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NC State could be sleeping giant in ACC Atlantic

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Will Muschamp was at Quail Hollow Country Club on Monday to promote South Carolina's opener in the Belk Kickoff, so if he dealt a bit in hyperbole, that was to be expected. Still, his compliments of NC State's defensive front provided one of those needle-scratching-the-record moments.

"They have four defensive linemen that will all get their name called in the NFL draft," Muschamp said. "It’s as good a front four as we'll face this year."

Sure, NC State's line looks good, but the best South Carolina would play? The Gamecocks' schedule includes Florida and Georgia and Tennessee and, oh yeah, the defending champs at Clemson.

Again, this was offseason hype, and certainly the games will determine perception long term. But that hype for NC State, as crazy as it might sound at first, might also be completely appropriate.

Before Muschamp took to the dais, Dave Doeren offered his own thoughts on the Wolfpack's development, and though it was a more muted and general endorsement, it proved a strong reminder that this could be a really good team.

"Last spring was a lot different," Doeren said. "We didn’t have Ryan Finely, Steph Louis was coming off an injury, Kelvin Harmon wasn't on our campus yet. This spring, it’s the opposite."

There are 21 seniors on this roster, Doeren said. Eleven are returning starters, a school record. The biggest question remains at kicker, but according to Doeren, he doesn’t have many other "what-ifs" lingering throughout the offseason. Even in a division with Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, that’s a massive advantage for NC State.

That defensive line that caught Muschamp's eye adds another advantage, and though the offseason hype machine has been revving up for Bradley Chubb and Co., Doeren said it's a group that is working for more.

"They know they have a bull's-eye on their chest because of the notoriety they've earned," Doeren said.

The schedule, which is admittedly daunting, offers some excitement for NC State, too. A year ago, the Wolfpack were a kick away from knocking off both Clemson and Florida State.

"We were knocking on the door last year," Doeren said. "Those losses stick with you, and that’s been good fuel for our guys to know how close they are."

Even the handful of question marks on NC State’s roster appear to have potentially solid answers. Doeren is still looking for his kicker, but grad transfer Carson Wise could be an answer. In the secondary, where the Wolfpack have to replace Dravious Wright, Josh Jones and Jack Tocho, among others, a host of experienced fourth- and fifth-year players are ready to step in. And at tailback, the touches that went to Matt Dayes in years past might now belong to Nyheim Hines, one of the more intriguing talents in the ACC, who moves from receiver to the backfield.

"He’s most natural as a runner," Doeren said. "A lot of his big plays for us come once he has the ball in his hands, and this guarantees touches. We can feed him the football differently and still get him in and out of the backfield."

To be sure, Doeren isn’t trying to ratchet up the hype surrounding NC State. Indeed, before the final two games of the season in 2016, it appeared Doeren might not even return for a fifth season on the sidelines and the Wolfpack might miss a bowl. No one is taking success for granted.

But Doeren is back. So, too, are Finley and Hines and Jaylen Samuels. So, too, are Chubb and the rest of that terrific defensive front. And so Muschamp's praise isn’t necessarily hyperbole. NC State has the pieces, and four months out from the opener in Charlotte, that's enough to worry South Carolina's coach.

It’s enough, too, to have NC State convinced this season can be the time those pieces all fit together.

"When you have that many people come back, you have a guy like Bradley Chubb that could’ve been drafted say he’s coming back to finish something," Doeren said, "that speaks highly to what the guys think can happen."