Jarius Morehead didn’t need long, or many words, to describe the performance of N.C. State’s defense in a Gator Bowl loss to Texas A&M to close out the 2018 season.
“The bowl was horrible,” the senior safety said.
If you are only as good as your last game, history will be unkind to N.C. State. The Aggies cranked out 401 rushing yards, 236 by running back Trayveon Williams, in a 52-13 blowout.
N.C. State had a built-in excuse for the lackluster performance, not that Morehead was looking for one. All-ACC linebacker Germaine Pratt, the defense’s best player and top tackler (105 in 11 games), skipped the bowl game in order to prepare for the NFL Draft.
It was a preview, it turned out in the worst way, of life without Pratt. With an offseason to retool, and with some new ideas from co-coordinator Tony Gibson, there’s hope from the Wolfpack that not all was lost in the painful bowl experience.
Experience, health key for improved secondary
N.C. State, 9-4 a year ago, returns seven starters and an eighth, sophomore Tanner Ingle, started seven games at nickel but will move to a new position (free safety). The Wolfpack has to take the bowl loss, and other mistakes from 2018, and learn from them, Morehead said.
“You have to know your job and understand your responsibility on each play,” Morehead said after a recent practice.
Knowledge is a start. The level of experience across the board — with Morehead, defensive end James Smith-Williams and cornerback Nick McCloud as the veteran leaders — should help, too.
N.C. State had to basically start over on defense last year after losing all four of its starting defensive linemen to the NFL, including All-American defensive end Bradley Chubb, after the 2017 season.
That’s not the case for this year’s team. Pratt was the only draft pick from last year’s defense. The secondary, in particular, should benefit from an extra year of experience and some improved health.
Senior nickel Stephen Griffin was expected to play an important role last year but didn’t make his first start until November. McCloud, a senior with 18 career starts, missed a key loss to Syracuse with an injury.
“I think our secondary right now is playing way above where it was a year ago at this time,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said earlier this month during the team’s media day.
New assistant Tony Gibson brings new ideas
That, at least, sounds like progress. N.C. State has struggled in pass defense the past two seasons. Inexperience, injuries and a skill shortage in the secondary added up to the 104th-ranked pass defense in 2017 (253.2 yards per game) and the 108th-ranked unit in 2018 (261.1 yards per game).
Even with Chubb and company off to the NFL, N.C. State’s sack numbers were up last season (35 from 30) and the scoring average was slightly improved (24.9 from 25.2 points per game).
Of the four new assistants on Doeren’s staff, Gibson is the only one on the defensive side. Ted Roof, who was the safeties coach and co-coordinator, left with Eli Drinkwitz for Appalachian State.
Gibson, who spent the previous six years at West Virginia, replaces Roof and shares the coordinator title with veteran Dave Huxtable. Gibson will actually be paid more by WVU ($750,000) this season than N.C. State ($200,000). “Defense” and the “Big 12” aren’t exactly synonymous, but Gibson brings some different coverage concepts and alignments with him.
“There’s a lot of new stuff on the table,” Morehead said.
West Virginia used a “stack” defense with three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. N.C. State has traditionally played a 4-2-5 (with two linebackers) under Doeren. This team’s personnel, with more options at linebacker than previous Doeren teams, might benefit with the tweaked alignment.
Prized recruit Payton Wilson a wild card
Even without Pratt, a third-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, Doeren is pleased with the talent in the linebacker group.
“Our speed at that position is the best we’ve had across the board,” Doeren said.
Sophomore Isaiah Moore, who had 69 tackles last season, returns at the “mike” linebacker. Brock Miller and Louis Acceus, a pair of juniors, and freshman Drake Thomas give Doeren different and versatile options at the inside or outside spots.
A wild card at linebacker is redshirt freshman Payton Wilson (6-4, 240 pounds). The highest-rated recruit to sign during Doeren’s tenure, Wilson was ranked among the top 100 high school players in the country in 2018 out of Hillsborough Orange.
He missed the 2018 season with a knee injury but has made an early impression in training camp.
“He’s a very, very good football player,” Doeren said. “Now he’s just trying to knock the rust off and learn all the things that go into playing our system, but he’s making a lot of plays.”
Sounds like Wilson could be just what the Wolfpack’s defense needs to move on from Pratt and put last year’s lasting memory behind them.