ACC football roundup: No. 13 NC State ready for season of heightened expectations
Published 10:00 pm Thursday, August 18, 2022
By Aaron Beard
AP Sports Writer
RALEIGH — Coach Dave Doeren knows all about North Carolina State’s title drought — more than four decades have passed since the Wolfpack last won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
The coach also believes the wait could end this season.
“I want to bring it to them, man,” Doeren said of N.C. State fans. “I want to help them ease that pain.”
The expectations are high with the Wolfpack ranked 13th, matching the program’s program’s best for the preseason AP Top 25 set in 1975. N.C. State was the second-leading vote-getter for preseason favorite in the league behind Clemson, though it would have to beat out the Tigers in the Atlantic Division to play for the title in the final year of the league’s two-division format.
The defense has 10 starters back, including top linebacker Payton Wilson from injury, after ranking highly in the Bowl Subdivision ranks. There’s also an offense led by the preseason pick for ACC player of the year in quarterback Devin Leary.
N.C. State won nine games last year, including its first win against Clemson since 2011. It missed on a shot to become only the second Wolfpack team to reach double-figure wins when a Holiday Bowl matchup with UCLA was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Bruins program.
“It’s not like we won the ACC a year ago and we’re back here and how we’re going to do it again,” said Doeren, now in his 10th season. “We need to get there still.”
Last year’s team fell short of reaching its first ACC title game after losing a shootout at eventual division champion Wake Forest in a November matchup of AP Top 25 teams.
“I just think the level of expectation is definitely raised,” Leary said. “Guys that have played before and the amount of work we put in last year only got us to nine wins.”
Leary’s growth has been key in N.C. State’s rise, starting with his play during an injury-shortened 2020 season.
The fifth-year junior ranked 10th in FBS last year with 35 touchdown passes while also ranking in the top 20 nationally in average passing yards and passing efficiency.
N.C. State’s offense must find new leaders on the ground and through the air.
The Wolfpack lost last year’s top two rushers in Zonovan Knight (753 yards) and Ricky Person Jr. (636) to the NFL, while Knight also had two kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Fourth-year junior Jordan Houston is the top returning rusher with 83 yards on 20 carries.
The team also lost top receiver Emeka Emezie (802 yards), though there is more experience there with Thayer Thomas (49 career games) and Devin Carter (40).
Defense was a strength last year, with the Wolfpack ranking third in the ACC in total defense (331.6 yards per game, 21st in FBS) and second in scoring defense (19.7, 14th). That came despite multiple season-ending injuries.
The list most notably included Wilson, who led the ACC in tackles and ranked 13th in FBS at 10.8 per game in 2020. Now he’s set to return along with fellow linebacker Isaiah Moore, nose tackle C.J. Clark and safety Cyrus Fagan from that injury list to bolster the unit.
“When we all came to N.C. State, we wanted to put N.C. State in a place it’s never been before,” linebacker Isaiah Moore said. “While it’s still in progress, it hasn’t been done yet.”
N.C. State returns the program’s career scoring leader in graduate kicker Christopher Dunn.
Dunn has made 69 field goals in his first four seasons to set the program record and all 170 of his point-after attempts. But his field-goal accuracy has fallen each year from a high of 88.5% as a freshman (23 of 26) to 68.4% last year (13 of 19).
N.C. State faces a tricky opener by visiting East Carolina (Sept. 3) in front of a rowdy and hostile instate crowd, then hosts the Big 12’s Texas Tech two weeks later.
The ACC opener comes at No. 4 Clemson on Oct. 1, while another comes at home Nov. 5 against No. 22 Wake Forest in a game that largely decided last year’s Atlantic Division race. The Wolfpack’s final two games come on the road, first at Louisville (Nov. 19) before visiting rival North Carolina on Nov. 25.
No. 22 Wake Forest faces challenges
Years of patient building led Wake Forest to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. Coach Dave Clawson knows it’s going to take even better play to stay there, and that job has only gotten tougher during preseason.
The 22nd-ranked Demon Deacons hit an unexpected bump with quarterback Sam Hartman having to step away indefinitely to seek treatment for what the school has described only as a medical condition unrelated to football.
It’s unclear when he might return, a big question for a team that otherwise has nine offensive and eight defensive starters back from a squad that cracked the top 10 nationally and tied a program record with 11 wins.
“We’ve got an experienced O-line, we’ve got really good running backs, we’ve got a great tight end. we’ve got good skill,” Clawson said. “I think we have a very improved defense. … We are far better prepared to handle this than at any point during my time here.”
Last season’s strength was the nation’s No. 4 scoring offense (41.0) in a scheme that hummed at one of the fastest tempos in the country (77.4 plays per game), while it also pressured defenses with a “slow-mesh” point between the quarterback and running back that disguised whether it would be a run or pass play.
