Inconsistency, injuries and inexperience made a mess of Dave Doeren's first year at North Carolina State. He'll soon find out how much the Wolfpack learned from the program's worst season in a half-century.
N.C. State (3-9, 0-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) lost its last eight games and finished winless in the league for the first time since 1959. Seven starters return to the offense and defense to provide potential for growth, assuming Doeren can get a young team past last year's struggles.
"I think you use whatever you can to motivate them," Doeren said. "I'm not a guy that walks around talking about the past all day long either. I don't believe in that. When it's relevant and it can help you, then we'll talk about it."
At least he has his quarterback this time: Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett.
Brissett sat out last year while the Wolfpack bounced between Brandon Mitchell and Pete Thomas due to injury and poor play. Brissett's mobility fits Doeren's no-huddle scheme, though Doeren has cautioned that his quarterback can't carry the burden to make every play.
Help could come from big-play receiver Bryan Underwood, who is back from a broken collarbone, and leading rusher Shadrach Thornton.
"There's been players stepping up left and right every day in camp, making plays and just pretty much making my job easier — a lot easier," Brissett said. "And it's just giving me the (comfort) of knowing that I have outlets that will do everything I want them to do, what we want them to do. It just makes us better."
Defensively, N.C. State returns some experience up front with Art Norman and T.Y. McGill, and in the secondary with Juston Burris, Hakim Jones and Jack Tocho. But linebacker is a concern, particularly after possible starter M.J. Salahuddin suffered a knee injury that will keep him out indefinitely.
"It's in the past but it's always going to be in the back of our heads," redshirt freshman linebacker Jerod Fernandez said of 2013. "Nobody wants to go 3-9, and we're ... sure not going to go 3-9 again this year. We're going to play hard, and we're going to use that as motivation."
Here are five things to watch for the Wolfpack this season:
WR CONSISTENCY: Sophomores Bra'Lon Cherry, Jumichael Ramos and Marquez Valdes-Scantling must grow into reliable targets. Doeren said Cherry has been the most improved among last year's young receivers, while January enrollee Bo Hines could contribute as a freshman.
MORE DBS: N.C. State will use a 4-2-5 defensive formation as its base scheme this year. Doeren said adding that fifth defensive back will get more speed on the field. "I know we love getting more DBs on the field," Tocho said. "We're looking forward to the switch. We've adapted well in practice."
RUN DEFENSE: Will the Wolfpack be able to stop the run? N.C. State was next-to-last in the ACC in rushing defense (180.2 yards per game) but gave up a league-worst 5 yards per carry — a total inflated by Boston College's Andre Williams running for 339 yards in a 38-21 win. N.C. State allowed a 100-yard rusher in each of its last three games.
FINISHING GAMES: The Wolfpack certainly had chances to avoid that winless ACC record. N.C. State was tied with Syracuse midway through the fourth quarter before yielding two touchdowns. It trailed rival North Carolina 21-19 entering the fourth but couldn't rally. It led at Duke 20-17 with 6½ minutes left before giving up three touchdowns in 26 seconds. "Our main focus is finishing," McGill said, "because that's what we didn't do last year and that's what gave us the record we had."
EARLY CONFIDENCE: N.C. State needs a good start. Doeren's team opens at home against Georgia Southern and Old Dominion, then travels to South Florida (2-10 last year) followed by a home game against Presbyterian. Things get tougher from there, starting with a visit from reigning national champion Florida State and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston on Sept. 27. There's also trips to Atlantic Division opponents Clemson, ACC newcomer Louisville and Syracuse in that five-game stretch.
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