In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley runs through a drill during an NCAA college football practice in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley runs through a drill during an NCAA college football practice in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The challenge has changed for North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren.
At this time last year, the talk was about whether his Wolfpack could convert years of roster building into a leap forward in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings. Nine wins, one second-place division finish and seven NFL draft picks later, the challenge is to maintain that success in a test of how well Doeren's staff has prepared the next wave of new full-time starters.
"It's different, but a lot of it doesn't just happen," said Doeren, who is entering his sixth year. "Health is a big part of this. If everybody that we've got lined up to the replace them with is healthy and ready to go, that comparison would be different than if seven or eight of those guys are injured and can't go. ... So as long as we're going from graduating senior to players with experience behind them, then I think that's the recipe."
The Wolfpack (9-4) put together the program's second nine-win season in the past 15 years and finished 6-2 in league play for the first time since 1994. North Carolina State is picked to finish third in the ACC's Atlantic Division, though there are big holes to fill — most notably No. 5 overall NFL draft pick Bradley Chubb from the defensive line.
The obvious strength of the team comes on offense with quarterback Ryan Finley returning for his final season after flirting with entering the NFL draft, along with 1,000-yard receiver Kelvin Harmon leading a trio of veteran downfield threats.
North Carolina State will need to find new rushing threats with the departures of Nyheim Hines (1,112 yards rushing) and do-everything threat Jaylen Samuels (16 rushing or receiving touchdowns last year) to the NFL. But No. 2 rusher Reggie Gallaspy (505 yards) is back along with three returning starters on the offensive line.
That unit will have to carry the load considering North Carolina State lost eight defensive starters, including the entire Chubb-led defensive line to the NFL. The experience comes with three returning starters in a secondary that was the weak point on last year's unit.
Some other things to know about North Carolina State for the 2018 season:
KICKING GAME: The kicking game has been a glaring weak point, most notably when Kyle Bambard missed a short field goal at the end of regulation to win at Clemson in 2016. Last year the Wolfpack made just 10 of 20 field goals. Now it's up to freshman Chris Dunn, who won the starting job during spring drills. Of note, Doeren said Dunn hit a 45-yard field goal to end Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage.
BIG THREATS: Finley will have his choice of big receiving targets. Harmon — the first 1,000-yard Wolfpack receiver since 2003 — converted quarterback Jakobi Meyers and graduate Stephen Louis all stand at least 6 feet, 2 inches. Doeren has also talked about the potential impact of USC transfer Cary Angeline, a 6-7 tight end and former four-star recruit who must sit the first three games. "They're huge and just great red zone targets," Finley said, "and I'm excited for what we're going to be able to do this season."
A NEW FRONT: While all four defensive linemen are in the NFL, there's at least experience there, led by seniors Darian Roseboro (422 snaps last year) and Eurndraus Bryant (303), and redshirt sophomore Shug Frazier (323).
THE NEXT HURDLE: North Carolina State has proven it can tussle with league power Clemson, perhaps better than anyone else in the Atlantic Division. The Wolfpack lost in overtime on the road in 2016 and 38-31 last year in another game that came down to the final minutes, making North Carolina State the only division team to play Clemson to within single digits in each of the past two seasons. Can the Wolfpack break through? The matchup is in Death Valley on Oct. 20.
THE SCHEDULE: North Carolina State opens at home Sept. 1 against James Madison, which won 14 games and played for the FCS title last year. The marquee nonconference game is a visit from West Virginia on Sept. 15, while the Atlantic Division schedule includes November games against Florida State (at home) and Louisville (on the road) before closing at rival North Carolina.
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