Five Things to Watch as Wolfpack Begins Preseason Football Camp

Brett Friedlander

Dave Doeren and his NC State football team still don't know when their newly adjusted 2020 schedule will begin. But they do know that that their preseason preparations will begin on Tuesday when they return to the practice field for the first time since spring practice was abruptly ended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Regardless of when the games begin -- as of now, the target date is sometime during the week of Sept. 7-12 -- there's a lot of work to do in a short period of time coming off a 4-8 season that ended with six straight losses. 

The sense of urgency is heightened by the fact that the Wolfpack only got five workouts in before the sports world shut down in March.

Here's a look at five areas to watch as Doeren and he reorganized staff try to make up for lost time over the next month:

Quarterback: The most important position on the field is always a focus of attention, but it's especially critical for the Wolfpack after a 2019 season in which three different quarterbacks started games -- all with limited success.

Sophomore Devin Leary, who started the final five games, is the incumbent and has been tabbed by Doeren as the starter heading into camp. He's got a strong arm and plenty of potential. The problem is he completed only 48.1% of his passes and was intercepted five times.

While Leary should be helped by an improved receiving corps and the experience he gained last year, there are plenty of other options should he falter -- particularly if unproven wild cards Ty Evans or Ben Finley have a strong preseason.

Injured players returning: The Wolfpack had players miss a combined 113 games to injury in 2019. Thirteen players of those were sidelined for at least four games. That attrition was a major reason why the Wolfpack suffered through a 4-8 season that included six straight losses to finish out the schedule.

Now that most of those players have rehabbed their injuries and are healthy again, Doeren is counting on them to become part of the salve that helps bring about their team's quick recovery this fall.

Among the most important members of that group are cornerbacks Chris Ingram, Teshaun Smith and Taiyon Palmer, whose effective return would be a major boost to a secondary that has been a liability to State's defense.

Chris Ingram celebrates his fourth quarter interception against Ball State on Saturday
Chris Ingram's two interceptions led the team in 2019Rob Kinnan/USAToday sports

The offensive line would also get better and deeper if tackles Justin Witt and Tyrone Riley are back in the lineup after missing most -- or in Riley's case all -- of last season.

The other returning players that missed four or more games last season are Dylan Autenreith, the Wolfpack's best blocking tight end, fellow tight end Dylan Parham, wide receivers C.J. Riley and Max Fisher, running back Ricky Person Jr., and linebacker Louis Acceus.

Establishing a linebacking rotation: Linebacker is one of the few position groups on the team that isn't a concern coming into the season. But that doesn't mean there aren't questions to be answered.

First and foremost, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson needs to figure out a way to make the best use of the large stable of talented athletes he has at his disposal. 

Linebacker Payton Wilson puts the wraps on ECU ballcarrier Hussein Howe
Payton Wilson's 69 tackles led the Wolfpack last seasonRob Kinnan/USAToday sports

To illustrate how deep the unit is, last year's leading tackler Payton Wilson, started only one game. Isaiah Moore and Acceus were also among the top four in tackles while sophomore Drake Thomas is considered a rising star. C.J. Hart and Jaylon Scott also saw extensive action in 2019. If that wasn't enough, former four-star recruit Vi Jones, a transfer from Southern Cal has been added to the mix.

Defensive line replacements: This has traditionally been an area of strength for the Wolfpack and it was again last year. But Larrell Murchison and James Smith-Williams have both moved on to the NFL, leaving two major holes to fill.

The emergence of Alim McNeil as a disruptive force on the inside is a good start toward rebuilding the line, but Gibson and new defensive line coach Charley Wiles will spend the majority of their preseason trying to find two replacements capable of filling in on the outside.

Florida State quarterback James Blackman throws under pressure from NC State's Ibrahim Kante during last year's game in Raleigh
State will be looking for a big jump from DE Ibrahim Kante this seasonRob Kinnan/USAToday sports

Junior Ibrahim Kante and sophomore Savion Jackson figure to get the first crack at the positions, with Penn State grad transfer Daniel Joseph and redshirt freshman Terrell Dawkins also in the mix. Anyone else capable of playing the positions will likely get a serious look, since depth is a issue.

 Freshman reinforcements: In a perfect world, the entire incoming freshman class would be redshirted to give the players a year to grow, adjust and learn. But when you're coming off a 4-8 season with six straight losses, the world is anything but perfect.

So Doeren and his coordinators will be looking for as much help from newcomers as possible. 

Among the most likely candidiates are wide receiver Porter Rooks and cornerback Devan Boykin, both of whom enrolled early and got at least some benefit from the five spring practices the Wolfpack got in before athletic activities were shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. Defensive linemen Davin Vann and Claude Larkins also stand a legitimate chance of stepping in and contributing right away.

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