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Knight, State Ground Game Key for Wolfpack

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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The Wolfpack offense would be wise to rely more upon their strength this season -- the running game.

Following years of ascension under Dave Doeren, NC State took a major step backwards while going through multiple offensive changes last fall. Most notably, veteran quarterback Ryan Finley finally departed, and it led to the worst record for the Wolfpack since Doeren’s first year in 2013.

It appears as though Doeren could be in for another long season. NC State will undergo change at offensive coordinator for a second straight year, and the team still hasn’t settled on a quarterback. That’s particularly worrisome in a year without as many offseason workouts as usual because of COVID-19.

But with major question marks behind center, the Wolfpack offense would be wise to rely more upon their strength this season -- the running game.

NC State featured a plethora of young backs last year who played well despite inexperience. Bam Knight and Jordan Houston each averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry on more than 100 attempts. Together, they ran for 1,271 yards and seven touchdowns. Ricky Person Jr. chipped in with 229 rushing yards and three scores as well.

Those three reached those accomplishments despite both starting offensive tackles going through injuries. NC State also missed blocking tight end Dylan Autenrieth, who suffered a knee ailment in Week 3.

Injuries usually lead to missed opportunities because rarely do all of the injured and best players return the following year, but this NC State group will get another chance. Offensive tackles Justin Witt and Tyrone Riley will return along with Autenrieth. The offensive line lost only one starter, and with a healthy blocking tight end, Knight and Houston should be able to reach another level during their sophomore campaigns.

In particular, Knight needs to touch the ball a lot this season. He averaged more than 5.5 yards per touch in 2019, but he only recorded 143 touches, including just seven receptions.

If an offense’s best playmaker is at running back, that unit can’t afford for that player to only touch the ball about 12 times per game. New coordinator Tim Beck faces a lot of challenges, but when in doubt, it doesn’t have to be complicated -- NC State must get the ball to Knight. Despite so few attempts, he led the team with 790 yards from scrimmage in 2019.

Part of the key will be staying in games, which the Wolfpack did not do at all last year. NC State trailed by more than two touchdowns in seven of its eight conference games heading into the fourth quarter.

Those kinds of slow starts will render Knight and the running game useless. All the more reason to involve Knight in the pass attack, but keeping offensive balance will be critical too. None of the NC quarterbacks appear capable of winning games on their own.

Sophomore Devin Leary ended last season as the starter behind center, and in this unusual offseason, he appears to be the frontrunner to start in 2020. But it could be a quarterback carousel of sorts again with redshirt freshman Ty Evans available and NC State successfully landing Ben Finley in the 2020 class. Ben is the younger brother of former Wolfpack starter Ryan Finley.

Whomever becomes the primary signal caller for NC State, they will more than likely not be ready to lead the offense. A competent game manager that’s part of a healthy unit with the running game leading the way is the best case scenario for NC State’s offense in 2020.

Should Knight and the rushing attack become as elite as it looks on paper, the Wolfpack quarterback play will become immediately better, and NC State could threaten to climb out of the ACC Atlantic cellar.