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2023 Passing Game Preview

2023 Passing Game Preview

Just like in the running game, NC State enters 2023 hoping to complete a total reset in the passing game. State turns over a lot of its receiving corps from 2022 as well as adding a new quarterback and obviously a new offensive coordinator. Everything is going to look different, and hopefully better. Let's dig in to what things could look like.

The Pack says goodbye to Devin Leary but retains MJ Morris and adds Brennan Armstrong, the latter of which will be the starting quarterback this year. As everyone knows, Armstrong had a remarkable 2021 season under Robert Anae and HC Bronco Mendenhall, and then had a dud of a 2022 under Des Kitchings and HC Tony Elliott. It’s not fair to expect Armstrong to replicate his 2021. State just doesn’t have the receivers that Virginia team did, but he’s a much better player than what happened in 2022. For some context, Armstrong returned to a Virginia team that brought back zero offensive line starters and just one of its top five pass catchers, who ended up only playing in eight games, in addition to having an entirely new coaching staff. 

Armstrong is not going to be an upgrade over Devin Leary, but that doesn’t mean he can’t lead an offense that is an improvement over the Leary years if the right pieces are around him. He’s plenty good enough for that. Armstrong’s measurables are more than sufficient. The arm strength is there. He can certainly stretch the field and he has the downfield accuracy to pay off that arm strength. He's also a good runner who can extend plays, keep his eyes downfield, and throw accurately on the move.

Armstrong's knock as a passer is that he can be a bit turnover prone. He’s a gunslinger for sure, which I generally think is the attitude you should play quarterback with, but never seeing a window too small can lead to forces sometimes too. The senior quarterback is afraid of very little. He will take a hit, and he will fire the ball into some tight windows. He has the arm strength and the release speed to cram the ball into these windows most of the time though.

With Armstrong in the fold and MJ Morris behind him, State loses Devin Leary to the transfer portal and still manages to have a strong quarterback situation. Whatever happens with the offense in 2023, the quarterback is not likely to be an issue. 

Quarterback play really wasn’t a problem last year either until the injuries took over. Leary wasn’t performing quite at the level he did the year before, but he was pretty good if a bit inconsistent. Morris was great for two and a half games also. Finley was erratic but he gave State one really strong game. He was poor in the bowl game, but other than that, quarterback play only really stunk when Jack Chambers was at the helm. He was just completely out of his depth. 

If you want to talk personnel, State’s issues came far more from receiver than quarterback. There is no sense in beating around the bush here. The receivers struggled last year. Thayer Thomas was good, but he was about it, and State depended heavily on him out of necessity. Thomas was quick and crisp in his routes and he was dependable making catches in traffic. He was a prototypical slot receiver, and his chemistry with Devin Leary kept State’s offense from completely bottoming out against ECU and Clemson, games where it struggled mightily otherwise.

Thomas notched 57 catches last year, which was more than double every other player on the roster except outside receivers Darryl Jones and Keyon Lesane, who had 30 and 31 respectively. State never really found a way to replace the production of Emeka Emezie on the outside. Emezie had remarkable body control and was very skilled at using the size mismatches he created. He didn’t necessarily separate from coverage consistently, but he was open even when he was covered. He created matchup problems that the Pack did not create in 2022. Most of State’s outside receiver snaps last year went to Devin Carter, Keyon Lesane, and Darryl Jones. Those three combined for 226 more yards and one more TD than Emeka Emezie had by himself in 2021. 

The Pack couldn’t really stretch the field at all last year, which Emezie's high-level ball skills added. Despite some flashes, Carter never became the physical mismatch creator that Emezie was. State didn’t get much downfield production from Lesane or Jones either. Neither had great speed and Lesane struggled to create separation. Jones was a little better of a route runner but rarely a big part of the offense. State was so bad at stretching the field last year that Terrell Timmons actually tied with Thayer Thomas for the most catches on throws of more than 30 air yards, despite Timmons recording only three catches for the season.

Some of that is schematic, of course. You have to give guys opportunities. State was very comfortable throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage 1000 times last year, trying to win every game 16-6. It was overly conservative until an 18-point deficit to Virginia Tech forced them to do stuff again. It was during this back half of the season where Darryl Jones started to make some plays. State may have been able to get more out of his one year if it had given him a chance to get comfortable. That goes for everyone else too. Beck and the offense really turtled last year, and it did no favors for the personnel.

Now, State moves on from Carter, which feels like a mutually beneficial move, Thomas, and Darryl Jones, leaving Keyon Lesane’s 342 yards as the leading returning production.

Lesane’s best game last year was against Wake Forest, when he caught his second career touchdown and snatched a 40 yard bomb to set up said touchdown. He also had a six-catch effort at Clemson, but most of those were underneath throws taking advantage of soft coverage. He was a difference maker in the Wake Forest game, and to his credit, some of the catches he made were not low difficulty.

