The lowdown on NC State from a 'Pack beat writer

The lowdown on NC State from a 'Pack beat writer

Football

The lowdown on NC State from a 'Pack beat writer

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The Clemson Insider recently caught up with David Thompson to get some insight on N.C. 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 strengths and weakness of this year’s N.C. State team, the kind of team Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren has been waiting for during his tenure, N.C. State’s plan to adjust to inclement weather and more heading into Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity

First of all, what’s the latest you’re hearing on N.C. State’s travel plans for this game with Hurricane Ian making its way up the East Coast?

The last update we got officially was Monday. Dave Doeren gave his concerns about traveling. The plan was to obviously fly, but what we were told is they are looking at different options. So I’m sure if they need it, it is definitely within bus-riding ability, which I was actually kind of surprised to hear that they were taking a plane at first. Knowing the weather now, it makes more sense to drive, but we haven’t heard an update. I think the big thing now is just is it going to be safe to travel? It’s looking like it will be fine.

As far as the matchup on the field, it’s no secret Clemson’s defense has struggled mightily in pass coverage. But does N.C. State have the personnel around QB Devin Leary to try to exploit that the way other teams have?

It does seem like Clemson’s biggest defensive struggle has also been N.C. State’s biggest offensive struggle, which is throwing the ball deep downfield and making big, chunk plays. I think there are definitely options and definitely talent, but they’ve yet to identify a guy who can replace Emeka Emezie. There’s a lot of speed with guys like Julian Gray and Anthony Smith. They are going to be playing without Trent Pennix, a tight end who really opens up the middle for them. And I think that’s really going to cause some issues.

Although we’re in Week Five, it still feels like there are some unanswered questions at wide receiver for N.C. State. And it’ll be really interesting to see if someone kind of has a breakout moment. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure who that would be because, besides Thayer Thomas, who even last year was always a reliable target, no one else has really emerged as that guy.

On the other side of the ball, N.C. State is among the national leaders in nearly every defensive statistical category. What’s played into their improvement defensively?

Well I wouldn’t call it a drastic improvement. This is basically the same defense they had last year that was fairly dominant. They return 10 of 11 starters, so this is basically what they had last year with a year of improvement. But I think you also have to look at who they’ve played this year. They’ve only played one Power Five team in Texas Tech, and they looked their best against that team. But they’ve played UConn and Charleston Southern, so sometimes stats can be a little deceiving when you’re playing talent that’s way below your level. Clemson will obviously be the biggest test they’ve played against offensively even if this isn’t the Trevor Lawrence Clemson offense.

But it’s just a team of tough, cagy veterans who have been in situations like this before. I’ll don’t think they’ll be particularly intimidated by Clemson even though they’re very respectful of the situation they’re going to go into. It’s just a team that’s going to be very hard to run against, and they’re going to force (Clemson quarterback) D.J. (Uiagalelei) to win this game. Wake Forest was plenty of evidence to show that he can do it, but there’s also evidence against that fact as well. So I’m sure they’re going to try to neutralize (Clemson running back) Will Shipley and say, “All right D.J., beat us over the top if you can.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had high praise this week for N.C. State LB Payton Wilson, who’s healthy again after missing most of last season. How does he change things for the Wolfpack defensively?

He’s a big leader and a guy that when he’s not on the field, you can feel it, the mental approach as much as the physical approach. When No. 11 (Wilson) is out there, it just feels like a complete, more cohesive unit. But the reason he gets injured all the time is he plays with reckless abandon. He plays tough. He hits hard. He knows his gaps. He’s a really smart, tough player, and it’s honestly a bummer to see him get hurt so much because he’s a really great kid. You hope for the best for him. You just want to see him healthy and get a chance because we saw a couple of years back how good he can be. Up until the game against UConn (last week), he had not started and finished a game for I think it was almost two years. To have him back is just big for this team in a lot of ways, but what he is as a player and an athlete is irreplaceable for the defense.

What would you say is the strength of this N.C. State defense and team overall?

The linebacking corps with Payton Wilson, Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas. I think they’re arguably the best int he country. And then I really think, offensively, just that backfield with Devin Leary, Jordan Houston and Demie Sumo-Karngbaye. I think they’re still figuring out chemistry, but I think the three of those guys. The way they’re using their backs for receiving and just the ability of all of those guys I think has kind of allowed there to be some growing pains and also success with some of the wide receivers because I think they have those options.

I think the easy choice is the linebacking corps for sure, but it is the team that Dave Doeren has always wanted to construct. It’s a grassroots, boots-in-the-dirt tough team with lots of experience. This is the team he’s been waiting for for 10 years, and this is their best shot to really do something big on the national stage. 

On the flipside, what are some areas that concern you with this N.C. State team coming into this matchup?

I worry about the same issues that I think Clemson fans worry about with their defense, and it’s those shots over the top (in the passing game). It’s a good and improving secondary, but guys like Shyheim Battle and Tyler Baker-Williams have been kind of banged up. Aydan White has really stepped up, but I don’t know if they’ve seen the kind of arm strength and talent that D.J. has and with what some of these other wide receivers can provide. I worry about if that confidence is built with taking those shots that there will be some (pass-interference) penalties and they won’t be able to quite keep up. I think sometimes the secondary can be a little suspect, so I would point to that. Both Clemson and N.C. State have similar issues on defense.

N.C. State is ninth nationally in punt return average (17.2 yards). What kind of role do you think the Wolfpack’s special teams could play in this one?

I really think they one of the more underrated special-teams groups in the country. Thayer Thomas returns punts and has almost broken a couple. I think up until last week, he was averaging 25 yards per punt return, which I think was best in the nation. Julian Gray is probably one of the fastest kids on their team. He’s returning kickoffs, and I really think in a game that could be muddy, rain and messy, it could be one of these moments where one of these speedsters breaks out and gets some vital points.

I think if we’re looking at all the special teams, Chris Dunn, obviously the kicker who missed three field goals last year (against Clemson). I know they won despite that, but I know he’s been circling this game as a little bit of personal redemption. I think as far as storylines go, it would be really interesting to see him face another one of those situations but also looking into the heart of the Clemson crowd.

If there is heavy rainfall throughout the game, how much do you think that will change N.C. State’s game plan?

I think naturally weather has to change certain things. I’m sure they would stray away from passing the ball, and there would have to be some sort of alternative. They have not discussed with me their alternate game plan for rain, but I do feel like with N.C. State’s defensive strength against the run and the ability for N.C. State’s offense to sort of mix things up with their running backs, if it turns into a ground-and-pound game, I do think the advantage goes to N.C. State. Not by a lot. I think Will Shipley by himself is the more talented of those three guys that I mentioned, but I think N.C. State’s run defense is up there with some of the best in the country. 

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