Jaylen Samuels looks back on the past season and is blunt in his assessment.
“It didn’t go how I expected,” he said in a recent phone interview.
When asked to elaborate, Samuels continued: “I could play better than what I was playing. My stats were pretty good, but they weren’t as good as I know I can be. That’s what I mean that it didn’t go as expected. I’m not saying I had a terrible season or anything. I’m just saying I know I can do better.”
Samuels, his coaches and his teammates are banking on it. With offensive leader Matt Dayes gone, the Wolfpack will turn to Samuels to be the playmaker they know he can be. Samuels understands the opportunity in front of him and is ready to be an every-down player wherever coaches line him up.
Tight end? Sure. H-back? Yup. Receiver? No problem. Fullback? Why not.
Samuels prides himself on his versatility and chameleon-like ability to shift into any position required. That’s why he has a hard time answering those who want to know what position he plays. “I just give them three different positions,” he said.
In high school, Samuels was used in a similar way. One of the big reasons he chose NC State was that he was promised more of the same. In his sophomore season, Samuels won All-ACC honors after a breakthrough performance.
But last season, new offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz took over for Matt Canada and started to use Samuels more as a receiver. Samuels saw his carries, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns dip in 2016, along with his overall numbers.
When Samuels says the season did not go how he expected, the stats bear that out, especially when you consider that he was coming off an All-ACC year. But the bowl game against Vanderbilt is the proof that Samuels can be a top-flight performer in 2017. He won game MVP honors after setting an Independence Bowl record with three touchdowns. He thought briefly about entering the NFL draft but decided that returning for his senior season would be more beneficial.
One of the big priorities this spring has been to work on his blocking, both as a receiver and out of the backfield, where he has had a difficult time against bigger linemen and linebackers. Samuels knows he has to do better at watching tape, something he admits is not a strong suit for him. Plus, he has to build up his endurance to prepare for a bigger role in the offense.
“I’m just going to go hard every day, just trying to stay in shape so I can be on the field every play and not come off for certain personnel,” Samuels said. “I’m trying to be one of the featured guys on offense, so I’ve got to do whatever it takes to stay in shape. Staying healthy is key. Just doing what I have to do, preparation-wise and everything.”
There is a reason Drinkwitz wants to use Samuels more -- and in as many ways possible.
“He’s got great vision as far as being able to accelerate through the holes. And he knows what speed he needs to be at to get to the hole. There’s really no other way to describe it, other than he knows when to push the gas or let off the brake a little bit,” Drinkwitz said. “He does a great job with spatial awareness. He’s got really natural hands. He can catch anything. With the ball in his hands, he’s as dynamic as it gets.”
Samuels says the first few weeks of practice this spring have been far better than those a year ago, when players were getting used to a new scheme. He sees more confidence, and that can only help a Wolfpack team that returns 16 starters.
“This year is a huge year for us. We could have had a huge year last year, but we’ve just got to bounce back this year and know we’ve got the pieces for an ACC championship,” Samuels said.