The Wolfpacker

July-August 2020 Issue

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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40 ■ THE WOLFPACKER OFFENSIVE LINE Back For More BY JUSTIN H. WILLIAMS N C State will field a more experienced offensive line this fall with a combination of vet- eran upperclassmen and young talent after an injury-riddled season in 2019. Redshirt junior center Grant Gibson and fifth-year senior left guard Joe Sculthorpe started in a combined 23 of 24 games last season. Gibson was the lone offensive player to start every contest, while Sculthorpe missed the Clemson game due to suspension. Fifth-year senior Justin Witt, redshirt junior Bryson Speas and sophomore Ikem "Ickey" Ekwonu all opened at least five games each in 2019 — Witt at right tackle, Speas at right guard and right tackle, and Ekwonu at left tackle. Those five are the favorites to make up the first-team line this year. Witt began last year as a starter, but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the Wolfpack's fifth game against Flor- ida State. That forced Speas to bump from right guard to tackle, where he opened six contests. Sixth-year senior Tyrone Riley was expected to start last year at left tackle before suf- fering a season-ending injury on the second day of fall camp. He was granted an extra year of eligibility this season and is another contender to start in what should be a competitive preseason camp along the line. "I think on the offensive line there are several [starting competitions], assuming we get everyone back healthy, which right now it's looking that way," NC State head coach Dave Doeren said in mid-June. "Getting Witt and Tyrone back is awesome. What that does com- petition-wise, with Ickey [Ekwonu] — coming off the year he had — and Bryson Speas, it creates great competition there." Redshirt freshman Dylan McMahon is another young lineman that was pushed into ac- tion earlier than expected last season due to the high number of injuries at the position. He appeared in the maximum four games allowed to preserve his redshirt, including a start at left guard versus Clemson. "A lot of younger guys were forced to play," noted offensive line coach John Garrison, who is now in his second year with the Wolf- pack. "If those injuries didn't happen, Ickey probably wouldn't have gotten the experience that he got. McMahon probably wouldn't have gotten those four games." McMahon wound up playing 101 snaps in his four appearances without giving up a single sack, and gained invaluable starting experience against the toughest competition in the powerhouse Tigers. "Dylan McMahon is going to be a guy that can really compete inside, so we're liking that," Doeren added. However, Ekwonu was the breakout fresh- man on the line in 2019. Voted a second- team All-ACC choice by Pro Football Focus (PFF), Ekwonu earned the highest sea- son grade on offense from the outlet with a score of 80.5, a mark that makes him one of the three highest-graded returning tackles in the ACC in 2020. He was also named a Freshman All-American by PFF and the Football Writers Associa- tion of America, in addition to garner- ing the Wolfpack's Rookie and Of- fensive Lineman of the Year laurels. "There's no better thing to hap- pen to a player than experience," Garrison said. "Getting out there and playing against the Clemsons of the world — it was a tough deal, but those guys are definitely going to benefit from it." SPOTLIGHT PLAYER FIFTH-YEAR SENIOR GUARD JOE SCULTHORPE Sculthorpe signed with NC State as a three- star offensive guard and former state champion wrestler out of Topsail High in Hampstead, N.C. He had appeared in every game during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, logging three starts, but became a lineup regular for the first time in 2019, at left guard. He opened all 11 con - tests he played in, becoming the only blocker other than center Grant Gibson to do so. According to NCSU, Scult- horpe posted his unit's top grade twice last year, versus East Carolina and Syracuse, which were both wins. Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded him out with above-average marks in seven 2019 con - tests, including two of his three performances with good grades higher than 70 in the final two weeks. His season-long PFF grade of 72.0 ranked third on the Wolfpack offense, behind two fellow linemen, and ranked fourth among ACC guards who played at least 100 snaps. Those numbers helped Scult - horpe earn second- team All-ACC honors from the outlet. BY THE NUMBERS 17 Career starts made by fifth-year senior Justin Witt, which leads all linemen despite him going down for the year in game five last fall. However, classmate Joe Sculthorpe has the most offensive snaps played (1,548; about 300 more than Witt). 37 Pancake blocks by sophomore left tackle Ikem Ekwonu last season, the most on the team. 21st NC State's ranking in Pro Football Focus' "Ranking all 130 college football offensive line situations" article that published at the completion of the 2019 season. No. 7 Clemson was the only ACC program to be listed higher. PHOTO BY GREGG FORWERCK FOR NC STATE ATHLETICS

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