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Supermassive NC State Football Preview: Running Game

For a number of years now, NC State's run game has been this fantastical element of the team, always offering the illusion of effectiveness while rarely actually producing it. Reggie Gallaspy ran for 1000 yards in 2018, but State was somehow still garbage at running the ball for about three quarters of that season. In 2021, State touted an NFL back, two draft picks on the left side of the line, and an all-league center. It was at best inconsistent. In a very NC State twist, it wasn't until the end of last year after two QB benchings and two running backs sitting down midseason that NC State started to find some consistent success in the run game.

It's hard not to credit Garrett Tujague here after some substantial in-season improvement from the offensive line, and with four starters back, a center transfer with 31 career starts, and an influx of talent at the running back position, we might finally see a strong run game be the identity of this team again. As a huge nerd who can't sleep, I have decided to write over 3000 words on this subject. Hopefully you find this dissertation useful.

The guys who run

A lot stood out from State’s revamped offense during the spring game, but the backfield was at the very top of the list. This group is deep, it’s diverse, and it’s skilled with Jordan Waters leading the charge. State added a lot of exciting pieces in the offseason, and Waters is probably right behind Grayson McCall as the most important. He’s the last puzzle piece for a diverse run game with a rapidly improving offensive line.

Waters brings a lot of experience, all of which shows up on tape. He is a polished back who has great patience and reliably makes correct reads. State badly needed to get old at with running back, and it found a seasoned guy here. The game is slow for Waters. His ability to read and react is better than anything else State has in the backfield and it isn't really close. The Duke transfer is not the most explosive running back you’ll ever see, he’s more power oriented, but he’ll routinely get you no less than what is blocked and has the ability to run through tackles at the second level. 

State is going to involve Waters a lot this year. He’ll lead the team in carries and he’ll be comfortable in the versatile run scheme that State operates. State ran a lot of counter and a lot of zone last year. Interestingly, it ran a lot more power during the spring game, and although the reads on power are the same as counter, it does illustrate how dynamic Anae is willing to be.  Waters’ advanced skillset fits right into a diverse scheme like this. 

I really like this guy's patience and vision. This is the first play of the spring, which is inside zone with a bubble RPO tag.

Waters' aiming point on inside zone is the left hip of the center. The center/nose tackle battle is really the key read here. The center mostly wins and secures the backside shoulder of the nose tackle, while the right guard stalemates at first with the linebacker. Waters reads the inside leverage of the center and tries to bend his track to the back side B gap, but the linebacker is able to win against the right guard and the picture starts to deteriorate on the play side. Waters cuts back to the play side where he catches the nose tackle swimming out of his gap and the linebacker starting to scrape toward the ball. He plants his foot and bounces to the play side A gap and then the B gap when he sees the nose tackle working his way out of position. It's great patience and a nice job of not over or underreacting to things. Waters is able to punish the defense for giving up gap integrity too early because he sees the play develop so well and he's patient. This is what he does so well.

Here's one more, just because I love Jordan Waters.

This is outside zone. Waters' aiming point is the outside hip of the left tackle, and he's supposed to read down the line looking for outside leverage. This play has really good gap integrity from the defense. There are no successful reach blocks on the front side of the play and Waters reads all the way down to the back side B gap, which is fitted well by the mike linebacker. As Waters prepares to get a yard or so, he catches the nose tackle spinning back into the B gap and cuts into the vacated A gap. Instead of a yard, he gets to the second level of the defense and picks up six. There is a point that comes as a defense where you're supposed to abandon your gap and rally to the ball. This nose tackle was probably pretty surprised to discover that giving up gap integrity as late as he did still managed to burn him. Waters is great at reading and reacting, and as a result, he will very seldom get you less than what you've blocked.

While State has a lot of depth in the backfield, I think there is a high ceiling/low floor situation for most of the backs other than Waters. Waters gives you a very high floor in the backfield. He's not going to do dumb stuff. He's simply been around too long and played too much football. I really expect him to shoulder a ton of the load this year because he's so put together as a back. There is a lot of talent in this room, but only 78 career carries behind the Fairmont, NC product.

State also returns Kendrick Raphael, who started to break out after he superseded Michael Allen in the latter half of the year. Even as just a freshman, the Florida native was a nice boon for the run game after Jordan Houston opted to transfer and Allen proved simply insufficient. He brings some pop and shiftiness that State really needed last year. Raphael took over because he was a much better cutter than Allen, who really struggled to make reads and get vertical quickly, and harder to tackle than Jordan Houston, who generally executed things well but struggled to run through arm tackles.

The one criticism I have with Raphael is he can overcut at times. He is very decisive, sometimes too decisive. That's better than being indecisive, but with outside zone concepts, he would sometimes read them too quickly. His eyes would sometimes come down the line too fast without giving the play a great chance to develop. Inside zone was more his play because of the run's propensity to bend back and hit faster, and his game-sealing touchdown against Miami of course came on inside zone. Don't get me wrong, I'm bullish and he had a nice freshman highlight tape, but also left some yards on the field. I'd like to see him be a little more patient. He almost always ended up on the backside of run plays, for better or worse.

