Veteran Line, Stable of Backs Have Wolfpack on the Run in 2020

Kenton Gibbs

NC State’s 2019 season was disappointing by the lowest of standards.

The Wolfpack was expected to struggle, but a 4-8 record (1-7 in the ACC) would be virtually indefensible if it weren’t for the laundry list of injuries that left massive holes for opponents to exploit. So naturally, many media outlets are picking the Wolfpack to finish close to the bottom of the conference again.

While you shouldn’t bet your life’s savings on State being a contender, don’t be surprised if this team finds a way to sneak back into the top half of the ACC and gets a bowl bid (if there is postseason play this year).

For that to happen, two things will hold the keys to the kingdom of the Wolfpack’s success -- health and the running game.

The team returns one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation. The starters include three redshirt seniors, two at the tackle spots in Tyrone Riley and Justin Witt, along with guard Joe Sculthorpe. The other two are just team captain Grant Gibson and freshman All American Ikem Ekwonu.

So you see them and think how were they so bad running the ball last year?

Actually, State wasn’t bad at all. It finished fifth in the ACC, averaging better than 4.3 yards per carry.

What it did lack was rushing attempts. The Wolfpack ran the ball less than every other team in the ACC except Miami.

When asked about the potential of this offensive line unit, Ekwonu jubilantly said that “The ceiling is very very high.

“We’ve got experience and depth,” he said during a virtual media conference Tuesday. “We have multiple lineups that we can put out so I love playing with these guys.”

The offensive line and its depth of talent is one portion of the run game. The other half of the equation is someone to carry the ball though the holes. And that running back room looks as good on paper as it has been for some time.

Ricky Person Jr. is the obvious leader and alpha of that group. His injury history is well-documented and him remaining healthy is going to be key for the running game and de facto wins. He certainly benefited from the time off given by the coronavirus pandemic.

When asked about his health during Tuesday’s player availability, he said “I’m 100 percent healthy physically and mentally.”

One of the positives that came from the injuries last year were the meaningful snaps the trio of Zonovan Knight, Jordan Houston and Trent Pennix got in big games. All three have proven to be capable of joining Person as part of a deep, diverse rotation.

Knight and Houston combined for more than 1,400 rushing yards and eight touchdowns as true freshmen in 2019. Their ability to up that production will go a long way toward helping this year’s team that will help put up wins.

The final piece of the puzzle is new offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

His demotion at Texas was a bit of a head-scratcher, since the Longhorns had one of the best offenses in the Big 12. They ran the ball at a higher clip than State last year and passed the ball more efficiently, as well.

If Beck can bring the same kind of balance and productivity he had rolling in Austin to Raleigh, this bizarre season will be a good one for Coach Dave Doeren and Company.

Kenton’s take

My synopsis of this running game is that there’s a definite upswing on the way. They have all the makings to dominate the offensive line of scrimmage. Experienced offensive line, check; Deep running back core, check; A new offensive coordinator who believes in a commitment to running the ball, check. All the pieces are in place so if quarterback Devin Leary can pass the ball even serviceably and keep defenses from loading the box, the Wolfpack will be a vastly improved offensive unit in 2020.

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