TCI recently spoke with David Thompson to get some insight on North Carolina State ahead of Clemson’s game against the Wolfpack. Thompson covers N.C. State football for the USA Today Network.
Thompson hit on a number of topics during the following question-and-answer session, including the Wolfpack’s likely defensive approach against Clemson’s struggling offense, quarterback Devin Leary and more heading into Saturday’s game at Carter Finley Stadium.
Do you expect N.C. State to implement a similar defensive game plan to what Georgia Tech did (mixing up three- and four-man fronts and playing deep coverage)?
I definitely think you’ll see a lot of similarities to what Georgia Tech did. I’m sure they’re going to use that as a mirror of success and say, with the way (Clemson quarterback) D.J. (Uiagalelei) is playing right now, if we can get enough pressure without rushing too much and dropping eight guys back and maybe forcing him into some bad passes, that’s what they’ll do. They lost their best linebacker, Payton Wilson, against Mississippi State, which they’re still kind of adjusting to that. Which I’m sure the Clemson run game may benefit from that. Not having Payton Wilson there in the middle is going to be tough. Jaylon Scott, a sophomore, is taking over for him. And really where N.C. State’s strength is on defense is their linebacking corps and also their secondary, so it’s going to be obviously the battle.
Scheme-wise, we haven’t really gotten an indication. They don’t really tell us exactly what they’re going to do. But I imagine there’s going to be a mixture of dropping back but also a little bit of pressure because I think what they want to do, and what other teams have had success at, is flustering D.J. and forcing him into some bad decisions. It’s usually a four-man front, but they change it up. Definitely seen a few different things from them.
Have any of N.C. State’s coaches or players talked this week about feeling like Clemson isn’t as invincible as many thought coming into the season given the way the Tigers have played early on, particularly offensively?
Well the question has sure been asked, but they’re not taking the bait as far as giving Clemson any bulletin board material, which is probably advisable. But I thin the national perception is that Clemson is not the Clemson under Trevor Lawrence, and I think we’ve seen that in the last three games. N.C. State, what they try to do is focus more internally on what they can do better. But they’re fully aware this is their biggest game of the season and the only chance they’ll have to compete for an ACC title. If they lose this game, they fall to 2-2, and really they had a lot of high expectations going into this season. What we’ve gotten from all of them is they know they have to play much better than they played against Mississippi State obviously. They’ve got to be able to take Clemson’s first shot and be able to make this a four-quarter game, which is not, at least in the last couple of years, what’s happened. So for them I think it’s just really competing at the same level and giving themselves a chance at the end to do something that one one else expects, which is to win the game.
Even without Payton Wilson and safety Cyrus Fagan, N.C. State’s defense has performed well. Is that more indicative of the talent and depth N.C. State has on that side of the ball or more a reflection of the level of competition they’ve largely faced so far?
Even against Mississippi State (a 24-10 loss for N.C. State), they played really, really well, especially in the first half. They basically just got worn out. It was one of those situations where the offense couldn’t stay on the field. And the war of attrition just sort of wore them down. After a while, it was like, “OK, we can’t keep doing this.” I think they just kind of ran out of energy. And then losing two of their starters I think really just took a toll. Everyone is more experienced than usual, but particularly on defense, they brought back a lot of talent. And I think just like Clemson, defense is absolutely their strength right now. And, yes, playing South Florida and Furman will kind of skew results a little bit. But I expect them to stand up to Clemson offensively. But for four quarters? I don’t know. That depends on what the offense can do.
Where do you think N.C. State can give Clemson trouble? And vice-versa?
I worry bout the size battle on both the lines (for N.C. State). It all comes down to recruiting. And the difference usually between five-stars and three-stars is height and weight, right? So I think the battle in the trenches could swing that way over time for Clemson. I think N.C. State has maybe an experience and maturity level where, although D.J. is probably a better skilled quarterback, I think Devin Leary kind of has what D.J. hasn’t shown yet, which is composure, maturity and sort of the ability to shrug off mistakes. That’s been a big talking point for N.C. State is this experience. Now we haven’t really seen it play out because in their one true test they didn’t really show up. But they do play better in Carter Finley, and this is going to be a pretty hype game.
I’m not really sure where N.C. State’s advantage offensively over Clemson’s defense is. I think Clemson’s defense is just so strong and N.C. State really has a lot of offensive weapons. They’ve got so many different wide receivers and this duo of running backs with Ricky Person and Zonovan Knight. But I really think it just kind of comes down to which defense plays better and which can put the other offense in better scoring positions. Because I really feel like it’s going to be kind of a slog. I think both of these defenses are really good, and both of these offenses haven’t quite found a rhythm. I think we’re going to see that play out.
Speaking of Devin Leary, how does N.C. State like to attack defenses in the passing game? And do you expect that to change at all against a defense the caliber of Clemson’s?
I’m sure what they want to do is to be able to throw the ball over the secondary with guys like Emeka Emezie and Thayer Thomas for these big 30-, 40-yard passes. But I think what they’re going to have to do is take what they get. And I think that’s where Leary is most accurate with his 7-to-12-yard passes over the middle. That’s where the speed and experience is they have in the slot with all these checkdown passes. They’ve had their most success when they can get short passes to their running backs.. I think you’re going to see them do it a play at a time. I don’t see Clemson given up a lot of big plays. I’m sure they’ll take their shots, but I’m sure it’s going to be nine-, 10-, 11-play drives just trying to get some points, taking field goals and kind of getting wins where they can. And where N.C. State made huge mistakes against Mississippi State was not taking those points. I imagine (N.C. State) coach (Dave) Doeren learned from that, and so I would be surprised if you see a lot of fourth-down attempts, especially in field-goal range.
Who do you think could be an X-factor for N.C. State in this one?
I think one on defense is Daniel Joseph. He’s a Penn State transfer defensive end. He’s a big guy. Strong, tough and mentally tough. This is his fifth year I believe, and he worked in the offseason on his mental toughness. And I think he’s taken it to the next level. And I think he’s the guy that they’re going to need to get D.J. on the run and make him uncomfortable. And I think, offensively, a guy who hasn’t really done much yet is Porter Rooks. He’s a second-year freshman wide receiver. Has yet to score a touchdown. But he’s this guy with size, speed and ability and Doeren talked a lot about getting him more receptions, more time and using him (more). I just kind of feel like they might have a few plays lined up to get him involved. He’s kind of waiting for his defining moment, and something in my gut tells me this could be the game.
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!