This is just a freshman thing I think. Demie Sumo-Karngbaye did this a little also back in 2022. It's just the perils of needing your freshman, and it says a lot that Raphael was already the best running back on the team last year. His prospects are definitely good as a guy who brings a little more explosion than Waters does. I expect Raphael to be the number two back, and he could be really good if/when the game slows down for him.

The same can be said for Daylan Smothers, who is an absolute missile. State has not had a back with this kind of straight-line explosiveness in a minute. He has an extremely high ceiling, which is why State wanted so badly to get him out of high school and run him through their renowned S&C program. This guy has a high gear at the second level, but he absolutely needs to add weight, which he will, and his read work probably needs to see the game slow down also just based on what we saw in the spring game.

This is what I mean, which coincidentally is the kind of stuff State is trying to get rid of from last year's run game effort.

This is power, which is a guard-lead play, and Smothers may actually score here if he follows the pulling guard and the play hits where it's supposed to. This is a fantastic down block from Dante Daniels (87), and the play develops pretty well frontside. Cutting this back is no bueno and it'll get you benched most of the time. That's what happened here and Smothers was visibly frustrated after this play because he knew he got ahead of himself. Gap scheme plays are not designed to be cut back. You saw some of this with Raphael too, and it's ultimately just youth on display. Patience is one of the hardest things to develop as a back, which is why it's uncommon in young players. That's also why Jordan Waters is so important and this is what I mean by him being a high floor player. Jordan Waters and his years of experience will not produce this mistake, and his presence gives the young backfield opportunities to develop without being depended on.

Perhaps ironically, true freshman Duke Scott looks more game ready than Smothers. This is a freshman back who looks like he’s already been in a college S&C program for some time. He is stocky as could be, kind of a classic running back body at 5’10 212. The only film on Scott is the spring game, so obviously most of anything that happened there comes with a grain of salt, but he looked pretty advanced in that practice. He was patient and looked very comfortable reading blocks and letting the play develop. It’s not uncommon for freshman to get sped up early on, especially when every back was the best athlete on their high school team and could beat anyone to any spot at any time. Scott looked really put together. Granted, this is like three plays we’re talking about here, but it’s what we’ve got, so it’s what we’ll use for discussion’s sake. 

Smothers and Scott are both really exciting players, and the fact that they may not touch the ball a ton says a lot about how much juice Jordan Waters brings to this ground game. Waters is going to be the guy, but State is deep and it’s diverse in the backfield, so it should be able to stay fresh and throw different kinds of punches along the way. That said, don't be surprised to see Duke Scott put some pressure on the guys ahead of him for some second option reps. I think this guy could be hard to keep off the field.

The Pack has had some strong backfields recently. The combo of Knight and Person was strong. Nyheim Hines just by himself was a game breaker. This running back room should be up there. There probably isn’t a superstar like Hines in the group, but Jordan Waters is just a very solid running back, and there are a lot of positive elements to the guys behind him. 

The other element is the guys that will carry the ball that aren't actually running backs, also known as Kevin Concepcion. With a deeper and much improved backfield, State doesn't necessarily need to use KC in the run game as much, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't. He is pretty good after all. How his role evolves this year will be one of the more compelling parts of the revamped offense. The sweeps that he would run became not just an effective play, but also a useful misdirection item for Anae. State ran a lot of boots to shallow flood concepts off play action jet motion with KC. I kind of expect him to get his share of traditional backfield carries again in addition to his other touches. It pays to make defenses keep track of him in so many different spots where he can beat you in so many different ways.

The final piece here is the QB run game. State depended a lot on the QB run game down the stretch last season. It will not do so this year. It just doesn't need to. McCall is a capable runner, although certainly a different kind of runner than Brennan Armstrong, but I Imagine most of his carries will come on the back of read options. State will gladly use his legs to control the edge and burn you if you don't stay home, but the designed stuff is probably few and far between with all the questions about depth at quarterback and a bell cow back in Jordan Waters at your disposal.

The guys who block

The area where State saw the most improvement over the course of last season was on the offensive line. There were many storylines to the Pack’s offensive rally following the conclusion of the MJ Morris arc. Brennan Armstrong got the most publicity, and that’s fine. He deserved it. But’s Tujague’s development of his unit and Anae’s development of a more diverse QB-focused run scheme was the primary catalyst. The Pack now returns four starters from that offensive line and may possibly have upgraded at center. 

Running backs are fun to talk about, but the line is what makes this thing go. You have to have an extremely special back to have a strong run game behind bad blocking. State has a great room, but that player isn’t in this room. Fortunately, you shouldn’t need him. This unit should be strong. 

This is what State looked like running outside zone at the end of last year. Peak throwing edge-setters outside, McMahon reaching his man and releasing up the field, Raphael reading it correctly, it was a very different unit than it was at the beginning of the year.

