CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Gone from North Carolina State’s 2015 non-conference schedule are two cupcake opponents the Wolfpack swept as part of a misleading 4-0 non-conference start to a season that finished 7-6.
This year, Notre Dame tops the non-conference schedule along with a trip to pesky East Carolina. The Irish are among six Top 25 opponents on the Wolfpack’s tough schedule along with conference rivals Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, North Carolina and Miami.
But NC State’s players aren’t shrinking from the challenge.
“You never get respect for beating teams you’re supposed to beat,” said senior cornerback Jack Tocho at last week’s ACC Kickoff media days. “We have teams on our schedule people doubt we can compete against, but it will be a true test of the progress we’ve made. We’re looking forward to it.”
Notice he referred to progress in the past tense.
Tocho, one of eight returning starters on defense along with six on offense, and his teammates are confident they’ve made more progress than head coach Dave Doeren’s 18-20 overall record his first three seasons suggests. The Wolfpack were 3-9 his first year and 8-5 his second before a last season’s loss to Mississippi State in the Belk Bowl forced the Wolfpack to finish just one game above .500.
One reason the Wolfpack didn’t break through last year was the team had only 10 seniors. N.C. State was the fifth youngest team in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
This year’s roster has 14 seniors, which isn’t a significant bump. But with only three fifth-year seniors, it’s nearly an all-Doeren recruited roster. Tocho, a fourth-year starter, says there is more leadership and team chemistry on the 2016 roster.
“A point of emphasis in the summer has been the team leading itself,” Tocho said. “We’ve been taking it out of the coaches’ hands and putting it upon the players to police each other and help each other be accountable.”
Running back Shad Thornton’s dismissal from the team last year contributed to NC State’s slide from a 4-0 start over Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama.
Thornton, the team’s leading rusher in 2014, was suspended for 2015’s first two games. Once he returned to play in wins over Old Dominion and South Alabama, he was dismissed for the season. He was involved in a moped accident and arrested for fleeing the scene. He also had been suspended in 2013.
Matt Dayes took over and was on track for a 1,000-yard season until he suffered a season-ending foot injury. He missed the final five games, which included wins over Boston College and Syracuse and losses to Florida State, North Carolina and the Belk Bowl loss to Mississippi State.
Dayes is back this year as a senior and the team’s leading rusher. He carried 134 times for 865 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Tocho, a 6-foot, 200-pounder from Charlotte Independence who graduated in three years last May, was in Charlotte for media days along with Dayes. Tocho said he has been a leader-by-example who has had to learn to speak up.
“I’m more vocal in the huddle and on the field, but I’ve always been a firm believer in non-verbal leading,” he said. “I have to do what I’m supposed to be doing as a player with a lot of playing time. People will look to me if they strive for the same thing. If they see I’m not skipping reps, they know they can’t cut things short.”
Doeren pointed out at media days that NC State is the only ACC school playing all five ACC preseason ranked teams along with Notre Dame. The Irish’s deal with the ACC requires the school to play five ACC opponents as non-conference games in exchange for ACC membership in other sports.
NC State is picked fourth in the ACC Atlantic behind, in order, Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. Defending ACC champion Clemson and Florida State are both widely considered top five teams; Louisville has top 20 rankings.
But Tocho says the Wolfpack are undaunted.
“I’m an optimistic person, so I always felt like there has been progress every season,” Tocho said. “We’ve made progress toward or goals. We want to compete for an ACC championship. We want to compete against the top tier teams in our conference and the top teams in the country.”
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