As the USF football team prepares for its matchup against NC State, containing the Wolfpack’s running backs will be crucial to the final outcome.
NC State has a trio of running backs who USF must keep an eye on Thursday night, headlined by sophomore Zonovan Knight and junior Ricky Person Jr. In 2020, the duo combined for 1,431 rushing yards and had nearly equal attempts.
Complementing Knight and Person Jr. is sophomore Jordan Houston, who uses his speed to be effective. Defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said the group works well together because it allows for a constant rotation, which keeps the backs ready to go.
“[They have Person Jr., Knight and Houston,] so they’re going to be able to stay fresh,” Spencer said. “If you don’t stop the run you’re in for a long night, because then they know they can run the ball and then you start packing it in to try to stop [the run and] try to get extra guys in there, [but then] it opens up their throwing game.”
The ground game also stood out to graduate student defensive tackle Thad Mangum.
“They’re a good running team, they link to run tempo, they like to dish it out to a bunch of different receivers and try to take the line out of the game,” Mangum said. “If you can’t stop the run then it’s going to be a long game. So that’s been a big emphasis for us to be able to focus on our keys and do our job.”
Between Person Jr., Houston and Knight, the latter currently has the top yards per carry average in NC State career history with a minimum of 200 attempts (5.49) and was the team’s leading rusher last season with 788 yards.
Person Jr. started every game in 2020 and finished second on the team in rush yards with 643.
Spencer didn’t deny the potential threat the three backs present for his defense, saying the mix of strength and speed could present issues.
“[They’ve] got big backs, and then they’ve got a speed back,” Spencer said. “[We] haven’t tackled any backs like that from our own guys with full speed like this.
“They’re strong, they’ve got strong thighs, they run through tackles, they run over you or run around you, so stopping the run [is] always [important.]”
Although limiting the damage on the ground is integral to USF’s success, in order for the Bulls to leave Carter-Finley Stadium with a win, they must also pay attention to redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary.
Leary showed promise in the four games he started last season before suffering a broken leg against Duke on Oct. 18. In those four games, Leary was 66-of-110 for 890 yards and eight touchdowns.
Although not being able to watch tape on Leary for the final eight games of the season, Spencer was able to pick up on some traits about the quarterback.
“[He] has a lot of energy. I can tell the guys rally around him, watching them interact on the field after big plays, things like that,” Spencer said. “You can tell he’s a team guy. [He has] a really live arm, throws a great back shoulder, throws a great seam ball, I think he sees man pressure [and] he lights up. You’ve got to mix it up on him, but obviously he can put it on the money.
“It’s kind of like some great quarterbacks I’ve faced in the past that can move around, and can throw accurately out of different arm spots, and he can do that. Sometimes the best play they have is when he’s moving, making something happen. Anybody that’s got the wills like he has, and the live arm like he has [can give you issues.]”
In addition to the work Leary does with his arm, he also has the ability to extend plays and make things happen with his legs.
“You just watch what you can and realize you’ve got to prepare for the quarterback run game and then just see what happens as the night develops because he can gain yards with his feet,” Spencer said. “Him being so mobile and being able to fill in the run, if you do cover him for a second, that’s when it really gets interesting, when receivers are going everywhere and he’s looking for the open man on the run.”
Some of those men Leary could be looking for down the field include redshirt sophomore Devin Carter and senior Emeka Emezie. Both players stand 6-foot-3-inches tall.
“By the time you get the [running game] handled, there’s a lot of stretch game and passing game too with big receivers,” Spencer said. “You put a body on a body [with their big receivers] and they don’t mind that, that ball is there for them to compete. What you say is a 50/50 ball, but then with some of the matchups, it’s not a 50/50 ball, it’s better than a 50/50 ball.
“That’s why they’re not afraid to throw it up when you think maybe it’s covered. They have the big-guy advantage and the big wingspans, they can high point the ball like they can. [Carter and Emezie] makes for a tough challenge.”
No matter the challenges the Wolfpack provide for the Bulls, the team is ready to finally get things rolling.
“We’re ready to play someone else, we’re tired of hitting each other,” Mangum said. “So we’re definitely ready and excited for this opportunity.”
The Bulls and the Wolfpack will match up Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. in Carter-Finley Stadium to kick off both of their seasons. The game will be televised on the ACC Network.