The Demon Deacons ended up in shootouts like a 70-56 win at Army, a 58-55 loss at North Carolina and a 45-42 win against North Carolina State. Picked third in the Atlantic Division behind Clemson and North Carolina State, the reigning champion Demon Deacons could end up that way again without a step forward defensively.
“You just want a week-to-week consistency in what we do and how we do it,” Clawson said, adding: “Defensively I’d go into every game saying, ‘Is this a week we’re going to play well or is this a week I’ve got to be aggressive on fourth down and play for touchdowns?’”
The Demon Deacons will have to rely on third-year freshman Mitch Griffis or fourth-year sophomore Michael Kern until Hartman returns. Clawson listed Griffis as the top quarterback but said both players would get first-team reps to ensure both are ready.
“This is his team, this will be his team this year,” Griffis said. “My job and my goal is, when he’s ready, give him the keys back, ready to play (the ACC title game) in Charlotte.”
Wake Forest’s receiver development has long been a strength, including last year’s rise of Jaquarii Roberson (now in the NFL) and the returning A.T. Perry (1,293 yards, 15 touchdowns).
The Demon Deacons will also add Donavon Greene, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound fourth-year sophomore who missed last year with a preseason knee injury.
Greene was slated for a big role last year after having multiple big games in 2020, including in a high-scoring loss to North Carolina (eight catches for 170 yards and two scores).
“All the measurables and all the things you’ve got to do to come back from that, he’s hit all those landmarks early with flying colors,” Clawson said.
The Demon Deacons have thrived with clean execution that generally avoids turnovers and ill-timed penalties.
Wake Forest finished tied for 17th in the Bowl Subdivision ranks last year with a plus-9 turnover margin. That marked the fifth time they finished in the top 25 nationally during their current six-year bowl streak.
The Demon Deacons have turned to Brad Lambert as defensive coordinator for his second stint with the program.
Lambert replaces Lyle Hemphill, who left to work under new Duke coach Mike Elko. He coached under former Demon Deacons coach Jim Grobe from 2001-10, which spanned the team’s run to the 2006 ACC title.
He worked as Grobe’s defensive coordinator in his last three seasons before becoming head coach at Charlotte. The team also brought in new coaches in James Adams (safeties) and Glenn Spencer (linebackers).
The Demon Deacons open with a Thursday night home game against VMI on Sept. 1 and host fourth-ranked Clemson on Sept. 24 in Wake Forest’s league opener.
They largely stay in their home state for the final month, including a visit No. 13 N.C. State (Nov. 5) in a matchup that largely decided last year’s division race before closing at Duke on Nov. 26.
UNC a contender despite uncertainty at quarterback
Mack Brown’s rebuild at North Carolina appeared ahead of schedule with a top-10 national ranking to open last season, only to see the first true setback since his return for his second stint with the program.
That led to changes for the Tar Heels — namely with the defensive coaching staff — along with self-reflection for the College Football Hall of Fame member.
“A really good, well-coached football team plays hard every week,” Brown said. “That’s what I pride myself on. We didn’t. We played up and down. … And that’s my responsibility.
“I’ve been more open with the coaches about that than you all. I’ve told them: ‘This was unacceptable, and we’re not going to do it anymore.’ That’s why I’m out here every minute pressing everybody to wake up and get back to where we were the second year.”
The Tar Heels spent most 2020 in the AP Top 25 and opened last year at No. 10 – “criminally overrated,” Brown says now – only to go 6-7 despite the presence of star quarterback Sam Howell.
With Howell in the NFL, the Tar Heels have a position battle between third-year sophomore Jacolby Criswell and redshirt freshman Drake Maye to determine who gets the first shot at targeting star receiver Josh Downs (1,335 yards, eight TDs).
UNC needs a step forward defensively from a unit returning seven starters, including Ray Vohasek (24 starts) up front and Tony Grimes (17) in the secondary. There’s also the arrival of coordinator Gene Chizik, who led a turnaround once before at UNC.
Expectations won’t be as high after being picked third in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division.
“We had a lot of hype around us last year,” Downs said. “So this year we’re kind of under the radar right now and a lot of people are counting us out.”
HANDLING THE QBS
Criswell and Maye have combined to throw 35 career passes.
“With Sam, when he became the guy, everything was let’s be simple, let’s get him ready for an opening ballgame as a true freshman,” Brown said. “These two have been here. … We’re worried about them separating, so we’re bringing it all.”
Chizik was Brown’s defensive coordinator at Texas when the Longhorns won the national championship for the 2005 season. He also worked at UNC under Larry Fedora, taking a defense that allowed 497.8 yards and 39 points per game in 2014 and cutting those numbers to 435.9 yards and 24.5 points — a key reason the Tar Heels won the Coastal Division in 2015.
