By the second half, most of the starters were done for the day, but coach Dave Doeren had seen plenty of them already.
The Red team, made up mostly of players expected to be in the two-deep, defeated the White team 37-17 in the N.C. State spring game on Saturday.
“It was a fun day,” Doeren said. “It went about how we expected. Typical spring game. Your goal is to get everybody in to play as clean as you can and not have any injuries. I think we came out pretty strong on all three of those.”
Wolfpack fans got their first look at quarterback Devin Leary since last October when he went out with a season-ending injury against Duke. In one half of action, Leary completed 12 of 23 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
Leary’s first completion, after starting 0-for-4, was a 58-yard touchdown pass to Devin Carter on the second drive of the day for the Red team. Carter had quite the performance on his birthday, snagging in five catches for 73 yards and two touchdowns. One of his receptions came from fellow wide receiver Thayer Thomas, who completed a 28-yard touchdown pass to a diving Carter in the back of the end zone.
Thomas throwing touchdowns has become part of the norm at N.C. State. What the fans really came to see was how Leary looked after surgery.
“It was amazing,” Leary said. “It was just fun to be back out there in a live setting, competing with everyone. It’s been a long time coming, but it was very fun out there.”
He did throw one interception — to Nicholas Treco — in the second quarter, but that was his only big mistake of the day.
“Outside of the interception, he played well,” Doeren said. “The thing I like about how Devin’s playing, he’s just comfortable out there. It’s fun to watch him in his progression from last year to this year.”
Leary ended the next drive with three straight completions to Thomas, the final pass covering 9 yards for a touchdown that put the Red team ahead 27-10. Collin Smith added a 26-yard field goal before the half to give the Red team a 30-10 advantage.
With running backs Ricky Person Jr. and Bam Knight out for the spring, it gave Doeren a closer look at his reserves. Person and Knight combined for 290 of the teams 433 carries in 2020. Jordan Houston, who was available for the spring game, rushed 10 times for 89 yards and one touchdown, but left the field on a cart after injuring his leg at the end of a 40-yard gain. After the game, Doeren said Houston’s X-ray was negative, and he didn’t think it was anything serious.
The bulk of the carries went to redshirt freshman Delbert Mimms III and Demarcus Jones II. Neither player got a carry last season, getting all of their snaps on special teams. Jones, who played at nearby Wake Forest, was just put on scholarship this offseason. Mimms finished with 52 yards on nine carries. Jones had 33 yards on 13 carries and one score.
“They’ve been impressive all spring,” Doeren said. “They understand the offense, they are good in protection. They aren’t trying to do too much. They are physical backs; they are going to run behind their pads. I think we’ve built depth at that position this spring.”
With Bailey Hockman, who took over for Leary last season, now playing at Middle Tennessee State, all eyes were on the players now vying for a backup spot.
The logical choice would be Ben Finley, the freshman who got in for one game a year ago. Finley, who started for the White team, had his day get off to a less-than-ideal start. On his first snap, Finley handed off to Jones, who was immediately taken down in the backfield. The defender, Tanner Ingle, clipped Finley’s leg. Finley had to be helped off the field and true freshman Aaron McLaughlin was thrust into action.
McLaughlin, a four-star recruit who enrolled in January, didn’t complete a pass in the first half (0 for 3) and threw a pick-six to another true freshman, Caden Fordham, in the third quarter.
Finley took over for the Red team in the second half and looked like he settled down behind a more experienced offensive line. The Arizona native finished 10-of-20 passing for 154 yards.
Since he sat out the entire second half, Leary had a chance to watch his understudies.
“I think they are both doing a great job,” Leary said. “Going into halftime I was just giving a little bit of points and tips. Ben’s a really smart player, and he was able to pick up on things really fast.”
Doeren told the media that Finley was way ahead of where he was a year ago under offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s system.
Building depth, playing clean
Running back was just one spot where the team benefited from guys being out this spring, which led to some players stepping up.
At wide receiver, seniors Emeka Emezie and C.J. Riley sat out the spring game. That meant more targets for fresh faces like Anthony Smith, Keyon Lesane, Julian Gray and Chris Scott.
On the defensive side of the ball, Doeren singled out freshman linebacker Jordan Poole, who chased down Houston to force a fumble. Fordham got praise from Ingle after his second half interception.
“I was actually pretty impressed with a lot of the younger guys,” Ingle said. “Forty-one (Fordham) had a pick-six at the end, that was pretty good. We did a good job, we didn’t have that many mental errors, which was obviously a good thing.”
N.C. State kept it clean, with one just penalty the entire game, a false start with 32 seconds remaining in the first half.
“Last year we dang near led the nation in penalties,” Ingle said. “Moving forward that’s what we tried to work on. We had one flag today. I feel like that’s pretty good success.”