RALEIGH, North Carolina — Dave Doeren measures his North Carolina State team's progress over two seasons in small steps he describes as closing gaps.
The Wolfpack closed several last season in a five-win improvement from his first year. More growth could have his Wolfpack in position to at least be a factor in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic Division.
"Last year, I think the team felt the pressure that they needed to get it going," Doeren said. "But I'm not sure we knew how to get it going. We had to continue to go through the steps and the process of learning how to win tight games and learning how to be a good road team, learning how to beat an instate team — closing those gaps we had to close."
A year after the program's first winless ACC record in a half-century, North Carolina State (8-5) closed with a road rout of rival North Carolina and a win in the St. Petersburg Bowl. And after giving then-No. 1 Florida State fits in a shootout loss, the Wolfpack won both their matchups with instate Bowl Subdivision programs a year after going 0-4 against them.
The arrival of Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett, a run-pass threat who was the perfect fit for Doeren's system, led to much of that success. North Carolina State also brings back leading rusher Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes to the backfield, a duo who joined Brissett in giving the program its best rushing average in more than two decades.
"Mindset wise, we're still that 3-9 team trying to prove a point," running back Shadrach Thornton said. "Some people say we've arrived, the Pack is back, but we're really still playing with a chip on our shoulders. We want to block that out."
Some things to watch for the Wolfpack this season:
BRISSETT'S DEVELOPMENT: Coach Dave Doeren said Jacoby Brissett sometimes let things he couldn't control — a receiver dropping a well-thrown ball, for example — get to him, but is doing a better job with shaking off "adversity he didn't create" in training camp. "It just comes with reps," Brissett said. "Coming in and not playing with a lot of guys, you don't know what each person can do."
RELIABLE RECEIVERS: Leading receiver Bo Hines transferred after the season, so N.C. State is searching for a new consistent receiving threat from several young receivers, including freshman running back Nyheim Hines. "We're just trying to figure out who's going to be the steady guy in there," Doeren said.
O-LINE DEVELOPMENT: The Wolfpack will spend training camp working to bolster its play up front on both sides of the ball. On the offensive side, there are three returning starters while redshirt freshmen Will Richardson and Tyler Jones are part of a group competing to round out that starting unit or be the first linemen in off the bench.
SALAHUDDIN'S HEALTH: M.J. Salahuddin figured to be a starting linebacker before suffering a knee injury in training camp that kept him out last season. The 6-foot-2 redshirt junior has been back at work in preseason drills, a year removed from surgery to repair a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and damaged meniscus. "He's going to have a series of firsts on that knee — first time he gets cut, first time he takes on a block and somebody hits him," Doeren said. "He's got to get through all those things to know that, "Man, this thing's OK."
SPECIAL TEAMS: North Carolina State was in good shape with kicker Niklas Sade and punter Wil Baumann, but they're both gone. Now the team is looking at a pair of January enrollees — kicker Kyle Bambard and punter A.J. Cole III — to fill those roles. Doeren said the team is doing more live rushing drills to block kicks than usual in an effort to prepare them.
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