NC State football had a disappointing 2019 season. With a 4-8 finish and only one Power Five victory, every unit left something to be desired and the offensive line was no exception. Ranking 25th in the nation in sacks allowed but 75th in rushing yards per game, the unit needs to take a step forward in 2020.
“At the end of the day, we want to win games, and at the end of the day, we didn't do that. We didn't have the season that we wanted,” offensive line coach John Garrison said. “I do think there was improvement as the season went on. Within the run game, protecting the quarterback, there was improvement but it's not near the standard and expectations that we have for the offensive line at NC State. The improvement part is what you can build on."
One shining star on the unit was Ickey Ekwonu, who as a true freshman emerged at left tackle and took over the starting role. Ekwonu scored a fair amount of postseason recognition for the job he did, including the Football Writers Association of America naming him a freshman All-American. Ekwonu’s strength and quickness is undeniable, but there’s always room to grow.
“Now he needs to continue to improve on it, from little things [like] false stepping and making sure he's taking the proper angles,” Garrison said. “Those are all things that come with time and come with experience, and you saw him grow during the season. His athleticism, his God-given abilities really put him in the position he was in, and you saw the growth and I'm excited about watching him grow even further.”
Garrison said he likes converting defensive linemen to offensive linemen because of their athleticism and “attacking style mentality.” One unsung player to watch out for may be redshirt sophomore tackle Derek Eason, who’s had a year to develop on the offensive side. Eason made the move from defensive end to offensive tackle last year, and while it may have taken a minute for him to adjust, Garrison is excited about his potential.
“As a former defensive lineman myself then moved to offensive line, it's kind of a tough transition mentally,” Garrison said. “I think Derek Eason was a guy that maybe struggled with it a little bit early on. And now he's totally gung-ho. He's grasped it and he's another guy that is gonna be a big time player for us.”
Replacing the best center in the country is no easy task, but there was no better mentor for redshirt junior center Grant Gibson than Garrett Bradbury. Gibson said he leaned heavily on the things Bradbury taught him, including how to study film and how to dissect plays. In his first year under center, Gibson took on major responsibilities, including making calls and setting the slide to pick up any blitzes.
“I think I played alright, but there's definitely some things that I've been trying to work on this offseason,” Gibson said. “Just trying to finish my blocks more, trying to use my smarts out there too. I played on both sides of the ball so I can see things that are going to happen before they do. I'm just trying to use things like that to my advantage.”
Garrison is encouraged by the depth his unit will have this year with only one starter leaving the program. Redshirt senior tackle Justin Witt and graduate tackle Tyrone Riley receiving extra years of eligibility after season-ending injuries means six returning players with significant experience, a much better situation than last year.
The offensive line comes into fall camp pretty established with Gibson at center, redshirt senior Joe Sculthorpe and redshirt junior Bryson Speas at guard and Ekwonu at left tackle with some competition for the final starting spot. Between Witt, Riley and the redshirting players, Garrison won’t lack options.
The unit also adds Garrison’s first four recruits. Freshmen linemen Ethan Lane and Sean Hill were both early enrollees, and despite only being able to practice five times during spring ball, Garrison said he saw “verification” of why he wanted them in Raleigh.
“Ethan Lane plays one of the tougher positions on the offensive line and really talking about mentally, at the center spot,” Garrison said. “He's extremely intelligent, very athletic and tough as nails. And Sean, the same thing, very cognizant player, meaning he understands the game of football, [he’s] physical and tough.
While many of Garrison’s pieces are the same, there’s one major change: head coach Dave Doeren’s hiring of offensive coordinator Tim Beck. Beck and Garrison were colleagues at Nebraska and saw good results working together, and hope the same stays true seven years later.
“What's really nice is the core of what coach Beck is all about is very friendly for the offensive line,” Garrison said. “What I mean by that is he's gonna make sure if it doesn't fit for the offensive line, he's not going to do it. He understands the game, that the games are won up front. And I think, philosophically, we both have the same mindset and what we want to do so it's been an easy transition.”
Ultimately, we won’t be able to judge the effect of Tim Beck on this offense until we see it in action, and the strength and conditioning staff will have their work cut out for them getting the team, and especially its largest members, back into playing shape before NC State plays Louisville on Sept. 2. While Garrison can’t coach or work out his players, he said he’s heard good things about how well they’re staying in shape.
“I think the hardest thing is just trying to stay in shape without all the stuff that you have [at school],” Gibson said. “I'm blessed to have a squat rack downstairs, but it's not the same as stuff that I have at school. So you just really have to just find different ways to fit your needs.”
COVID-19 won’t be an excuse for another subpar season given every team is in the same boat. Gibson said his goal for the year is just to see the team play better this year. Ultimately, where the team goes is dependent on the players pushing each other to constantly improve. Taking on a leadership role as a first-year starter wasn’t something Gibson envisioned, but as the year went on he knew he had to step up and will continue to do so.
“I'm definitely always out there just trying to help other guys,” Gibson said. “I was out there just trying to coach other guys on things that they can fix as well. Knowing that you can help other guys out is huge. I'm always trying to help the young players that we have because I want all of us to do well. Because if we all do well, that's how we win games.”