Dave Doeren's NC State program hallmarked by stability, but player, draft development shows upside
The NC State head coach has managed to build something sustainable at NC State, something not typically seen in Raleigh
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Dave Doeren has a big, expensive problem on his hands, one he's spent all offseason ignoring: the Bell Tower power bill. An iconic piece of architecture at the far end of NC State's Hillsborough Street campus, the Bell Tower lights up red after big Wolfpack victories and, now, whenever Doeren's coaching staff hauls in a recruit. This summer it would have been cheaper to just permanently change the color -- NC State landed an eye-popping 14 commits from June 1st through July 10th as the Wolfpack soared up the 247 Composite recruiting board into the top 20 overall for 2019.
Notable about the commitments for the 2019 class are two things. One, these guys are high-profile recruits with offers from other big-time schools. Two -- and perhaps more importantly for Doeren and his staff -- many of them are from the state of North Carolina. Doeren's one of many in-state coaches hired in recent years across North Carolina promising to "build a wall" around the state when he arrived.
He's the only one in recent memory to follow through. The conversation also now involves pointing to a group of seven players taken in the 2018 NFL Draft, tied for the second most with Ohio State and behind only Alabama, highlighted by No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb.
"When you talk about your vision for the program and you talk about your vision for success, but then you show [recruits], here's what it looks like. That's a different conversation. When I can give them Bradley Chubb's story, B.J. Hill's story, Justin Jones' story and I can show them before and after pictures of them in the [NC State] jersey, and we were a part of every step of that, it's real. And here's Nyheim [Hines], a guy who's from 30 minutes from here, and he leaves after three years -- and it sounds like he's playing his butt off in Colts camp right now.
"That's a different conversation than one I was having. It is. I used to say, hey look, these guys are really good players and when they're seniors they're gonna be drafted."
Any discussion with recruits is different because even the biggest star of the group, Chubb, wasn't always thought of as a dominant player. He was borderline wiry coming out of high school, an average-enough recruit that his hometown school of Georgia did not offer him a scholarship.
The lack of stars next to his name was irrelevant for Doeren and his staff. Chubb fit the bill as a high-motor, high-character player with untapped upside. Doeren pointed out in our interview that Chubb "loves to stop the run." The Broncos first-round pick takes pride in doing the dirty work, not just in piling up sack numbers. In other words, he fit the blue-collar mentality for what Doeren and his staff want in players.
"That's the biggest thing we believe in -- training hard, but training smart. Developing guys. When we recruit, we don't just recruit players, we recruit players who love to train. And for us, every kid says he loves football, but do they love to do the things required to make them a better football player?" Doeren explained. "In high school they didn't have to do those things, because they were blessed to be good enough. In college they won't be. They'll have 22 year old guys across from them with four years in the weight room. You've gotta work and you've got to love to work, because it's not fun. It's not. It's 105 degrees here today [in July]. You're working in strenuous conditions. It's challenging. So to get people to love to work is the hardest thing. And you have to exemplify that and you have to hold them to that until they see the benefit of it, and that's happened here."
Words like vision and program get thrown around often as generic coachspeak at every level. It's a selling point at press conferences, oftentimes a vague way of trying to paint a bigger plan with broader strokes. But the presence of one person at NC State's Pro Day leading up to the draft should make it clear how things are working: Bill Belichick doesn't show up and chop it up during defensive line drills without having a positive feeling about a place. Real recognize real, and program recognize program, if you will. The Patriots coach dipped his toe in the Wolfpack draft pool several years ago, picking up lineman Joe Thuney and quarterback Jacoby Brissett with a pair of third-round picks back in 2016.
Belichick was on-hand for the dozen or so Wolfpack prospects working out back in May; it was a borderline surprise neither Nyheim Hines/Jaylen Samuels ended up landing on the Patriots depth chart given their versatility. Look at Belichick's pro day tour and it's clear the seven-time Super Bowl winner is not just popping onto every college campus., who let the top prospect know as much while working him out in drills. Belichick's presence on the road during draft scouting season is not unusual, but it was a clear inflection point for NC State's ascension to an upper echelon program under Doeren.
For Doeren, it's probably nothing more than another step in a long process of fixing a place with more warts than meets the eye.
"People don't know how broken a place is. They just assume. They don't really know what goes on inside these buildings, and really, the stuff that's going on when you take over a program," Doeren said. "How many players were injured, how many players had academic issues, drug problems, maybe weren't the right player for the school talent wide. You don't know, and that never gets made public. You're building on top of a lot of things that are really important things that aren't public things. The only public thing is, did you win?
"For us, I told them I was going to build a great program here and I was going to do it the right way. We're going to win the state over. I said I don't know when it's going to happen, but it's going to happen. And it is."