This time, he’s taking over a unit that surrendered 32.1 points last season under Jay Bateman, finishing with a late collapse at North Carolina State followed by a bad start in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl loss to South Carolina.
“We’re all going to run to the ball,” linebacker Cedric Gray said. “We’re all going to tackle, and we’re all going to execute what he tells us to do.”
Changes included the return of Charlton Warren, who worked under Chizik at UNC before, as defensive backs coach.
The Tar Heels lost a 1,000-yard rusher in Ty Chandler. Fifth-year senior British Brooks was set for more work before suffering a season-ending lower-body injury in Saturday’s practice.
Before that injury, Brown had pointed to freshmen George Pettaway and Omarion Hampton as offering potential. That could be more important now.
The Tar Heels are 7-12 on the road in Brown’s second stint, with eight losses in nine games decided by seven or fewer points.
“That’s poor coaching,” Brown said, adding: “If we’d have won those tight games, we’d be a top-10 team. And we haven’t.”
The Tar Heels open with a “Week Zero” home game against Florida A&M on Aug. 27, followed by road games against Sun Belt Conference opponents that played in bowl games last year. The first comes Sept. 3 at Appalachian State, which won at UNC in 2019, followed by Georgia State the next week.
The Tar Heels also host No. 5 Notre Dame on Sept. 24 before playing Virginia Tech in their ACC opener on Oct. 1. UNC closes at home against 13th-ranked rival North Carolina State on Nov. 25.
Duke hopes fresh start under Elko sparks return to success
It wasn’t long ago that Duke was a regular bowl team that had seemingly moved past years of struggle. Mike Elko has to figure out how to get the Blue Devils back in that position.
The program has slid back into its former losing state as the 14-year run of David Cutcliffe fizzled in the final two seasons, leading the 45-year-old first-time head coach to build a new foundation.
“It’s been a really hard two years between COVID and everything these kids have been through, not having success on the field,” Elko said. “We’ve just tried to pump energy back in it.
“How? You just demand a certain level of excitement. … The next thing, we’ve got to create confidence because then confidence will allow you to sustain success.”
Cutcliffe certainly showed it can be done. Duke went from winning two games over three seasons before his arrival to winning its Atlantic Coast Conference division championship in 2013 amid a run of six bowl trips in seven seasons. But the Blue Devils have lost 23 of 29 games dating to October 2019, including 21 of 23 in the league.
Elko previously coached in the ACC as defensive coordinator under Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson, spent a season at Notre Dame in the same role and then at Texas A&M under Jimbo Fisher.
He inherits a team picked to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division featuring four new coaches. Among the most pressing issues to fix: the Blue Devils are minus-26 in turnover margin the past two seasons, including a national-worst 39 turnovers in 2020.
Elko has spent time, too, trying to engage with fans in hopes of building “a product and an experience that people want to be a part of.” Of course, it all starts with upgrading the on-field play.
“We’re working together trying to figure out what works best for this program, what we’re going to do to win,” defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said, “and how most importantly, we can be successful on and off the field.”
Elko will have experience to work with on special teams with the return of kicker Charlie Ham and punter Porter Wilson. Ham has made 27 of 35 field goals over the past two seasons, while Wilson ranked 24th in FBS by averaging 44.8 yards per punt last year.
With last year’s starter Gunnar Holmberg having transferred to Florida International, the Blue Devils have little quarterback experience under new coordinator Kevin Johns. They also need to find a replacement for running back Mataeo Durant, who ran for 1,241 yards and nine touchdowns.
QB Riley Leonard has seven games and one start under his belt as he battles fellow sophomore Jordan Moore in preseason camp. Moore saw reserve action in 10 games last season. he is Duke’s leading returning rusher (221 yards) and versatile enough to take some preseason reps at receiver.
The Blue Devils return their leading tackler in linebacker Shaka Heyward (98 stops), who has 29 career starts to offer experience in a 4-2-5 scheme now directed by coordinator Robb Smith. There is also Carter’s return as a fourth-year junior, who had 4.5 sacks as the team’s top defensive lineman last year.
The Blue Devils found graduate-transfer help.
Defensively, Duke added to the secondary with Darius Joiner (Western Illinois, Jacksonville State) and Datrone Young (Iowa State). Joiner was a first-team Associated Press All-American for the Championship Subdivision last yea r at Western Illinois, while Young started 25 of his 43 career games with the Cyclones.
Offensively, Duke added linemen Andre Harris (Arkansas State) and Chance Lytle (Colorado). Harris has started 43 of his 46 career games, while Lytle has 30 career games of experience.
Elko’s debut comes Sept. 2 against Temple, the first of four season-opening nonconference games that includes power-conference trips to Northwestern (Sept. 10) and Kansas (Sept. 24). The Blue Devils open ACC play Oct. 1 against Virginia and close the season at home against No. 22 Wake Forest on Nov. 26.
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