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NC State needs run game to emerge

NC State's Nyheim Hines (7) should see more time carrying the ball after working primarily as a receiver the last two years. Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports

There’s plenty to like about NC State's 2017 roster, but while the D-line and dynamic playmakers on offense are generating some buzz, the bread and butter of the Wolfpack’s offense seems like a real question mark at this stage of the offseason.

To be sure, the running game is critical to NC State’s success. Over the past three seasons, Matt Dayes was the backbone of the offense. For example: Since 2014, NC State is an impressive 16-2 in games when Dayes averaged five yards per carry. When he averaged less -- or missed the game entirely -- the Wolfpack were a dismal 6-15.

So what happens to NC State’s offense now that the centerpiece is gone?

It's a good question, but don’t expect head coach Dave Doeren to lose much sleep trying to find an answer.

“Matt Dayes was a tremendous player, but we feel like we have some guys who can touch the ball in different ways on our roster,” Doeren said.

Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines (46 combined rushes last season) will get more touches out of the backfield, Doeren said. Hines, in particular, might be an intriguing option to replace some of Dayes’ skill set. The junior worked primarily as a receiver his first two years, but he’s shifty and quick, and, as Doeren said, is a much better weapon with the ball in his hands. Moreover, as good a runner as Dayes was, he also had 98 receptions in his career, and Hines should be an asset as a receiver out of the backfield, too.

“This gets the ball to him quicker and guarantees touches,” Doeren said. “At receiver, you’re not always going to get the ball. It allows us to feed him the ball differently, and we can get him in and out of the backfield and match up against some linebackers that don’t cover well in space.”

But perhaps the more intriguing issue is that of the power back. It’s not a role ideally suited for Samuels, who is more of an H-back type and has thrived as a receiver ahead of being a runner.

“We have two guys who have worked really hard in our program that now have an opportunity,” Doeren said.

That would be Reggie Gallaspy and Dakwa Nichols, who combined for 84 carries and 379 yards last year. But they averaged less than four yards per rush in games against Power 5 foes. Is that a measure of talent or simply a small sample size?

“That’s what you develop players for, and Reggie’s going into Year 3 and Dakwa into Year 4,” Deoren said. “Jaylen is one of the better players in our conference with the ball. Those guys all have opportunities.”

But perhaps the issue isn’t so much the ability of Gallaspy and Nichols, but more the work of the offensive line.

Among Power 5 runners with at least 30 carries last year, Gallaspy was actually one of the top physical backs in the league, trailing only Georgia Tech’s Clinton Lynch in yards after contact, at 2.78 per rush. But before contact? That’s another story. Gallaspy ranked 36th in the ACC, and NC State overall was downright bad at opening up holes for its runners.

In 2015, the Wolfpack’s O-line was terrific, with its backs averaging 4.1 yards per carry before first contact -- and that was with Dayes missing a big chunk of the season with an injury. Last year, however, that number plummeted by 31 percent, the third largest drop in the Power 5 (behind UCLA and Texas Tech, two of the most inept rushing teams in the country in 2016).

That seems an unlikely recipe for success in 2017, given the strength of the defensive lines in the ACC Atlantic. And while the Wolfpack proved to be a more two-dimensional offense last year, the passing game shouldn’t have to carry the load so often.

That leaves one big looming question for Doeren and his offense, and it’s one we likely won’t have a surefire answer to until the season kicks off. The upside for Hines and Samuels and Nichols and Gallaspy is solid, but Dayes was a unique talent, and the backs and line will need to take a big step forward to make up for his departure.