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Despite some uneven moments, N.C. State is 3-1 on the season as it starts conference play Saturday in Tallahassee against Florida State with the proverbial clean slate, but the biggest question is which players will suit up?
Head coach Dave Doeren faces decisions this week as the Pack opens league play. Southern Nash High alum Zonovan Knight is one of the injury concerns coming off N.C. State’s 34-23 win Saturday over Ball State at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Knight was hurt in the first half against the Cardinals but the game did not dictate his return according to his head coach.
“(I) don’t know about (Knight) but I expect to have him,” Doeren said Monday. “I think he could have gone back in the game, but Ricky (Person) was playing well, Jordan (Houston) was playing well. I haven’t seen him yet. He’s been in the training room, but I expect to have him Saturday.”
Knight leads the Wolfpack in rushing through four games but Person and Houston combined for 108 yards on 23 carries in a win over Ball State that was tougher than most expected.
“Jordan is quick and great change-of-pace,” Doeren said. “I thought Ricky ran hard. I thought he was a little high on that one short-yardage run, but he got a lot of yards after contact. He played tough.
“You need them, particularly in the heat we play in,” Doeren said of his running back group. “The change of pace they all bring, Trent Pennix as well, it helps you to use their skill-sets to open up the playbook.”
Dylan Autenrieth is out for the season according to Doeren, but the tight end position does have some depth. The Pack will lean a little more on Cary Angeline but it will not be a one-man show.
“Dylan Parham has done a good job for us and his role steps up,” the Wolfpack coach said. “We were rotating the three tight ends, and now it’s two guys getting the share of those reps. Thomas Ruocchio is a guy that we trust. He’s in a position where he can play.
“We have to be creative. Anytime you lose a part of your team, how do you replace it, but we have other bodies. We’ll have to be creative at times.”
N.C. State will hope to stifle the need for creativity on the defensive line. The leader of the unit, James Smith-Williams, has missed the previous two contests but good news might be on the way for the Wolfpack’s front.
“We look forward to getting James Smith-Williams back this week,” Doeren said. “Not sure how much, but he’s really excited to be back on the field with his teammates.”
CHANGE AT QB?
Perhaps the biggest question with the Wolfpack is not injury-related. Matt McKay has limited his turnovers but has also had his ups and downs in the non-conference slate.
Bailey Hockman, a transfer from Florida State, received some playing time against Ball State in what was a planned move prior to the game. It leaves open the possibility that Hockman could be called on against his former team.
Should the need arise, Doeren wanted to see Hockman ready with some prep time in a game that had yet to be decided.
“I was excited to get him in the game in a series that wasn’t mop-up duty,” Doeren said. “Allow him to play; it was good for him. He did some good things. He had a nice scramble to get us a first down, and the interception which he’ll learn from and grow from. We don’t have anything in stone yet.”
McKay was 17-of-30 passing for 175 yards and one interception against Ball State. He only completed two of his last eight passes.
“I thought we came out strong and put points on the board,” McKay said. “We couldn’t stay on the field in the second half, so that’s definitely an area, especially (considering) last week, that we must improve on. Going into this next week, we’re going to focus on coming out in the third quarter strong and putting points on the board.”
ANOTHER 9-WIN SEASON?
Overall, N.C. State has faced its injury issues, quarterback questions, and youth-related concerns in a way that has not eliminated it from having another nine-win season. The Wolfpack has never won nine games in three consecutive campaigns.
The hope from Doeren’s perspective is the travails of the journey will give his team a better perspective as conference play kicks off.
It’s a revolving deal with your chemistry at times, so it does make it challenging,” Doeren said of the recent injuries. “I told the team last week we don’t have freshmen or seniors, we have a football team. We have to go out and do your job, not worry about your age anymore, period.
“The fact that we only have seven active seniors, or whatever it is, it doesn’t matter anymore. We have to get the most out of what we have. We have a young team, but we won’t talk about it. We’ll talk about playing, doing our jobs, getting better, and letting these guys be the best they can be through our schemes, our plans, and our ability to coach them through things and get them better fundamentally. That’s the bottom line.”