Lesane seems like a small receiver with the soul of a 6’4 guy. He can make some contact catches, which is a nice bonus, and he has pretty decent body control, but that can’t be where he makes a living at his size. He’s small for an outside receiver, especially relative to what Dave Doeren has preferred out there over the years. He needs to be able to separate from coverage better. 

State gets some immediate help on the outside by adding Bradley Rozner from the transfer portal. Rozner was a late addition this summer and will play his eighth season of college football this year. He’s had injury issues but if he can stay healthy, he should immediately be the best receiver on the team. 

Rozner is the epitome of a big-play threat. He’s 6’5 with pretty decent ball skills and better than average speed for that size. He averaged 20 yards per catch and caught 10 of Rice’s 23 receiving touchdowns last year. Rozner has only played 2 real seasons at Rice (played in 1 game in 2021), but has more career receiving yards than every other receiver on the roster combined. It’s hard to overstate how big of an addition this guy is. 

While Rozner solidifies one of the two outside receiver spots, there will be competition everywhere else. Keyon Lesane and Porter Rooks probably have the inside track to start, but “starter” likely means very little. State should play a lot of receivers this year, especially at the beginning of the season. 

There’s a lot of unproven players sitting behind Rozner, Lesane, and Rooks, and the Pack will be mining this group for breakout candidates this fall. Terrell Timmons and Kevin Concepcion are probably the top two on the list. Timmons seems to have the makings of a complete big-play threat if State can develop him. It’s so easy to be excited about this guy. He stands tall at 6’3, and he’s added a good bit of bulk this offseason. The sophomore has excellent straight-line speed and he looks very natural high-pointing the ball. This kid could really be something if he develops. 

Kevin Concepcion is one of the more exciting recruits State has landed in recent years, mostly because he has a good chance to be an immediate boon to a struggling area of the offense. Putting expectations on a true freshman is usually a fool’s errand, but Concepcion is more polished than your average freshman. State returns Porter Rooks, who will get his first season as a starter, but don't be surprised to see Concepcion get on the field a lot and push for that role. 

State also returns Julian Gray and Anthony Smith, two guys who are very fast. Both run a sub-4.4 40 yard dash and Smith has been hand timed under 4.3. But they’ve combined for 25 total catches over five seasons of football. Despite pretty consistent preseason rumblings about camp performances, it just hasn’t been there for either guy. Gray basically didn’t play last year until the final couple of games, and Smith played sparingly in the first four games before missing the entire conference schedule with an injury. 

Smith was a serious development project when he was recruited, but you simply can’t teach that level of speed. It was worth a flier on, and even as a raw player, his speed has created some downfield opportunities. He has caught a touchdown of at least 30 yards in each of the last three seasons, despite tallying nine total catches in his career. Gray can play both receiver spots but is more naturally a slot. He shares Smith’s affection for running extremely fast, but he’s smaller and shiftier in space. Both these guys could develop into very difficult receivers to cover. If either can start to contribute this year, it would go pretty far toward creating some explosiveness. 

Beyond that, State has added some size at receiver by landing 6’5 Clemson transfer DJ Collins, 6’4 Javonte Vereen, and sliding 6’4 Christopher Toudle back to receiver. Toudle had a nice 2021 sharing snaps with Trent Pennix in an h-back type role, but he disappeared in 2022. Collins also had some nice moments in 2021 for the Tigers and disappeared in 2022. Collins was an exciting portal addition, but he did not have a great spring. Barring a breakout fall, he'll be playing catch up for playing time. Vereen is a potential impact freshman who can really play tight end or outside receiver. He should get on the field this year, and he could offer another big jump ball target similar to Rozner.

Now here’s the fun part. Trent Pennix is back and he’s really good. Pennix runs a sub 4.5 40 at 242 pounds. This guy is a nightmare, and the work that Robert Anae did with Jelani Woods at Virginia and Oronde Gadsden at Syracuse is well documented. Anae coached each player for one year, and they combined to catch 105 passes for 1567 yards and 14 touchdowns. Pennix is next in line. Expect to see him line up in tons of different places and shift around the formation quite a bit this year. Anae is going to hunt mismatches for Pennix, and creating them isn’t that hard with this level of athlete. 

The hope is that State can improve as a whole here via a couple of nice additions and another year of development for guys like Timmons, Lesane, and Gray. Certainly, Pennix staying healthy would go a long way for that. The wildcard is the new offense and how Anae leverages the skillsets of these pieces.

Pennix should compete for an all-league spot. Beyond him, nobody in this receiving corps is going to get any preseason all-league attention. That doesn't mean there isn't talent, but there is pretty much zero proven production sans what Rozner did at Rice. Can State get breakout seasons from some of the physically gifted players on the roster? It may be the most important question this season.