Marilyn Payne

Pack starts 2017 with different Day One

Posted July 29
Updated July 30

— NC State head coach Dave Doeren won't pass much judgment on how his team is doing after Day One of fall practice. It's tough to know much about guys running around in gym shorts and jerseys.

"You know, there're no pads on, so there's not a lot you can say about where we're at," he insists.

What is clear, though, is that everything that can be assessed at this point returns a grade that bodes pretty well for the 2017 season ... even though every single person who spoke to reporters after Saturday's first media availability repeated that outside expectations aren't a factor in the team's positivity.

"It's mental," Doeren said. "How much do they know? The fundamentals and the footwork, the communication. You can still see their effort and how they chase the football and how they go after things (without pads).

"It's a mental judgment on all of it."

NC State only one of Triangle schools to place players on All-ACC preseason football team

That mental judgment registers higher on basically all the players and coaches meters because of familiarity and confidence in Eli Drinkwitz's system alone.

Plus, the team is playing from ahead of schedule in the fact that it's in year two. Nyheim Hines explained that the offense worked above its base on the first day of practice, operating, learning and installing at the level it didn't hit till game week last fall.

"Even today for Day One install, we put in a lot of newer things," he said. "We went on to branch out of our DNA. This is the first year -- everybody in my class -- that we've had a returning offense. This year we can branch out and keep going."

It's the first season ever (yes, including high school) that Hines has lined up with the same quarterback for more than one season and he's surely excited about that, but quarterback Ryan Finley isn't the only returner helping the team move down field this year.

Redshirt junior Garrett Bradbury is working at center for the first time and the anomaly of the otherwise more-experienced offense. Entering his fifth season leading the Pack, Doeren describes his second-year QB and his comfort level as "totally different," this season.

"Most of that is because he's friends with a lot of guys on the team," Doeren said. "They know him, he understands the culture of the program, they understand his work ethic and how hard he works. Last year they were all trying to figure out what he's all about.

"That comfort of the other ten knowing him and what he brings the table has helped him a lot."

Hines and Jaylen Samuels' names are the first two out of Finley's mouth as he lists the proven offensive weapons returning to his team's roster. The quarterback adds that the offense is "four deep on the outside," as receivers balance the ground game's proven power.

"We've got so many weapons, so many guys that can change the game with one play," Finley said. "As a team, we're closer than we've ever been. We're all more relaxed, nobody's tense.

Experienced NC State confident for 2017

"We all know what each other can do. We're accountable for each other and at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what you call, it's about how you feel about the guy on the left or the right."

In addition to players' comfort level with the playbook, their teammates and generally higher confidence, more guys returning experience in more positions means that coaches are evaluating ways to use depth rather than hoping they merely have competent and confident players behind their starters.

"You're looking at your twos and threes (on the depth chart) differently than you were a year ago," Doeren said. "Last year we were trying to figure out our ones and twos. There were so many open positions, your eyes were different."

"There's still a lot of teaching, but it's not like when there was a new quarterback," running back Reggie Gallaspy said. "It's a lot of veterans. We're a lot ahead, the ones, twos and threes (on the depth chart), we've got a lot of this stuff down pat already."

It's not to say NC State is working less ambitiously, but the program feels more generally settled too, according to senior Jaylen Samuels, than it did last season.

"It was way different than coming out here last year, learning a new playbook on the first day," Samuels said. "It just comes to us -- our confidence is building each day. We put new stuff in each day, whatever the game plan is for the nest day, we go study it in the meetings and the next day, come out here and perform and then right after practice we watch it."

There are still positions in competition, but the combination of game-tried players and returning health has immense value on Day One -- 105 healthy players practiced Saturday as NC State started the 2017 season.

The facts look good: players are experienced in ACC play with many of the same teammates as they had last season, they're working under the same coaches as they were a year ago and playing in the same system.*

On top of that, there are intangibles to boot: one of the lessons learned in life that Doeren emphasizes to his players is "Do something with what happened to you," and he hopes his team continues the response to a tough early and mid-2016 season that his saw his program give at the end of last year.

"We'll see where it takes us," he said. "But I do like where they're at mentally right now."

Certainly, things feel different at the start of this season than they have in the past.

“This team, we know what we can do,” defensive lineman Bradley Chubb said. “We’re just al out here to prove what we can do to the world. In the past, I feel like there was some doubt. But now I feel like there’s no doubt.”

*And I didn't even REALLY get to the defensive line in this. Don't worry, they get their own story.

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