8 min read

Previewing the Ground Game

Alec's first post for the RWN takes a deep dive into NC State's running game with a brief lookback and what to expect in 2023.
Previewing the Ground Game
If you haven't already, click here to Join the site. And if you're new around here, Subscribe to the Pod Here for automatic pod updates.

Reminder, if you're a paid supporter, you've been emailed access to the RedWhite Chat and to the private supporter-only podcast feed. If you want to support the pod, you can do that here. It's cheaper than Alec's monthly hair gel and it means a lot to us. 

Don't Miss any of Alec's Insight, Join the Newsletter

NC State averaged 3.3 yards per carry last year as a team. There were 10 teams in the country worse. The Pack has been inconsistent at best, and bad at worst, running the ball really since Nyheim Hines was on the team, and that really should not be so.

The lack of production makes little sense on its face. State has had a top-10 pick at tackle, a fourth-round pick at guard, and a four-year starter at center who was twice All-ACC, all in the last two years. It could not manage a consistently productive rushing attack with those pieces and three years of Zonovan Knight. The stable of backs hasn’t been bad, even after Knight left, but it has amounted to very little.

Beck had a tendency to abandon the run, which he even publicly acknowledged last year. There were some very curious run/pass distributions from games in 2021, and Clemson last year saw over 50 pass plays get called and less than 15 runs, even with Clemson’s consistently low box count in that game. State’s lack of interest in running the ball certainly contributes to the idea that it’s not good at it, but the fact that State is not good at it probably contributes more.

NC State was 117th nationally in yards before contact last year. Its best ranking since 2017 was 97th (source: David Hale, ESPN). This team has not blocked well, but as mentioned, the reasons for that aren’t exactly hitting you in the face when you look at this offense.  

This is not a team that is schematically disorganized. State had the fewest blown blocks of any team in the ACC (source: David Hale, ESPN). It’s also not devoid of talent.

I think when you distill it all the way down, State just doesn’t win enough one-on-one blocks. It doesn’t move and lock up defenders enough to create gap integrity issues for defenses on a consistent basis. I don’t know enough to tell you why State hasn’t been able to do that, but it hasn’t. I found a lot of plays that were close to busting open, but were short-circuited by one loss in the assignments.

Take this play from the bowl game, in which State managed 18 carries for 27 yards.

This play starts with McMahon surfacing the nose tackle for Eason before working up the field to the linebacker. The linebacker is covering the right side A-gap and is blocked well by McMahon. There is a lot of space at the second level here on the field side. If Jones gets to the second level, this could be a big one, but Eason is not able to hold the block on the nose tackle. Jones initially tries to cut into the A-gap but the free defender forces him toward the boundary where he runs right into 88. Loss of two.

Here’s the play right before.

McMahon does a good job working the double to displace 88 and then working back toward the linebacker, but 88 is able to get off the block and work back inside of Anthony Carter.

At the same time, McKay comes off the defensive end to block the flowing safety, but can't quite get to him. These are the two defenders in on the tackle. If those two blocks are finished, Jones gets the hole and is one on one in space with the cornerback. This isn't a terrible play but it could have gone for a lot more.

There were a lot of these instances, where State was aligned correctly but couldn't lock down all of their blocks. Here's another against Syracuse. This is a five-yard run on first down, so it isn't a bad play, but it could have gone for more.

McMahon displaces the defensive end pretty well here, but Seabrough loses to the linebacker on the edge, and the linebacker manages to work back into the B-gap, where he gets his hands on Houston and drags him down. If Seabrough can lock this block up for a second longer, Houston is one-on-one with 20 in space and this play gains 7-8 yards at the minimum, more if he makes 20 miss.

Here's one more example.

Belton erases 54 with an assist from McMahon, and then McMahon locks up the linebacker cleanly. The B-gap is wide open, but 45 comes right through the middle basically unblocked and trips Jordan Houston. He barely gets a hand on his ankle but it trips him. It looks like Gibson is expecting to shoulder this block for Eason and then get up field to 23, but Eason doesn't pick up the nose tackle. I'm not positive, but I think this one was a missed assignment. If State holds this penetration by 45 for a split second more, there's a good chance Houston is up the sideline for a big gainer. One miss turns a strong run play into a gain of three. Game of inches.

