NC State opens spring practice Saturday with an experienced team returning, yet its look on offense will be totally different.
Yes, quarterback Ryan Finley returns, but 1,000-yard rusher Matt Dayes does not, and replacing the many things he was able to do will take center stage on the Wolfpack's to-do list. Not including the quarterbacks, Dayes led the Wolfpack with 281 touches a year ago; nobody else hit 100.
With that in mind, NC State moved the speedy (and shifty) Nyheim Hines to running back, where he could be in line to get quite a few touches in the spring as Reggie Gallaspy and Johnny Frasier will be limited or held out during practices.
But this also is the time to get tight end/fullback Jaylen Samuels more involved in the offense. Samuels, who turned down an opportunity to leave school early for the NFL draft, is the Wolfpack's most versatile returning player. And he showcased his talents in the Camping World Independence Bowl against Vanderbilt, when he scored three touchdowns and won game MVP honors.
Samuels led the Wolfpack in receptions (55) and total touchdowns (13) last year and needs an opportunity to be more involved.
“The biggest thing for Jaylen Samuels is, he’s the guy,” offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz said in a phone interview this week. “He’s a guy who can do all kinds of things. The challenge for us is, we’re replacing touches from Matt Dayes and we need Jaylen to get a large portion of those.
“When the ball is in his hands, he does something good, and I know there’s not a perfect position to say he’s this or that. He’s unusual. He’s unique in college football. He’s one of the most diversified players there is. Right now, we’re figuring him to be the weapon for us, and we’ve got to do a great job as coaches making sure the weapon touches the ball and we’re going to do that.”
To be more effective as an offense and get Samuels, Hines and all their playmakers into position to make plays, NC State has zeroed in on a few improvement areas. No. 1 on the list is red-zone offense. NC State ranked No. 120 in the nation in that category, scoring only 74 percent of the time it reached the red zone.
Out of 54 opportunities, the Wolfpack only scored 32 touchdowns.
“It was a lack of execution, whether it was penalties or missed assignments,” Drinkwitz said. “Those were the biggest things. We’ve got to do a better job putting our guys in those situations and making sure we execute. There were times we were really good in the red zone. Then there were a couple games we were atrocious, turning the ball over or not getting points at all. Those are not the things we can’t do if we want to have the season we want to have.”
Finley and his teammates have to get better, too, and that is why Drinkwitz talks about individual skill development as a top priority this spring. Very quietly, Finley threw for over 3,000 yards last season. But his performance went up and down throughout the season, so improving consistency is a major key.
“He has to be better in his run-game fundamentals,” Drinkwitz said. “He was not clean in those and that’s my fault for letting those get away during the season. No. 2, when he escapes the pocket, he’s got to make better decisions. The third thing is just a mentality and toughness in the quarterback run game. We didn’t have the toughness or the mentality that is going to be expected from that position when we run the football.
“Any time you go through a conference the second time, you know what to expect and you understand what type of defense you’re going to get. We’ll be better prepared going the second time around. There’s a lot of camaraderie and a lot of Oleybet unity there. We’ve just got to continue to build on that.”
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