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NC State tries to keep rolling in opener vs. James Madison

August 31, 2018
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FILE - In this Aug. 9, 2018, file photo, North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley runs through a drill during an NCAA college football practice in Raleigh, N.C. Finley returned to school for his final season after flirting with entering the NFL draft and opens the year Saturday against James Madison. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina State’s defense is ready to show off its overhauled look in Saturday’s season opener against James Madison.

The Wolfpack lost eight defensive starters from last year’s nine-win team, including No. 5 overall NFL pick Bradley Chubb among four drafted linemen. Coach Dave Doeren’s staff has spent years building up the roster. Now it’s up to the next wave of players inheriting full-time starting roles.

While the loss of so many starters is a concern, there’s at least one positive: The players moving into leading roles have plenty of game experience

“We’ve all played a lot of snaps,” said defensive end James Smith-Williams, who after 24 games is projected to make his first career start. “We consider ourselves veterans. We’ve all been playing for four years. We know what we’re doing and we’re excited for it.”

N.C. State is coming off only its second nine-win season in 15 years, including the program’s first 6-2 Atlantic Coast Conference mark since 1994.

“Everyone’s singing our praises and this and that, but it’s a new year and we’ve got to go earn it,” Doeren said. “And no matter what you want to be, Game 1 is Game 1. You’ve got to respect the game. You’re not going to win if you don’t.”

And Doeren knows N.C. State faces a tested Dukes team, one that has gone 28-2 in two seasons under Mike Houston. That run includes winning the 2016 Championship Subdivision title and playing in last year’s title game.

James Madison, which is favored to win a fourth straight Colonial Athletic Association championship, is No. 2 in the FCS national rankings.

“I think it takes away some of the nerves, especially from the experienced players,” Houston said of the team’s big-game and postseason experience. “They understand that the standings and the fans and all that have really not much of an impact on the field. It comes down to how you play.”

Here are things to know about the upcoming game:

NO QB YET: Houston hasn’t committed publicly to a starting quarterback for this one, listing Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci or Cole Johnson atop the depth chart. DiNucci played against the Wolfpack last year, throwing for 170 yards and a touchdown for Pitt. Johnson was the team’s No. 2 quarterback last year, throwing for 141 yards and a touchdown in six games. “Both of them are quality enough players to be our starter,” Houston said.

TURNOVER FACTOR: James Madison thrived last year by forcing opponents into turnovers. The Dukes had 44 takeaways last year, with 31 of those being interceptions. And the Wolfpack was minus-5 in turnover differential in last year’s four losses.

PACK UP FRONT: While N.C. State is replacing all four defensive line starters, there’s plenty of experience there. Projected starting end Darian Roseboro is a senior who played 422 snaps last year, while another projected senior starter in Eurndraus Bryant played 303 snaps. “I know a lot of people talk about how much they graduated up front on defense, but the thing that people forget to mention is the guys coming back played a lot of snaps,” Houston said. “So it’s not like the defensive line is going to go from All-Americans to nothing.”

AIR ATTACK: N.C. State will have a clear offensive strength with the return of quarterback Ryan Finley after he flirted with entering the NFL draft last year. And Finley will have a trio of big-bodied targets in receivers Kelvin Harmon, Jakobi Meyers and Stephen Louis. Asked about his confidence in Finley, Doeren said: “On 1 to 10? Eleven. The guy’s in a great place mentally.”

FBS RESUME: James Madison is 2-8 against ACC teams, winning at Virginia in 1982 and then at Virginia Tech in 2010. The Dukes have won two of their last three against Bowl Subdivision opponents, beating SMU in 2015 (48-45) and East Carolina last year (34-14).

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