The Pack replaces John Garrison, who had been the offensive line coach since 2019, with Garett Tujague, who has coached at BYU and Virginia since 2013. This is what he'll be tasked with improving. We’ll see what difference that makes this season. Let’s break down what the running game could look like this year.

State is going to miss Demie Sumo-Karngbaye, who was the team’s best running back and transferred to Kentucky last season. He showed his youth at times, but he had some moves. It hurts to lose that. Still, the running back room is not bad. Jordan Houston has not had a great season yet in Raleigh, but he’s not some schlub. He’s shifty in space and can make guys miss at the second level, and he’s small but still punches above his weight class as a physical runner. He can do a lot with a well blocked play.

Houston should split the majority of the carries early in the season with Michael Allen, who has a chance to be really good. The sophomore saw his playing time jump last year following Sumo-Karngbaye’s injury, and he ended up averaging 5 yards per carry. Allen has impressive patience for a young guy. Watch him get behind the pulling tackle and wait on him to force the linebacker to commit to a gap. State's pulling guard does an awesome job finishing the block on the defensive end, who is responsible for the B-gap. This forces the linebacker into a bind as he's now covering two gaps at once, B and C. Allen stays behind the tackle until he sees the shoulders turn and then shows his acceleration to get to the second level.

Contrast that with an example of poor patience on an almost identical play.

In addition to Allen and Houston, State also brings back Delbert Mimms and Demarcus Jones, but don’t be surprised if Kendrick Raphael, freshman out of Florida, ends up as RB3.

On the offensive line, State returns four players who started a regular season game last year. Those are tackle Anthony Belton, guard/center Dylan McMahon, guard Derrick Eason, and tackle Tim McKay. The Pack says goodbye to Bryson Speas, four-year starter Grant Gibson, and first-teamer Chandler Zavala.

You can safely place a large bet on Anthony Belton and Tim McKay starting at tackle. Belton has the highest ceiling of anyone likely to see significant snaps this year on the o-line. He saw action in all 13 games last year including starting the first eight before being supplanted by Bryson Speas. With Speas gone and another year of development, Belton’s combo of size and athleticism gives him a chance to be difficult to deal with in the run game. McKay actually led the team in pancake blocks last year after starting the final 10 games at right tackle.

McMahon is likely your center. He’s played there as well as both guard positions in his 2000+ snaps at State, and was the backup center last year. I like McMahon as a run blocker. He, Belton, and McKay give State a foundation to try and start this turnaround on.

State is likely to fill its two guard spots with some combination of Derrick Eason, Oregon transfer Dawson Jaramillo, Anthony Carter, and Lyndon Cooper. Eason has been around and probably has the inside track as a result. Jaramillo is big enough to play tackle but should slot in at guard, which is his more natural position. He played in 12 games last year in Eugene, but averaged less than 7 snaps per game. It’s always tough to gauge what you’re going to get from guys that transfer to find playing time. Carter has been on the list of guys who could see playing time bumps for a while, and it came around late last year with him playing 94 snaps over the last three games and starting the bowl game. Cooper played 29 snaps in the bowl game, his career high. Barring something unexpected in fall camp, State is most likely building its interior line rotation from those four guys and McMahon. My prediction is that it goes like this from left to right: Belton, Jaramillo, McMahon, Eason, McKay, and State will obviously do some cycling as well.

A point of interest in the run game this year will be the Seabrough twins, particularly Cedd, who played a fair amount last year. Cedd Seabrough is more of a true tight end than someone like a Trent Pennix. A good blocking tight end is so essential to a good ground game, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Seabrough play that true tight end role, just as he did in 2022, while a guy like Pennix moves around the formation more. It won't show up in the stats, but Cedd could be a breakout candidate with a solid offseason of development.

There weren't a whole lot of bright spots offensively last year for the Pack, and the ground game was certainly not close to being one. With a new OC and a new offensive line coach, things are going to look different. How different and how much better that makes it, we'll have to wait and see.