Building out this long-term plan isn't just about recruiting players, though. Development matters more, and that doesn't happen without a lights out staff. Having worked as part of big-time programs before -- Doeren was on the Wisconsin defensive staff that developed J.J. Watt, O'Brien Schofield and Beau Allen -- the Wolfpack coach gets the importance of surrounding yourself with smart minds.
"You are who you associate with. And for us and for me, [AD] Debbie [Yow]'s been great about allowing us to get the people who help me. I have a great staff. Great assistant coaches. I love my trainers. I love my strength coaches, Dantonio [Burnette] in the weight room. These guys work really well together," Doeren explained. "A lot of times trainers and strength coaches don't see eye-to-eye and our guys are incredible about communicating and trusting each others. And that matters for our guys to stay healthy and to get healthy if they're injured. The recruiting office when I got here was two people down there. And they quickly transitioned out so I had to build that from scratch. The guys I have now are tremendous and they work well together. We have six, one of them's kind of in there, kind of out, high school relations, but he does recruiting, he's part of that shop."
Burnette, a former NC State linebacker and one of the school's all-time leading tacklers, returned to Raleigh soon after playing and has spent his time developing a strength program that rivals the best in football,and an approach that is atypical of stereotypical football guys, like yoga, massage and other training approaches.
Coaches like Dwayne Ledford (offensive line) and Kevin Patrick (defensive line) have shown an impressive and specialized ability to take physically-gifted, but underrated, young recruits and turn them into high-level college and professional players. You don't often see a single team take four defensive linemen, all from a single recruiting class, and churn out four NFL draftees, all taken in the first four rounds. Chubb, Hill, Jones and Kentavius Street -- who tore an ACL leading up to the draft but was still taken early by the 49ers -- all were highly coveted pieces before the draft.
Couple those selections with the on-field success last year and the 2017 season was a revelation for many -- the Wolfpack was a nail-biting loss to Clemson at home away from winning the ACC's Atlantic Division, a matchup against Miami in the ACC Championship Game and potentially vaulting into a New Year's Day bowl. For Doeren, it was more of a culmination, the continued result of patiently laying bricks and building a steady foundation.
"It's challenging. Some people are just in one ear and out the other -- until you can win they don't care what you say," Doeren said. "Other people really do their homework and see that you've done it at other places and put value in your history and kind of believe you more than others. With administrators and fans, I think they're all the same. They want things to happen fast, and fortunately enough for me, they've stuck with me enough to build it, even though they've been to four straight bowl games, people want more than that.
"I think this draft, this season we just had, this recruiting class we're currently having -- the one we just signed, has given people a lot of the proof they needed that it's working."
At the same time, the Wolfpack coach knows as well as anyone how short-lived praise and success can be. Just scroll through the local media headlines, which feature your typical rollercoaster of responses to various wins and losses. It's easy to lose sight of the big picture in football, when week-to-week results linger so much with every fanbase. Knee-jerkery is rampant in this sport at both the college and professional level.
Fortunately for Doeren, he'll have the benefit of being able to fire from duel cannons this season. With seven rookies under the microscope in the NFL, recruiting becomes an easier pitch when those guys step up and play well. Most of them should be involved heavily (subscribe to my daily NFL podcast for an upcoming breakdown of those prospects from Doeren's perspective).
Chubb is the consensus favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year in Vegas. Hines is drawing rave reviews out of Colts camp in Frank Reich's system. Hill should end up starting for the Giants and is an ideal complement to Damon Harrison. Justin Jones is the likely fill in for Corey Liuget during the latter's four-game suspension for the Chargers. I wouldn't bet against Jaylen Samuels contributing in an important way for the Steelers as a versatile offensive weapon. Will Richardson and Tony Adams could be important pieces in helping Leonard Fournette run wild in Jacksonville.
And it might not be the last time we're talking about the Wolfpack and the NFL Draft. Current quarterback Ryan Finley, a graduate transfer who will end up playing three full years at NC State, can vault himself into the top-tier conversation with Will Grier, Jarrett Stidham, et al, with another big year. If big-bodied receiver Kelvin Harmon stays healthy and goes pro, he will be a first-round pick. The defense lost a lot because of the draft, but there is more than enough upside there with an improved secondary and some sneaky depth on the defensive line many might not expect.
Expectations are much lower than they were last year, and Vegas has the Wolfpack over/under at just 7.5 games. That number is part of playing in the toughest neighborhood in football: Clemson and Florida State are on the docket every year, people are hyped about Boston College and Steve Addaizo's chances this season, Bobby Petrino is a perpetual pain to plan for, Dave Clawson's Wake Forest program is slept on annually and Syracuse is hardly a slouch. West Virginia is a top-25 non-conference matchup early in the season in Raleigh. Skepticism after the departure of all that defensive talent is understandable and warranted.
But the lack of hype might put Doeren in his best spot yet. Low-end pressure, high-end talent and the stability of a program building to something not just special but also sustainable.
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