- Associated Press - Thursday, August 10, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Dave Doeren has spent the past four seasons building up North Carolina State’s roster, developing young players into game-ready starters and gradually accumulating experience throughout the depth chart.

The payoff could come this fall.

“We’ve been playing young against some really talented rosters,” Doeren said, “and this year we’re not - finally.”

After three straight bowl trips, North Carolina State boasts a veteran lineup that is a trendy dark horse pick in the loaded Atlantic Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference. There are eight returning starters on both offense and defense, including quarterback Ryan Finley, do-everything offensive threat Jaylen Samuels and NFL first-round draft prospect Bradley Chubb at defensive end.

Much of the roster has gradually grown together since Doeren’s first squad filled with youth went winless in the ACC. And it learned some hard lessons last season.

There was an overtime loss at eventual national champion Clemson after missing a point-blank field goal for the win in the final seconds of regulation. There was also a 24-20 home loss to Florida State that came after the Wolfpack dropped an interception in the end zone one play before FSU’s late winning score.

Finley’s return is key with the Wolfpack entering Year 2 in offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz’s control-the-tempo scheme, and he’s playing behind a line with four returning starters. The Wolfpack must replace 1,100-yard rusher Matt Dayes, with speedster Nyheim Hines moving from receiver to join the backfield competition.

The defense is led by a veteran front featuring four returning senior starters on the line and two more at linebacker, which helped the Wolfpack rank eighth nationally against the run last year.

“Everybody’s saying the same thing: the culture’s changing here and we’ve all noticed it, we’ve all been through it,” Chubb said. “It’s like night and day from when we first got here. We’re all excited because we know that if it’s going to happen, then it’s this year.”

Here are things to know about N.C. State for the 2017 season:

KICKING CONCERNS: Kyle Bambard made just 12 of 24 field goals in two seasons and missed the 33-yarder to beat Clemson. So the Wolfpack brought in graduate transfer Carson Wise from Carson-Newman and has given him first shot at the starting job.

“He’s definitely started with the 1s and hasn’t given it back,” Doeren said, “and has done everything you’d want him to do.”

SAMUELS’ VERSATILITY: Samuels is quite a weapon considering he can line up at running back, receiver or tight end. The senior has scored 29 rushing or receiving touchdowns the past two seasons, while his versatility frequently creates matchup problems for opposing defenses. Samuels has been so good that he even inspired the ACC to add an “all-purpose back” for its preseason all-conference team.

Samuels, of course, earned that spot after preseason media voting.

SEASON OPENER: N.C. State opens against Southeastern Conference opponent South Carolina in Charlotte on Sept. 2 in an immediate measuring-stick game. The Wolfpack ended last season against another SEC team, beating Vanderbilt 41-17 in the Independence Bowl.

KEY GAMES: There’s the rugged division schedule with Clemson, preseason ACC favorite Florida State and Louisville - led by returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson at quarterback. But the Cardinals (Oct. 5) and Tigers (Nov. 4) both come to Raleigh. There’s also a trip to Notre Dame (Oct. 28), while the rivalry game against North Carolina (Nov. 25) to close the regular season is at home.

PREDICTION: Things are set up for the Wolfpack to make a leap. But doing that will likely require taking down at least one of those top division powers and not squandering games the Wolfpack should win - which happened last year at three-win East Carolina and at home against Boston College. One marquee division win could push the Wolfpack to nine or 10 wins, quite a feat for a program that has reached nine wins only twice in more than decades.


More AP college football: https://collegefootball.ap.org and https://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25


Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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