NC State’s offense is brimming with confidence leading into fall camp, and it starts with its stars. After a surprising 8-4 campaign, its leaders are looking for more.
No one questions whether the Wolfpack can compete with the best of the best. With sophomore running back Bam Knight garnering preseason Doak Walker and Maxwell watchlist honors, senior receiver Emeka Emezie earning the preseason nod for the Biletnikoff watchlist and redshirt junior center Grant Gibson in the running for the Rimington award, the Wolfpack has talent at every level.
Beyond that, the players on the team are close, which started as a result of the 4-8 campaign shaking the team to its core. Gibson also partially attributed their camaraderie to the pandemic and the social justice movements forcing the team to come together. Now, the players rave about each other and display a vested interest in each other’s success.
“Those guys, they're all good dudes off the field,” Gibson said. “We're all close as an offense, so when you’ve got guys that you like, and want to block for to make sure that they get those yards, and get those accolades, that's something that we pride ourselves in. [We’re] trying to make sure that we take care of Leary, try and make sure that he doesn't get hit, that's something as a group, we pride ourselves on like, ‘Listen, he does not get in touched.’”
With so many veterans still on the roster, leadership abounds for this group. Between Gibson, Emezie, redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary and more, the team leads, corrects and coaches each other, but in football, the buck always stops with the man under center. During his availability, Doeren called it “critical” to go into a new season knowing your starter so that player can take over the team.
“For myself really, it’s just being able to lead the guys and be the best possible servant leader that I can to our team,” Leary said. “Because they're looking at me this year to be the leader of the team, to be the guy that leads them each week, game in and game out. So if I can consistently fulfill that role, that's my ultimate goal.”
As Leary enters his first year as the definite starter for the program, he does so after his 2020 campaign ended via a broken fibula. Though he showed marked improvement in his four games that season, putting up 890 yards and 8 TDs on 60% completions, he’s still honing his craft.
Leary said he watched on and liked the moxie and confidence his contemporaries Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields brought to their college teams, and said he models much of his game after favorite quarterback Drew Brees.
“I try to look up as many possible videos of his throwing mechanics, how it's changed from when he was at Purdue, to the Chargers to the Saints,” Leary said. “If you just watch videos of him you [see] that no matter how much he's achieved, or how much records he’s set, he's always looking for more. He's always looking to strive to get better, even if it's the littlest things.”
That mentality extends throughout the offense. Though embarrassment is no longer a motivation for the offense, it has plenty of things to fix as the unit was middle of the pack in the ACC in points scored per game and third down conversions, and bottom of the barrel in penalties committed.
It even extends into the booth as head coach Dave Doeren alluded to a new-look offense from offensive coordinator Tim Beck this year.
“What he had to do last year coming in new, not knowing any of the players, not getting to go through spring ball with our team but three practices, he had no idea really what our talent was going into the season,” Doeren said. “So we were a watered-down version of what we will be. I think our offense will evolve quite a bit now that they know him, he knows them. They're speaking the same language.”
That improved chemistry should pay dividends in-game. On the road to double-digit wins, which winds through Clemson, UNC, Miami and Mississippi State, the little things are the difference between average and a division title. With Clemson losing Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne and UNC losing five players to the draft, the ACC is more open than in recent memory. Whether the team can take advantage is up in the air.
“We control what we can control,” Grant Gibson said. “We've had long talks about ‘Look, we need to execute.’ The whole emphasis this offseason was the small details, the small things on the field like false starts and post-snap penalties and things like that, because we can understand that those things can cost you games.”
One thing that will never change is the chip on NC State’s shoulder. With nearly its entire team returning and pretty much every offensive position group intact, the players believe this is their year. For the Wolfpack to break the mold, its offense needs to show off its firepower game in and game out this season.
“Our team is very determined, and our team is very hungry,” Leary said. “We don't want to be just another eight win NC State team, we want to achieve as high as we can. We know we have all the pieces, we know we have the right coaches and we know we have the right strength and conditioning staff to get us prepared to achieve what needs to be done.”