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2023 Secondary Preview

2023 Secondary Preview

NC State’s defense faced three passers last year that ranked in the top 20 nationally in passing efficiency. Below are their season stats, and below that are their stats against NC State. 

Jordan Travis

  • Season: 64% CMP, 9.1 YPA, 24 TD, 5 INT
  • Against NC State: 50% CMP, 6 YPA, 1 TD, 2 INT

Sam Hartman

  • Season: 63% CMP, 8.6 YPA, 38 TD, 12 INT
  • Against NC State: 60% CMP, 8.3 YPA, 2 TD, 3 INT

Drake Maye

  • Season: 66% CMP, 8.4 YPA, 38 TD, 7 INT
  • Against NC State: 60% CMP, 4.8 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT

The Wolfpack had one of the better pass defenses in America last season, and that started with its senior-laden group of defensive backs, many of which were among the best in the ACC at their positions. The days of giving up seven catches a game on outside go routes were a thing of the very distant past. State was really good at preventing the explosive plays, with a few blips that can probably be explained by how much weight this defense was asked to carry. Generally though, it was a great unit that ranked 16th in opponent passer rating, its second straight year in the top 20. 

The roster continuity from 2021 helped make that possible, a level of continuity that State will not have this year. The Pack does return 6 of the 10 players on last year’s two-deep, but only two of five starters, losing both safeties and Tyler Baker-Williams at nickel. All three played at a really high level for State, as did Derrek Pitts, who was basically a third starter at cornerback last year. 

Despite Pitts’ eligibility running out, State should have one of the best cornerback duos in America with first-teamer Aydan White and Shyheim Battle back. White is a great cover corner worthy of his accolades, and Battle is pretty good in his own right. State will miss the depth that Pitts helped create, but cornerback probably has the best starting lineup of any position on the team. 

White had a lot to do with the lack of explosive plays the defense gave up. He was an eraser down the field. UNC in particular tested him a number of times with NFL-draft pick Antoine Green, all to no avail. 

Any concerns at cornerback will come from the second unit. State doesn't have any proven depth here. Teshaun Smith is back for a sixth season, but he’s been completely unable to stay on the field throughout his career, missing time in four of five seasons so far. 

Smith will compete for a spot on the second unit, but the Pack is really high on Terrente Hinton and Brandon Cisse. Hinton is a JUCO prospect from Alabama who has good size at 6’2. Cisse is a true freshman who was a camp offer and appears to be quite the find. Both will be in competition for snaps, although there may not be many to go around behind Battle and White. 

It’s in the nature of Tony Gibson’s defense to be aggressive and bring a lot of pressure, and Gibson was really good at disguising these. He’s a wickedly creative coordinator, and one guy who made a lot of this stuff work was Tanner Ingle. Ingle was something of a swiss army knife defensively for State. You may remember he started at nickel as a freshman but got benched because he struggled in man coverage. That was never really his skill set though, and safety was a natural landing spot for such an instinctive player with tremendous closing speed. 

Ingle was a little bit more of a downhill player, while Cyrus Fagan was more of a true coverage guy. State loved to play cover 1 with Fagan while doing all sorts of shenanigans with Ingle. He was in the box a lot, he could blitz from the safety spot and get home, and State loved to try and create confusion with his alignments. Ingle was a critical part of this defense’s ability to be aggressive, as was Fagan’s dependability in coverage. Both are now gone, and while State has experience to replace them with, it’s going to miss both of these guys. 

Devan Boykin had a strong 2021 season at safety before moving around a bit last year in relief of the injured Tyler Baker-Williams. He should start at safety this year, and Boykin is pretty good at football. With some increased reps and positional continuity, he could be in for a breakout year. Jakeen Harris is a veteran who should take over the other safety spot, but State is also very high on Sean Brown, who should get on the field this year. 

At nickel, State has to replace Tyler Baker-Williams, who had been a stalwart as the fifth defensive back since 2019. Joshua Pierre-Louis seemed like a budding star but he was suspended last year and never returned to the team. State has added Robert Kennedy from Old Dominion, who is expected to start here. Cecil Powell is also back after an extended injury absence. Powell is a good athlete with decent size, and if he can stay healthy and shake the rust off after sitting out two seasons, he could be a valuable depth piece almost anywhere in the secondary. 

The biggest thing here really remains the coaching staff. A lot has contributed to the Pack turning the secondary into a strength after years of drowning in explosive pass plays, but nothing more than the jobs of the positional coaches. It always bothered me that Nick McCloud, who is now a regular contributor for the New York Giants, upgraded to Notre Dame despite never appearing on any all-league teams at State. Good for McCloud of course, who found his way, but the player development just wasn’t there, and it’s worth noting that State’s cornerbacks coach during that time spent the last two years at South Florida, a pass defense that ranked 129th and 121st in YPA in those two years. 

Brian Mitchell, Joe DeForest, and Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay are guys that State is going to want to hold on to. They’ve made incalculable differences in this defense, and they’re all reasons that turnover in the secondary isn’t as scary as it otherwise could be. I expect State to have a good secondary again this year, and I expect some NFL draft picks to come out of this group in the coming draft. Oh how things have changed. 

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