With holes to fill, NC State football enters season looking to improve its run game

·4 min read
Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

N.C. State had one of the worst rushing attacks in the ACC last year.

Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren thinks the return of left guard Chandler Zavala, who missed the final seven games last season with a back injury, will help remedy part of N.C. State’s struggles with its ground game.

“I do think the loss of Chandler Zavala was a bigger loss than probably people thought at the time,” Doeren said. “He is a very good run blocker for us. Having him and Ickey (former N.C. State left tackle Ikem Ekwonu) next to each other presented a pretty good challenge to the defense as we were playing.”

Having Zavala back will certainly help, but there are more holes to fill to boost a running game that finished at No. 13 in the 14-team conference with two NFL running backs and a left tackle, Ekwonu, who went sixth overall in the draft.

Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person combined for 1,389 rushing yards last season and 275 of the team’s 372 rushing attempts. The team rushed for 11 touchdowns, the lowest total in the ACC. How N.C. State replaces Knight, Person and Ekwonu is a question players like running back Jordan Houston have grown tired of hearing all offseason.

“But at the same time, it’s a valid question,” Houston said.

Return of Chandler enough?

In the first five games with Zavala, the Pack averaged 172 rushing yards, with Knight rushing for more than 100 yards twice. In the seven games without Zavala, the best individual rushing performance was a 75-yard game by Knight at Florida State.

N.C. State rushed for more than 200 yards twice in those first five games with Zavala. The Pack’s best rushing performance as a team without Zavala was 130 yards against Boston College. N.C. State averaged 93.4 yards on the ground in its final seven games.

“Chandler is probably the strongest offensive lineman we’ve got right now,” Houston said. “He’s freakishly strong, he widens the gaps.”

Zavala received a 68.6 Pro Football Focus grade for his run blocking last season. The best run blocker returning, according to data from PFF, would be right tackle Bryson Speas (70.3), which makes it ideal that more of those stretch zones might go to the right this season. Center Grant Gibson graded out at 67.6, while right guard Dylan McMahon had a 62.1 run grade. Experience will play a part up front as the five starters have a combined 95 starts. There are four senior offensive linemen on N.C. State’s two-deep.

Finding balance

Last season in its opener against South Florida, the Wolfpack rushed for 293 yards. That would end up being a season high for the Pack. N.C. State only rushed for more than 200 yards one other time during its 2021 season. On five different occasions, the Pack didn’t reach 100 yards on the ground.

“At that time, Devin (Leary) was throwing the ball pretty good,” Doeren said. “Our offense is built to take what we get, but there is a mentality about rushing the football.”

N.C. State will get a chance early to show if it has that mentality.

The Wolfpack’s first opponent, East Carolina, surrendered 161.3 rushing yards per game last season.

When N.C. State was in close games — against Clemson, Miami and Wake Forest — Leary was allowed to air it out. He averaged 48 attempts in those three games, beating the Tigers and Hurricanes, but falling at Wake Forest.

N.C. State can’t have instances where it abandons its running game completely. Against Wake Forest, which had the No. 12 run defense in the ACC, the Pack carried the ball a season-low 18 times. Leary had 59 pass attempts in that game. In the three games N.C. State lost, it attempted a combined 65 runs as compared to its 152 pass attempts.

The Pack’s rush attempts exceeded its pass attempts in just four games last season.

“We don’t want to be a mainly pass team, we want to be 50-50,” Zavala said. “Coach (John) Garrison is very enthusiastic about the run game and we don’t want to be a team that’s predictable.”