By Josh Hyber/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
When it comes to cliché talking points for football coaches, two favorites are about limiting turnovers and completing a high percentage of passes.
For NC State, head coach Dave Doeren doesn’t have to do much touting. His offense excels in both those categories, having tied for 15th nationally in turnover margin last season while completing 60 percent of its passes.
On Saturday at 3 p.m. (ESPN), when South Carolina opens its season against the Wolfpack at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the Gamecocks will be tasked with slowing down the proficient unit that ranked 42nd in the country a year ago.
That will most likely be a tough task, considering South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp started with his defense when asked Tuesday for one thing he’s most concerned about with his team.
“Anytime there are going to be some newcomers defensively who are going to be playing some critical snaps for us, how they’re going to respond, you never know,” Muschamp said at his news conference at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“And (Wolfpack starting quarterback Ryan) Finley does an outstanding job with their offense.”
Though NC State features a run-heavy attack under Doeren — the Wolfpack ran 127 more times than passed in both 2014 and 2015 — the ratio could trend more toward last season, when the unit ran only 66 more times than it threw.
The reason for that is two-fold: The offense returns a deep receiving corps that features All-American playmaker Jaylen Samuels while also returning an inexperienced group at running back.
At the heart of the pass attack is the do-it-all H-back Samuels, a Charlotte native who’s on preseason watch lists for both the Hornung and Maxwell awards. Samuels has 31 career touchdowns, 16 rushing and 15 receiving.
The dynamic 5-foot-11, 228-pound senior — who has led the Wolfpack in receptions the past two seasons — was the talk at SC’s media availabilities this week.
“He’s a really good player. They find very creative ways to hand him the ball, throw him the ball, toss him the ball. He’s a very effective playmaker,” Muschamp said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for the young man … Your guys have to have an understanding when he lines up in certain areas, there’s a reason why he’s there.”
NC State also returns Stephen Louis, who led the Wolfpack with 678 receiving yards last season, and Kevin Harmon, who led the team with five receiving touchdowns.
For as many answers as NC State’s receiving corps has, the team’s rushing attack has just as many questions.
Though the Wolfpack lost just three offensive starters from last season, one leaves the team a gaping hole: running back Matt Dayes, a player who accounted for 74 percent of the team’s rushing yards last season and is now a Cleveland Brown.
But don’t expecting the run game to vanish. The Wolfpack have averaged 202 rushing yards per game during Doeren’s five-year tenure.
Muschamp and several Gamecock players spoke this week about NC State’s running game, particularly its ability to stretch the field horizontally.
“They’ll create tempo without motion and shifts,” Muschamp said. “They do give you some pre-snap movement. It’s something we have prepared for a lot. Our offense does a lot of movement as well, so I think there are some comparable qualities between some of the pre-snap things we have seen throughout camp.”
Said Gamecocks’ safety D.J. Smith, “They’ve got a lot of athletes and they do a lot of shifting. We’ve got to be dialed in.”
Added linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, “They have a lot of guys with a lot of speed at running back.”
NC State returns four full-time starters and one part-time starter on the offensive line who combined for 89 starts last season. The unit allowed 17 sacks in 2016, 19th-best in the FBS, and protected quarterbacks that were sacked on just three percent of their pass attempts.
Enter the South Carolina defense.
“We still haven’t lined up front of 80,000 people yet,” Muschamp said. “But I like (our) ability.”
The coach also likes where his defense is speed-wise.
“We’re much faster than we were a year ago,” Muschamp said. “When you put (linebacker Skai Moore) on the field, you get faster. (Linebacker) T.J. Brunson is playing very fast.”
The coach spoke about adding linebackers Eldridge Thompson and Sherrod Greene to the unit and about Dante Sawyer’s ability to play all over the defensive line.
Said Muschamp, “I think we’ve had a good camp, but talk’s cheap. We have to go play on Saturday afternoon and play well, and that’s what we plan on doing.”