NC State and 'best quarterback in the country' look for College Football Playoff run

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

LAS VEGAS -- The last time North Carolina State won the ACC championship in football was 1979, long enough ago that Monte Kiffin became the Wolfpack's head coach the next year. In more than four decades since, the school has long been regarded as one of the sport's most vexing mysteries, an unpolished gem that few could figure out how to shine.

Heading into the 2022 season with 17 returning starters from a 9-3 team and a quarterback who coach Dave Doeren calls the best in the country, there's an optimism permeating through the program that it can end the 42-season ACC-title drought.

"I think last year, we were a play away from being in the championship game for our conference," Doeren told ESPN at the NFL draft this week. "We lost by one point to Miami and three points to Wake and had a chance to win both games. So it's win the ACC and see if that puts us in the [College Football] Playoff, that's what next."

Amid the 9-3 record last season, NC State delivered a double-overtime upset of Clemson that ended an eight-game losing streak to the Tigers. It also announced the Wolfpack as an ACC threat and helped establish them as a trendy preseason top 10 pick in 2022.

When Kiffin took over in 1980, that began a run of six consecutive NC State coaches who couldn't figure out a way to win the league at NC State. Doeren is the seventh, and he can relate with the fan base's craving for a league title.

"They're hungry for it, man," he said. "And so am I. We've been knocking on the door. It'll be great to get through. You kind of feel like every time you do something that hasn't been done, it gets a little easier."

Doeren spent part of the weekend in Las Vegas for the draft celebration around former Wolfpack offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu's selection by the Carolina Panthers as the No. 6 pick. Part of Doeren's optimism for 2022 is derived from the return of NC State quarterback Devin Leary, who threw for 35 touchdowns and five interceptions last season and could well be a top NFL draft prospect next season.

Doeren projects a potential return trip to the 2023 draft to celebrate Leary. He doesn't agree with the conventional thinking that Alabama's Bryce Young and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud are the obvious favorites to be the sport's top quarterback in 2022.

"In my opinion, we have the best quarterback in the country coming back to play for us," Doeren said. "Devin Leary is a winner, he's clutch.

"From an arm strength standpoint, it's unbelievable what that guy can do throwing the football. He's not a dual-threat quarterback. But you talk about a guy who can truly throw the ball and is clutch and can sit in the pocket, move around and do all the progression things he'd be doing at the next level."

The frustration about the cancelation of NC State's bowl game with UCLA was still palpable in Doeren's voice. The Wolfpack was scheduled to play in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, which would have given State a chance to secure the program's 10th win against a strong opponent. The late cancellation of the game also stunted some of the momentum NC State gained after a miraculous comeback win over North Carolina to close the season, as Leary threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final 63 seconds to overcome a nine-point deficit and pull off one of the season's most miraculous wins.

"I think we finished with maybe one of the best wins in the country, the way we came back and won," he said. "We had all that momentum going with nine wins to a marquee bowl game. Unfortunately, what happened, happened."

The case for optimism at State transcends the return of Leary. The other four offensive line starters return, as do 10 of the 11 starters on defense. That includes two elite linebackers who battled injuries last year -- Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore.

Wilson led the ACC in tackles in 2020. Moore was leading State in tackles before suffering a season-ending knee injury in late October. Both may not have returned if not for the injuries, giving State a marauding crew with Drake Thomas, who won All-ACC in 2021.

"I feel like our linebacker corps is as good as anyone's," Doeren said. "If not better. It's awesome to have that kind of experience back."

Doeren stressed the importance of continuity for the Wolfpack in 2022, as Leary is in his third season under coordinator Tim Beck. He added that NC State is the only ACC staff to return all 10 on-field coaches.

With the buzz from Ekwonu's selection and an offseason of welcomed expectations, NC State is positioned and ready to take another step toward a league title.

NC State finished last season in the top 30 in both scoring defense (No. 14) and scoring offense (No. 28), and it's reasonable to think with the talent returning that both of those units are poised to improve. State returns 62.7% of the scoring and 83.4% of the tackles, promising building blocks for a step that hasn't been taken since 1979.

"We couldn't beat anyone when we first got here," Doeren said. "Then we knock[ed] off Louisville, then Florida State and now Clemson. The kids have great confidence. It's about executing now."