We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with Steven Muma, a staff editor over at Backing the Pack, SBN’s blog for the North Carolina State Wolfpack. We of course chatted about dogs, meme legends, and quarterbacks.
TN: Gonna hit you with the tough questions right out of the gate - just how tough and fluffy is Tuffy, the mascot, and is he a good boy? Of course he is. Would the university ever consider having a live timber wolf mascot on the sidelines like they used to? That seems like something I would like to see.
BTP: He is absolutely a very good dog, yes he is, oh yes he is. [Gives Tuffy a pat on the head.] In the late 1940s, a group of students actually brought a real timber wolf to roam the sidelines but it was deemed a tad too wild and was later sold to a traveling animal show, whatever that is/was. I suspect it would have been bad PR if the wolf began eating opposing players, who at the time of course were bite-sized.
TN: The Wolfpack lost, well, everyone from their offense last year, many of them to the NFL. All-Americans at center (Bradbury) and guard (Prescod), an All-Conference tackle (Jones), a 1,000 yard rusher (Gallaspy), two 1,000 yard receivers (Harmon and Meyers), and of course quarterback Ryan Finley. Besides quarterback, introduce us to some of the players that have stepped in to those roles, for better or worse.
BTP: The results have been mixed, as you might have guessed. The offensive line returned a decent amount of experience and has been holding up okay but definitely lacks the standouts it had a year ago. Losing Reggie Gallaspy wasn’t really a big deal, since he was a reliable but limited player. In his place NC State has a true freshman (Zonovan Knight) and a sophomore (Ricky Person), both of whom are more talented runners.
Wide receiver was NC State’s deepest position group by a mile last season, which has helped in replacing Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers. Emeka Emezie was the third wheel to those guys last season and has become the primary target this season. He’s a good talent, more similar to Harmon than Meyers. And slot receiver Thayer Thomas, who was a surprise contributor as a freshman last season, is taking on a larger role as well. He has also returned a punt for a touchdown and thrown a touchdown pass this season. NC State also brought in Tabari Hines as a transfer from Oregon--Hines spent a few productive years at Wake Forest before heading west, and he’s got the potential on any given afternoon to put up good numbers.
Quarterback has been the sticking point. Matthew McKay earned the starting job over Bailey Hockman in August and that has not changed, though McKay has been inconsistent and in particular wasn’t very good in his lone road performance (at West Virginia). He’s done well to take care of the ball--no turnovers in the first three games--but he is painfully more limited as a passer than Ryan Finley.
TN: What’s the QB situation like in Raleigh these days? Has NC State found an answer between Matt McKay and FSU transfer Bailey Hockman? This early in the season, what’s your expectations for them?
BTP: There has been great gnashing of teeth since NC State’s loss at West Virginia. McKay won the job over Hockman in camp and has started every game, but he really struggled in Morgantown, completing only 48% of his throws while averaging 4.3 yards per attempt. That’s just not going to get it done.
And the offense looked absolutely lifeless in the second half against Ball State last week, which didn’t ease anyone’s concerns. For the first time, Bailey Hockman got a series in the first half of that game, and he was moving the offense pretty well before an unlucky interception ended the drive.
The coaching staff likes McKay because he’s been around the longest but also because he does well to avoid mistakes--he has thrown only one interception this season and hasn’t fumbled the ball. And that’s great, but he’s also averaging just 6.2 yards per attempt, which is pretty gross given the level of competition. NC State is missing some easy plays in the passing game right now that Finley would be hitting all day; McKay’s downfield accuracy has been iffy at best and there haven’t been many explosive plays through the air.
The FSU game might determine McKay’s future as the starter this season, one way or the other.
TN: How have new co-offensive coordinators Des Kitchings and George McDonald mitigated the losses on offense, or at least attempted to, in terms of scheme and/or personnel? Do you put the offensive struggles on personnel, coaching, or both?
BTP: Those guys need to step up as well. There’s problems at the execution level, certainly, but Kitchings and McDonald also have shown their inexperience as playcallers as well, and haven’t always put Matthew McKay in a position to succeed. Neither has much experience as an OC, and the returns on those prior stints are mixed at best. (Syracuse fans were, uh, not big fans of McDonald’s playcalling when he was there.)
The big thing to me right now is there is no apparent identity to this offense, which mostly seems to be trying to do all the same things it did with Ryan Finley. There has been no particular effort to take greater advantage of McKay’s wheels, which seems like a big mistake. I also expected the Pack to compensate this season with more throws to the backs (Reggie Gallaspy was useless as a pass-catcher last year) and tight end Cary Angeline to help the new quarterback along, but we haven’t really seen that either.
It tends to be a problem when the playcallers and the quarterback are learning on the job together.
TN: Tuffy is no Atlas, but with the offense likely still figuring stuff out the defense has been required to shoulder the load. How are they holding up, and do you think they can keep it up?
BTP: I thought this unit would be improved from 2018 but so far we aren’t really seeing it. I mean, they’ve been fine in general, but I thought there was enough returning talent for them to take a noticeable step forward. The West Virginia game was an eye-opener, though I think part of that poor showing was due to a lack of effort.
NC State has also had injuries to some key players, like defensive end James Smith-Williams, who has missed a couple of games with a foot injury. He’s an important guy to have on the field simply because he’s a veteran because this team more than others really needs those calming influences. And senior cornerback Nick McCloud hasn’t played since the first week.
For various reasons, NC State has really struggled to establish any kind of depth at corner during Dave Doeren’s tenure, so any attrition there is noticeable. McCloud’s absence hurts a lot.
I suspect this will continue to be a decent defense all season but hardly a standout one.
TN: In a question sure to trigger the PTSD of every FSU fan, do you remember the guy who waved his shirt after the Wolfpack knocked off Florida State in 2012? What’s he been up to? Is there a statue of him on campus yet?
BTP: He will never be forgotten, and likely will maintain NC State meme status forever. His name is Jake and you can find him on Twitter these days, if you are so inclined.
TN: How do you see this game shaking out, and give us a score prediction.
BTP: If NC State’s offense plays the way it has over the last two weeks, it is highly unlikely that the team walks out of Tallahassee with a win. I have a feeling that the winner of the game hits 30 points, and while I can easily see FSU doing that, my confidence in the Wolfpack’s abilities to do so is about zip right now. Give me FSU, 31-24.
A big thank you to Steven for taking the time to chat with us! Click here to read our answers to Steven’s questions. Don’t forget to check out Backing the Pack for your Wolfpack coverage needs.