Five priorities for improvement in 2020

Brett Friedlander

Today is bowl selection Sunday, the day in which college football teams teams that qualified for the postseason learn where they'll be spending the holidays and who they'll be playing.

Since NC State won't be participating this year after going 4-8 with losses in its final six games, it's time to look ahead to next season and what coach Dave Doeren's program needs to do to get back to a bowl in 2020.

Doeren admitted that "we've got a lot to fix" following last week's season-ending loss to North Carolina, adding that "we need to look at it all." 

It's a process that has already begun with the dismissal of co-defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, giving Tony Gibson sole control of that side of the ball. But there's still a lot left to do.

Here are five of the top priorities for State's earlier-than-usual offseason::

Get healthy

Ricky Person on cart at FSU
Running back Ricky Person Jr. is carted off the field with a foot injury at Florida State 

The 2019 Wolfpack was decimated by an epidemic of injuries that led to more than 100 games lost among 29 players -- most of them starters or top reserves. The situation got so bad that two walkons were forced into action at linebacker for the final 20 plays against eventual ACC champion Clemson.

That's more misfortune than any program can reasonably withstand.

But instead of simply chalking the lost season up to those physical maladies and waiting for everyone to heal up and get healthy again, Doeren must take a serious look at why all those injuries happened and do what he can to prevent a repreat performance. That means getting together with strength and conditioning coach Dantonio "Thunder" Burnette and doing a thorough review of the team's training regimen.

Were any changes made to the offseason preparations. Was anything done differently?

There might not be anything they can do to fix the problem. This year's rash of injuries could just have been the result run of dumb, blind luck. Then again, if there's something that can be done to help make the Wolfpack a healthier team in 2020, it's certainly worth the time to give it a try.

 Decide on one offensive coordinator

Des Kitchings (left) and George McDonald are NC State's co-offensive coordinators
Des Kitchings and George McDonald are State's co-offensive photo

The old adage that too many cooks spoil the broth doesn't just pertain to the culinary arts. It's also true in football, where too many voices over a headset can spoil a good offense or defense.

Doeren apparently came to that realization when he cut Huxtable loose and setled on Gibson as his sole defensive coordinator. Now it's time he streamline the offense in the same way.

This is not an indictment on abilities of either Kitchings or McDonald. Both have solid credentials for the job and have been offensive coordinators elsewhere. That having been said, the combination of the two handling the playcalling duties for the Wolfpack this season clearly didn't work.

Whether Doeren chooses one of his two current co-coordinators or decides to look outside the program for someone new, it's important that he setles on one person and one voice to run his offense moving forward. 

Explore the graduate transfer quarterback market

Jake Bentley
South Carolina's Jake Bentley is already in the NCAA transfer portalJeremy Brevard/USAToday sports

The Wolfpack used three different quarterbacks in 2019 and none of them exactly distinguished themselves. One, sophomore Matthew McKay, has already left the program, leaving redshirt freshman Devin Leary and sophomore Bailey Hockman to battle it out with true freshman Ty Evans and whatever new recruits Doeren brings for the starting job next season.

While it can be assumed that both Leary and Hockman will improve because of the exprience they gained this season and it's possible that one or more will emerge as a viable option during spring practice, Doeren would be wise to look for a proven veteran insurance policy on the graduate transfer market.

Among those that have already declared themselves available by entering the NCAA's transfer portal is South Carolina's Jake Bentley. Another possibility -- presuming he gets his undergraduate degree and is able to use his final season of eligibility without sitting out a year -- former East Carolina starter and Raleigh native Reid Herring. The list will undoubtedly grow longer once the offseason arrives for everyone. 

While it's not imperative that Doeren bring in a stopgap transfer, it makes sense to at least see if there's someone out more prepared to win games than any of the quarterbacks currently in the program.

 Bring in secondary help

Dunlap burned vs GT
Georgia Tech's Malachai Carter burns cornerback Malik Dunbar for a big gainBrett Davis/USAToday sports

Injuries again factor into the equation here. At one point this season, the Wolfpack had four cornerbacks on the sidelines unable to play -- including both starters and both of their replacements -- forcing youngsters into those positions that clearly weren't ready to play major roles.  

At the same time, though, something has to be done to shore up a secondary that allowed 38 pass plays of 20 yards or longer this season. That's an average of 3.2 per game.

While the pass defense figures to improve with the return of Nick McCloud, Chris Ingram and Taiyon Palmer and the further development of others that were called up, it can not be argued that reinforcements are needed. 

Whether its through recruiting incoming freshmen, junior college transfers or the graduate transfer market, Doeren and Gibson need to bring in immediate help and depth both at cornerback and the other positions where starting corner Jarius Morehead and nickel Stephen Griffin are both graduating seniors.

Develop leadership, regardless of class

Payton Wilson celebrates a tackle during last State's win against season-opening win against ECU
Payton Wilson (11), Drake Thomas (32) and C.J. Hart (15) are young linebackers that could potentially emerge as future leadersRob Kinnan/USAToday sports

There figured to be a leadership void on this year's team no matter what, with only 11 scholarship seniors on the roster at the start of fall camp. Things only got worse as those upperclassmen started going down with injuries. 

Of the four players that were elected captains, only one of them (Morehead) played in every game. McCloud saw action in only two. Tight end Dylan Autenreith was lost for the season in Game 3 at West Virginia while defensive end James Smith-Williams missed five with various ailments.

Their absence -- along with those of other experienced veterans -- was a major contributing factor to State's downfall this season. That was especially evident in late season home losses to Louisville and UNC, games that went well for a half but fell apart quickly when things started to go wrong in the third quarter.

Would the outcomes have been different had there been leadership been available to keep things steady and prevent younger teammates from losing confidence or getting discouraged? We'll never know. 

But to avoid a similar situation in the future, Doeren and his staff need to identify and nurture a deeper pool of leaders on both sides of the ball. And they don't all have to be seniors. There are any number potential candidates -- including young linebackers Isaiah Moore, Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas, receiever Thayer Thomas, center Grant Gibson and tackle Ickey Ekwonu are all potential candidates, all of whom are strong enough players with dominant enough personalities to fill the bill.