It’s not quite time for college football season, but it’s close enough for a preseason poll. Teams that lost a great quarterback are looking for a replacement, teams that saw a number of young players take major roles for their teams last fall while taking their lumps look for a better 2021, and then there are those traditional programs that seem to find a way to stay in the mix for top 20 status each year. It’s all a part of college football’s yearly evolution.
There will certainly be several twists and turns for this upcoming season, and this list could change before August (say hello to the transfer portal as to why). Here’s the first rendition of the college football polls, as they will be updated throughout the year, starting with No. 20 as we progress towards reaching No. 1.
No. 20 North Carolina State Wolfpack
With Bailey Hockman leaving the Wolfpack to join another program, and despite a good 2020 season that saw the Wolfpack go 8-4, some people were concerned about North Carolina State’s quarterback position. Those people should be reminded that Devin Leary returns after injury last season. The junior signal caller will be one of the most talented and accurate passers in the ACC, and he’s playing within an offense that likes a controlled passing game, which Leary excels at.
Prior to injury, Leary’s accuracy was the reason North Carolina State’s offense clicked during the early portion of the 2020 season. His accuracy aside, he also possesses the arm to hit wide receivers down the field. Combining his skills with the talent at running back and wide receiver will be a good mix for the Wolfpack.
Running back Zonovan “Bam” Knight is one of college football’s most likely breakout running backs for 2021 and his role could increase despite sharing carries last season. He rushed for 745 yards and five touchdowns in 2019, then 788 yards and 10 touchdowns during the 2020 season. The 5’11”, 210-pound running back split carries with 6’1”, 215-pound Ricky Person, Jr. last fall. Knight will be a junior and Person will be a senior.
Perhaps Knight will gain a little more of the load, but Person did rush for 643 yards and four touchdowns last season. The average per carry is where it’s most interesting. Knight averaged 5.51 yards per carry to Person’s 4.37 yards per tote. Knight has a little more “juice” in his legs to hit the big play. Moving to wide receiver, the Wolfpack received good news about a senior.
Wide receiver Emeka Emezie grabbed 47 passes for 738 yards and five touchdowns last year, and he decided to return for a final season in Raleigh, N.C. He will be a leading All-ACC candidate heading into 2021. Let’s see how he gels with Leary to take advantage of his 6’3”, 220-pound frame. If they do in fact gel, look out.
Adding to the weapons at wide receiver would be senior Thayer Thomas, another senior this fall. The 6’0”, 195-pound player makes tough catches and finds the end zone, which he did six times to go along with his 42 receptions and 529 yards last fall. The Wolfpack will need more wide receivers to step up, and another candidate will be junior Devin Carter. He’s a big wide receiver that caught 29 passes for 477 yards and two touchdowns last fall. If he takes his game up another notch, North Carolina State could be a really formidable offensive team.
Along the trenches, it’s a solid unit anchored by junior offensive tackle Iken Ekwonu. To reach the plateau the Wolfpack need to even consider challenging conference titan Clemson, this is the unit that needs to step up the most. There’s talent, starting with Ekwonu, and now that unit needs to come together and be a force.
Defensively, it’s not as much about players as it is about scheme and health. Top linebacker Payton Wilson’s ability to stay on the field will be a major reason that North Carolina State either wins or loses games this fall. He’s an NFL talent that seemingly finds his way to the football regardless of the blocking scheme.
During the 2020 season, Wilson registered 108 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and three-and-a-half sacks. That’s a great season, and he was banged up during the 2020 season. Now, imagine if the rising junior stays healthy all the way through the 2021 season. Wilson could compete for All-American honors. He is surrounded by some talent in the trenches, but it was inconsistent.
Stopping the run is a theme for any defense, and the Wolfpack was bad last year. The North Carolina State defense allowed 173.92 yards rushing per game. Considering that Wilson will be back it should improve, but that’s just an awful number. It’s also perplexing because North Carolina State recorded 32 sacks last fall, and sacks count against rushing totals for college football.
Sophomore Terrell Dawkins added four-and-a-half sacks, and he will be surrounded by some experience as well as Florida State defensive tackle transfer Cory Durden, a player who slumped last fall but recorded five sacks during the 2019 season.
The secondary was pretty good considering it’s youth last fall, and its best days should be this season and next. Sophomores Aydan White and Joshua Pierre-Louis coming back after gaining experience last season, as well as junior Cecil Powell being a primary player at cornerback. Watch out for Florida State transfer Cyrus Fegan, who plays safety.
The Wolfpack should be a contender for at least an 8-4 season, and going 10-2 or better is not out of the question. The offense will be potent, and could give opposing defenses fits if the offensive line truly comes together.
Defensively, the secondary needs to grow up in a hurry. There’s now some experience and a key transfer, plus the linebacker core will be led by one of the country’s best in Wilson. There’s hope, but still work to be done.