Ryan Tice/The Wolfpacker
For head coach Dave Doeren, his first season, which was the fall of 2013, does not necessarily seem like yesterday. He equated the campaign during which his squad labored through a 3-9 year and a winless ACC slate to feeling closer like dog years ago.
“That was 28 years ago in dog years,” Doeren joked.
The summer and fall of 2013 was also when Doeren laid the foundation of his first full recruiting class which is now the core of a group of redshirt juniors and true seniors who are set to lay the foundation for what Doeren and the Pack hope can be a breakthrough season for the program.
Fifteen of NC State’s listed 16 returning starters on offense and defense are members of that 2014 class, and for everything that Doeren has been through going into his fifth season as NC State’s head coach, the maturation of that class is a reminder for why he loves coaching college football.
“Those players came to NC State cause they saw opportunities,” Doeren said. “That’s what they saw. They saw a chance to come in and play early. We told them they would have to come in and earn playing time, but the lines were short, and they were. We had some good players on the team but we didn’t have any depth. We had an opportunity to get a lot of depth and have a bunch of young kids compete and play, and that’s what they did.
“Now four years later, they are bigger, stronger, faster, more mature and they’re battle tested. It’s fun to go through that journey with these guys. That’s why I coach.”
It also goes without saying that in four years, those former freshmen are also better.
“At 22, [defensive end] Bradley Chubb is a lot tougher dude than he was at 18, and now I have a lot of guys that I can say that,” Doeren said. “That’s nice to have.”
Experience has become the buzzword when the gurus break down NC State’s roster. The same analysts also point to the close finishes that went against NCSU last year, mainly a 24-17 loss at national champion Clemson and a 24-20 home loss to Orange Bowl victor Florida State.
Against the Tigers, NCSU missed a relatively short 33-yard field goal as time expired that allowed overtime to happen. Versus the Noles, a dropped interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter set up FSU’s game-winning touchdown pass one play later.
“It shows we can compete with anyone, but at the same time it shows that we’ve got steps we’ve got to take to close those games out, and it really emphasizes the importance of one play,” Doeren said.
Yet the close losses and other setbacks nearly derailed NC State’s season. The Pack needed to win at archrival North Carolina, 28-21, in the final game of the regular season just to achieve bowl eligibility. It capped the year by knocking off Vanderbilt in decisive fashion, 41-17, in the Camping World Independence Bowl.
Through it all, the class of 2014 and the ones that followed formed a bond and cohesiveness that should help when NC State laces it up for its first practice on July 29.
“The obstacles and adversity that we faced and how we came out of them made our family better,” Doeren noted. “It did, not that I’d ever want to go through it again, but I’m glad we did now because it made us better.”
Chubb can testify to that. A reporter asked him during the breakout session of ACC Kickoff in Charlotte if he was in a fight, which teammate would he want beside him. His answer: “All 153 of them.”
The reporter noted that senior H-back Jaylen Samuels had the same answer.
The question though is NC State better enough to the point where it can win games against the top-heavy Atlantic Division in the ACC which features two of the past four national title winners in Clemson and FSU and also has the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in Louisville junior quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Doeren noted that competing against the best schools in the division is always going to be a challenge considering their substantially larger budgets in football, built-in recruiting advantages and more expansive support staffs.
“Do we have a good team with great experience on it? Yeah, we do,” Doeren said. “So we’ll see where it goes on Saturday. I’m not going to sit here and predict because we were close in two games what it means this year cause we got to do it all over again.”
What Doeren is more confident about is that his team going into year five, led by a group of leaders that the coach labeled “outstanding”, has taken onto the identity of “hard, tough, together” that Doeren preaches.
“I said this when I got here and everyone probably forgot about it: I want to be the team that no one wants to play and everyone wants to be,” he said. “I don’t know how you become that other by being somebody that when you play us, win or lose, we want you to feel us on Sunday and feel us on Monday.”
“Are we there yet? No, but do we love where we’re going? Yes. The guys love that. That’s something that they embrace now. I’m having to back them off in practice as oppose to inspire them.”
That level of character building is partly stemmed from recruiting. Doeren said that a question asked to every perspective prospect is: Do you love football and why? If the answer does not include words like contact and competition, a red flag is raised.
Recruiting has also changed in other ways. Four years ago, Doeren preached about the opportunities. Now he can brag about the development.
“If you’re getting recruited by me now to play D-line, you’re going to walk in a room and look at four seniors that played as true freshmen that are now first, second round, third round grade guys,” Doeren noted. “See those four dudes? That’s what you are going to look like. I can prove to you that I am going to make you one of the best defensive linemen in football.”
Doeren knows that the preseason expectations are higher this season than ever in his tenure thus far at NC State because of that defensive line and other players on the field. But he views pressure differently than most.
“I would love to have a great year,” Doeren said. “That’s not how I look at my job. The pressure I have on myself is cause I am a competitive person, cause I want my children to stay in Raleigh as long as they want to stay in Raleigh. Because I want my players that I recruited to be coached by the coaches that recruited them.
“That’s what my pressure is.”
It may also be hard to breakthrough in what has recently become the loaded Atlantic. As one reporter noted, NC State could be better and it may not show up in the record.
“They got to play us, too,” Doeren replied.
Based on how the players have taken to their coach’s personality, odds are the veteran-laced squad would have the same answer.
• Talk about it inside The Wolves' Den
• Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, The Wolfpacker
• Follow us on Twitter: @TheWolfpacker
• Like us on Facebook