The strength is going to be at tackle, where Jacarrius Peak and Anthony Belton are both back. Belton had a pretty good year last year. He is particularly good on the edge in outside zone. It's not super often that a tackle successfully reach blocks his man in outside zone. Just as a function of the play, more often the tackle is working his man outside, and Belton is very good at throwing the edge outside and creating wide cutback lanes. He's kind of a mauler, and he'll usually win if he can get position on a defender.

Jacarrius Peak was one of the bigger storylines of the season. He really came on strong once he took over at right tackle. Immediately, he was one of the best run blockers on the team. This kid has some serious juice, and he is just getting started. It wouldn't be surprising at all if Peak is State's best lineman this year. Incoming Peak highlights.

Peak doesn't have the size of Belton but he moves a little better and his just all-around execution on these outside zone plays was so good at the end of the year. He's at right tackle here, and watch him gain the outside shoulder and seal the edge. This is a great reach block. When outside zone starts hitting in the C gap, you're doing something right.

Here's another outside zone play from the same game.

Peak is unable to reach block the end here, which is pretty normal, so he needs to throw him outside and create a cutback lane for Concepcion. Watch him turn the end and drive him toward the sideline. He absolutely destroys this dude, and look at the size of the hole it helps create. UNC kinda sucks, so the highlights are definitely highlights as opposed to games like Kansas State where things got a little more difficult physically and schematically, but Peak dominated UNC.

I love Jacarrius Peak so much I made a video about him.

Moi moi

His insertion into the starting lineup helped State a lot by allowing Tim McKay to move to guard. He was the best guard on the roster last year while playing tackle. The interior had some early struggles that really hampered the run game, particularly when McMahon was out. I thought that Anthony Carter really started to figure things out around the Marshall game, and that plus McKay’s reassignment settled things down a little. State gets both back. State's guards aren't as good as its tackles, but they definitely improved over the course of the year and especially after the lineup shuffling. Carter's spot is the only one that may be truly up for grabs in fall camp. I do think he has the inside track, but the Pack is bullish on some young talent and also gets Dawson Jaramillo back, who probably would have played in 2023 if not for an injury. Kamen Smith is a guy to watch here. He's impressive. No matter how it shakes out though, State will boast some depth, and offensive line depth is huge. You saw the effects of a lack of it with Dylan McMahon's injury.

State also inserts Notre Dame transfer Zeke Correll right into the starting center role. The center is responsible for managing protections, assignments, and generally being the quarterback of the offensive line. It’s not a spot you want to have a dearth of experience at, and State saw the effects of that when it had to plug Lyndon Cooper in mid-season last year. Getting a guy with 31 starts who comes from the offensive line factory in South Bend is a huge W. This guy centered one of the best run blocking units in America last year.

This could be the best run blocking offensive line State has had in some time. The Pack really should have been better at this during the Tim Beck years, but truthfully it was somewhere between just okay and bad way too much of the time. State really dominated the point of attack at the end of the regular season last year, and the hope is they just pick up where they left off. 

The question mark here is how State divides up the H spot. Trent Pennix made sense because he was a manageable enough run blocker who was ostensibly dangerous enough in space to make the slide route work. State doesn’t really have a guy who is both of those things this year. Justin Joly will definitely line up here some, but he's not going to be doing things like lead blocking on a counter play. Doeren tinkered with Reid Mitchell here last year. Jordan Poole could be a really strong candidate. Dante Daniels played here some in the spring game. There are certainly options. 

Mitchell was a walk-on who ended up playing in every game last year. He should see time again this year, Poole moved to an H-type role later in the year, and he's an intriguing breakout candidate as a guy who could run block and be activated in the slide RPO game. Dante Daniels is massive and a decent athlete, and there were some pretty good reps from him in the spring game, albeit against State's 2s.

The scheme

One of the things I've loved about Robert Anae's offense is the diversity of the run scheme. State doesn't really have a type when it comes to running the football. It's pretty open minded. The Pack deploys a lot of different run plays from a lot of different formations, which isn't necessarily abnormal, but I think it's important for programs like ours that don't vacuum up elite high school talent every year.

Some teams have a definite preference. The most relevant example of this was the Eli Drinkwitz/Dwayne Ledford teams that were extremely high-volume outside zone teams. It was nearly the only thing they ran. Zone is a great play, which is why everyone runs it, but variety makes you harder to defend. Anae is dynamic as a coordinator, and it matters. State ran plenty of inside, outside, and split zone last year, but it also administered heavy doses of many variations of counter in addition to some other more situational stuff. Armstrong in particular was pretty good at running the gap scheme sets. While the backs at times definitely struggled with reads in zone, that seems unlikely to persist with Waters on the team, thus State can be real dangerous with a variety of stuff.

The running game is kind of a microcosm of how this whole team sets up. There is just so many ways it could theoretically beat you. I think with KC back, Noah Rogers finally getting home, and McCall's arrival, there may be an expectation for this team to toss the ball around a lot, and it probably will at times, but while some of this will be dictated by post-snap reads, I definitely think this team will be run first. The pieces are here. This really could be the best ground game that State has had in many many years.

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