2022 is “unfinished business” season for Wolfpack
RALEIGH — by Dave Doeren facial hair is more than just a new look.
For the NC State football coach – now entering his 10th season with a contract extension that could keep him at Raleigh until 2026 – the salt and pepper beard is a daily reminder of last season’s controversial end.
The Wolfpack were scheduled to face UCLA in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 with a chance to win their 10th game for only the second time in program history before the The Bruins withdrew hours before kickoff due to COVID-19 issues within the program.
Doeren told reporters later that day that he “to feel lied to” and said UCLA was misleading about the health of its players. The NCAA then ruled the game a no contest, leaving NC State with nine wins and prompting Doeren to give the college sports governing body a new acronym.
“The NCAA stands for No Clue At All in my opinion,” Doeren said in December.
Six months later, that anger remains.
“When I started (growing a beard), it was just my protest at the end of our season,” Doeren told the USA TODAY Network. “I was pissed at the world when all this happened.”
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It’s the perfect narrative for Doeren to embrace as the Wolfpack enter the 2022 season with the highest expectations of any team over the past decade. It’s a program that thrived as an underdog but struggled as a favorite; a place where they are this year.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business,” Doeren said in May. “There was a huge chip on our shoulder because we couldn’t attend the Charlotte game last year.”
Doeren, 50, is on course to become the program’s all-time winningest coach and is the only one to lead the Wolfpack to three separate nine-win seasons, including finishing 18th in the final college football playoff standings. and 20th at last AP. Top 25 in the standings last season.
But the game’s greatest achievements have remained out of reach. NC State has never played in an ACC title game – the conference started playing a title game in 2005 – and close losses to Miami (31-30) and Wake Forest (45-42) kept this streak alive in 2021.
This season, however, the Wolfpack are a hot pick to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division after beating Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina last season for the first time in 20 years. There is a certain level of trepidation with the preseason hype, especially after watching UNC stumble and fall last year after entering the season as national title hopefuls.
But NC State has the foundation for success.
All 10 assistant coaches on the field return with new contract deals along with the majority of starters from last year’s 9-3 campaign.
The excitement begins with the return of quarterback Devin Leary, whom Doeren called “the best quarterback in the country” for several appearances this offseason.
Leary returns for his fourth year at Raleigh after placating his critics with a breakout season in 2021. Coming out of a broken leg in 2020Leary became one of the most effective passers in the country with 3,433 yards, 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions while making 65% of his throws.
This season, Leary’s blindside will be more vulnerable with a left tackle Ikem Ekwonu turns pro. Anthony Belton, 6ft 6in, 330lbs, replacing Ekwonu last season, started at left tackle in the spring game and senior Bryson Speas and second Timothy McKay could also be used in that position .
“There are a lot of guys here who are thrilled to have the opportunity to compete,” Doeren said. “By the time we get to August we will have a very good idea of where we are.”
The return of offensive lineman Chandler Zavala will provide a boost after the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility. His initial request for a sixth season of eligibility based on injuries and a lost year due to COVID-19 was initially denied.
“I’m so excited to have the chance to play another year with my brothers,” Chandler told the USA TODAY Network. “We have the chance to do something special.”
Leary will have familiar targets at wide receiver with Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter. Thomas caught 51 passes for 596 yards and eight touchdowns last year, and the 6-3 Carter is ready for a breakout after 31 receptions for 556 yards and six touchdowns. Maryland transfer Darryl Jones could also have an early impact on the Wolfpack.
The biggest question mark in attack is who will head the ball for the Wolfpack.
Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person both left for the NFL, leaving NC State without a proven running back.
Junior Jordan Houston is the most experienced and obvious candidate to be NC State’s starting running back for the 2022 season. In 2021, Houston recorded a career-low 20 carries for 83 yards. He tore a ligament in his foot during the spring game which limited his ability at the start of the season. In his first two seasons, he made double-digit catches. In 2021, he had three.
Sophomore Delbert Mimms and freshman Demie Sumo have six career runs between them and Michael Allen, NC State’s four-star running back from the Class of 2022, hasn’t played college football.
“Those young guys, Delbert, Demi, they’re really good,” Houston said. “But I’m now the oldest guy in the room, so I think it’s for the best if I step in and be a leader in this room. I mean, that’s what I expected .”
NC State lost six starters on defense last year, including All-ACC linebacker Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore, and allowed just 19.7 points per game. The Pack’s defense finished among the best of all major defensive categories.
Wilson and Moore return this season with Drake Thomas, who entered the center linebacker position to have 99 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks, three interceptions and nine quarterback rushes. They will also return All-ACC defensive tackle Cory Durden, cornerback Derrek Pitts Jr., safety Tanner Ingle and nickel Tyler Baker-Williams through the extra COVID year.
David Thompson is an award-winning reporter for the USA TODAY Network covering NC State and Duke athletics. He can be reached at [email protected], 828-231-1747 or on Twitter at @daveth89.