chris Ingram out for the opener, the Pack corners still have major question marks surrounding them, with junior Teshaun Smith or sophomore Cecil Powell holding down one side of the field, and redshirt sophomore Malik Dunlap or redshirt freshman Shyheim Battle starting on the other. Meanwhile, junior Tyler Baker-Williams is set to hold down the fort at the nickelback position.
However, there is some reason for optimism for these corners. For starters, last year’s Wake quarterback Newman, who tore up the secondary for 287 yards and three passing touchdowns, is gone. In his place is Sam Hartman, a signal-caller that many thought could close the gap left by Newman’s departure, though he completed just over 50% of his passes and did not account for a single passing touchdown, nor eclipse 200 yards in his first game of the 2020 season.
On top of this, Dunlap had a strong showing against Wake Forest last season, despite the secondary playing poorly as a whole. Dunlap had three pass deflections and a season-high six stops, by far the best outing in his five starts last season.
NC State’s corners may have some question marks, but the Demon Deacon receivers have far more of their own, boasting an extremely young group. Of receivers to account for over 50 yards against Clemson, two of the three were freshmen. The leading receiver for the Deacs, Taylor Morin, is a redshirt freshman and wasn’t even guaranteed a starting spot heading into week one, and recorded Wake’s only receiving touchdown of the game.
It’s very possible that Morin, A.T. Perry, Donavon Greene or Jaquarii Roberson could go off against the Pack, but the game against Clemson didn’t provide any reason to believe the NC State corners can’t at least hold their own.
As for the Pack’s safeties, junior safety Tanner Ingle, who is in line for a huge 2020 campaign, also had a solid game against Wake Forest last season, recording nine tackles and being credited with helping on a sack. Starter sophomore Jakeen Harris also had a good game last season as a true freshman, recording eight tackles.
If the safeties can remain consistent against Wake Forest, the corners should be able to at least somewhat make up for a horrid 2019 season against inexperienced Wake receivers.
NC State D-line vs. Wake Forest O-line
While NC State’s defensive line isn’t anything to write home about, Wake Forest’s offensive line surrendered six sacks to Clemson’s dominant defense. While that might speak more to how good Clemson’s defensive line is as opposed to how bad Wake’s offensive line is, it should at least inspire confidence in the NC State trenches.
Junior Alim McNeill is obviously the big name to watch here on the interior of NC State’s line, especially considering the fact that he is matched up with Michael Jurgens, who gave up a sack on Wake’s first drive of the game. The fact that two sacks came on the Demon Deacons’ first drive could be the key to NC State turning the tide, by getting off to a quick start in the trenches and disrupting Hartman early.
On either side of McNeill will be graduate Daniel Joseph or redshirt freshman Terrell Dawkins and redshirt junior Ibrahim Kante or sophomore Savion Jackson. Joseph provides some intrigue as a transfer out of Penn State, and could look to make a name for himself early, while Kante should be able to hold his own against a seemingly unstable Wake O-line.
While other positional groups might have better matchups, the NC State defensive line should be able to take advantage of the fact that Wake’s offensive line might not be entirely confident after the Clemson game. If the Wolfpack can at least hold its own in the trenches, it could be the difference in what looks to be a close contest.
NC State linebackers vs. Wake Forest running backs
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Payton Wilson had one of his best games last season against Wake Forest, racking up 11 tackles, which led the team. It’s impressive that Wilson was able to accomplish all that he did against Wake, considering that he came off the bench. Also impressive is the fact that the Deacs’ leading rusher in the 44-10 blowout last season only managed to muster 3.5 yards per carry against Clemson.
Wilson and fellow sophomore linebacker Drake Thomas tore up the Demon Deacons last season, and now are joined by transfer redshirt junior Vi Jones, who is expected to help take this group to the next level despite losing senior Louis Acceus for the year. Jones earned Southern Cal’s Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year Award last season and should be able to help shut down any attempt at a run game from Wake Forest.
There is even more optimism surrounding this group heading into the game, considering the fact that Wake had an awful ground game against Clemson, only picking up 37 yards on 34 attempts, notching a horrible 1.1 yards per carry. A good chunk of that terrible average comes from the fact that Hartman rushed eight times for a loss of 19 yards, meaning that Wake’s running backs can’t be completely overlooked.
Christian Beal-Smith led the team in yards and carries, recording 29 yards on 11 carries, while Kenneth Walker III, who had 56 yards against NC State last season, only picked up 19 yards on his six carries. While neither had great games, Beal-Smith was flat-out dominant in high school and has been solid for Wake in prior seasons, meaning he could be aiming to break out at any point.
Thankfully for the Pack, this linebacker corps has the means to put a stop to that. Add redshirt junior Isaiah Moore to the equation along with Jones, Thomas and Wilson, and one should expect a flashy outing for NC State’s linebackers.
The matchup with Wake Forest is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. in Carter-Finley Stadium without fans, but can be streamed on the ACC Network.