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NC State’s Ewing Theory Defense

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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It’s not a surprise that NC State is 4-0. What is surprising is why NC State is 4-0.

It’s not a surprise that NC State is 4-0. What is surprising is why NC State is 4-0.

Ahead of the season, it seemed that if the Wolfpack were going to be successful in 2018, especially early on, the lionshare of the burden would fall on the shoulders of an offense that returned 70% if its production from 2017. The justifiable assumption was that this group would need to carry a defense that brought back the second least production in the country, at least through the first portion of the year until the defense could start to jell.

That has not been the case. Now, it’s not as if it has been the total opposite -- offensively, NC State has been well above the mean. The passing game, as anticipated, is among the game’s most efficient units. Led by Ryan Finley, alongside continued excellence from Kelvin Harmon and the best receiving corps in the ACC, including a potential breakout star in freshman Thayer Thomas, behind the fourth ranked pass blocking offensive line in the nation, by allowed sack rate, they rank 6th in the FBS in marginal success rate.

The rushing attack is another story. Arguably one of the worst in college football through four games, the impact of losing Nyheim Hines and Jaylen Samuels can not be overstated. Ricky Person Jr. has shown flashes in the open field, but nobody, Person included, has established any modicum of consistency on the ground, outside of the Virginia game.

Granted, the offense sort of bailed the defense out against UVA, in what was a very average, albeit serviceable performance by the latter. However, NC State would not have even been sitting at 3-0 going into that contest of not for the defensive performance in week one, against James Madison, in a game that was far closer than indicated by the final score.

And, albeit against Georgia State and Marshall, it is that side of the ball that has been the most pleasant surprise for Dave Doeren’s squad so far.

This season has a little bit of a Ewing Theory vibe to it. Gone from the widely heralded defensive line are four NFL Draft picks -- Bradley Chubb, the 5th overall selection, a pair of third rounders in B.J. Hill and Justin Jones, plus Kentavius Street, who went in the fourth round.

Yet, despite lacking any one singular talent of Chubb’s caliber, the front four currently ranks 7th in defensive line havoc rate, down just one spot from 2017, 8th in standard down line yards per carry, up 41 spots, and rank higher in both standard and passing down sack rate.

Larrell Murchison leads the team with 5.5 run stuffs and three sacks, followed closely by James Smith-Williams’ five and two sacks, who also happens to have a team best 0 yards per play allowed on his tackles. Meanwhile, senior Darian Roseboro has allowed the lowest marginal explosiveness of any NC State defender, while Eurndraus Bryant has the lowest allowed marginal efficiency of any with at least five tackles.

Is this defensive line more talented? Almost certainly not. That said, for whatever reason, it has, thus far, been a more effective, cohesive unit than in 2017. The linebacking corps has not gotten better after losing Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore, but it hasn’t gotten worse, either. That’s encouraging given that the former was the team leader in tackles, while the latter had been one of the league’s most productive linebackers in coverage. Germaine Pratt has maintained his steady performance, and Isaiah Moore has been nearly as impressive as a freshman as the senior has been.

Altogether, NC State’s run defense ranks in the top 15 in marginal efficiency and the top 40 in marginal explosiveness. It may not make as many big plays or tackles for loss, the things that catch people's eyes, but it’s keeping opponents off schedule without sacrificing too many big plays, both to a greater extent than the previous iteration did. At a certain point, that’s far more important than draft rankings or highlight reels.

Improvement in the secondary is less surprising than that in the front seven. Even so, it was not a guarantee after losing half of the top six tacklers from last season’s defensive backfield. Freshman Tanner Ingle has been a revelation while safety Jarius Morehead continues to prove himself as one of the better, more underrated safeties in the conference. Both Dexter Wright and, more so, Tim Kidd-Glass have been relatively impactful as well, but arguably the biggest reason for this group’s early success has been the emergence of sophomore cornerback Chris Ingram, who is allowing the fewest yards per play of any DB on the team.

As compared to the more balanced pass defense from a year ago, this group seems to be more bend-don’t-break, ranking 64th in marginal efficiency, but in the top 15 in marginal explosiveness.

Whether by design, or simply personnel, it is working.

It doesn’t feel like it should be the case, and it may not hold as the group dives further into conference play, but, through four games, the 2018 NC State defense has just been flat out better than the 2017 unit.

It’s doing a better job of diminishing offensive efficiency, limiting big plays, and of holding opposing teams to fewer points per scoring opportunity. In fact, they’re giving up over a full point less per trip inside their own 40-yard line.

A big reason for their output has been the ability to force their foes into uncomfortable third downs, and then more importantly prevent conversions. So far, they’ve allowed the chains it move on first or second down about 62% of the time, good for the 29th best rate in the FBS. 58.9% of those third downs are classified as third and long, which ranks 20th. And, even when teams do get into more manageable conversion opportunities, only 50% of those third and short’s are getting to the sticks -- the 5th lowest rate in the game.

Continued success in that respect will be vitally important against a Boston College offense that has struggles mightily, ranking 106th in third and long success rate, and even with A.J. Dillon and that offensive line, just 69th in third and short. Beyond that, these Eagles have been quite good on that side of the ball, save one trip to Purdue, so it will be imperative to keep them off schedule, take the ball out of Dillon’s hands, and then, obviously, get them off the field at every opportunity.

Fortunately for NC State, until proven otherwise, there’s no reason to doubt that they can do just that.

The names aren’t as sexy to NFL Draft analysts, at least not yet; the style not as flashy. On paper, there’s no good reason for NC State’s current defense to be better than it was.

The fact is, though, it has been.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP