EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment in a 12-part series previewing West Virginia University’s 2019 football opponents.
The 2018 matchup between WVU and North Carolina State was supposed to be an early-season clash of high-powered offenses led by senior quarterbacks who would help establish one as a legitimate contender to make some noise once conference play rolled around.
That game in Raleigh, of course, never happened thanks to Hurricane Florence. This season, the Mountaineers are scheduled to welcome the Wolfpack to Morgantown on Sept. 14, but the star power — for both teams — will be considerably less in 2019 than it was supposed to be in 2018. The Wolfpack went on to finish 9-4 with a blowout loss to Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl last season to end one era and open up the depth chart for new players to step up.
Of course, Boone County native and former West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is now in the same role at N.C. State, which will add some intrigue to this matchup. Gibson will be working under N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren, who enters his seventh season with the Wolfpack.
Bigger changes, however, are in store for N.C. State on the other side of the ball.
The offense, where N.C. State was so good last season, will get a near total makeover for 2019. The Wolfpack will have a new play-caller with former offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz gone to be the new head coach at Appalachian State. Co-coordinators Des Kitchens and George McDonald will share play-calling duties this season, but don’t expect N.C. State to deviate much from its recent history of utilizing the passing game with a healthy dose of zone stretch runs thrown in provided the new faces in the Wolfpack offense can execute. A lot of that will fall on the new N.C. State quarterback, who has the task of replacing first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference performer Ryan Finley — a fourth round draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Quarterback, however, is just one of several places the Wolfpack will need to replace good players this season. Let’s take a look at the roster:
Quarterback: Finley, as previously mentioned, will be tough to replace. The new Cincinnati Bengals quarterback completed almost 70 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,928 yards with 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Sophomore Matt McKay had the best spring according to media reports from Raleigh, and leads a group made up of himself, sophomore Bailey Hockman and redshirt freshman Devin Leary still competing for the job heading into fall camp.
Running back: Freshman Zonovan “Bam” Knight was a star in the N.C. State spring game, and along with sophomore Ricky Pearson will look to fill the void left by departed senior Reggie Gallaspy, who ran for 1,091 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
Receivers: 1,000-yard receivers Jakobi Meyers and Kelvin Harmon were lost to the NFL, but the Wolfpack does have some depth here. Junior Emeka Emezie and sophomore Thayer Thomas figure to step into the roles previously occupied by Meyers and Harmon.
Offensive line: Lots of questions marks here for N.C. State, as the Wolfpack is replacing three starters along the line. Redshirt junior Joe Sculthorpe was a backup at center last year but played well in place of injured starter Terrone Prescod when called upon and should be in line to be the starter in 2019. Tackle Justin Witt was a standout last season and figures to be a fixture again this season.
Defensive line: Sophomore defensive tackle Alim McNeill was a 247Sports.com Freshman All-American pick last season and along with redshirt senior Larell Murchison should give the Wolfpack a formidable presence in the middle of the line. Senior defensive end James Smith-Williams was good coming off the edge last season, finishing tied for the team lead with six sacks.
Linebackers: Redshirt freshman Payton Wilson was a high school All-American prior to landing at N.C. State, but hasn’t played since October 2017. Two knee surgeries have kept the talented linebacker off the field for the Wolfpack, and though he was limited in what he could do this spring, Wilson has the potential to be a game-changer at full strength. Freshman Drake Thomas is another young linebacker with lots of potential for N.C. State. This group is young but deeper than one might expect.
Defensive backs: N.C. State has proven safeties and questions at cornerback. Senior safety Jarius Morehead led the team with three interceptions and is the Wolfpack’s top returning tackler from 2018. Sophomore cornerback Teshuan Smith saw action in 11 games last season with two starts, but will be called upon to step his game up after N.C. State’s secondary was picked on a lot in 2018.
Sophomore Chris Dunn emerged as the starter as place-kicker in 2018 as a freshman and doesn’t appear to be letting go of that title anytime soon, connecting on his final 15 field goal attempts last season. Sophomore receiver Thayer Thomas has some experience returning punts for N.C. State, but the return game was not a particular strength for the Wolfpack in 2018.