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September 18, 2013
When fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Mitchell went down with a broken foot in the season opener, NC State had to turn to redshirt junior Pete Thomas under center. Thomas is not a mobile quarterback, but the NC State coaching staff was determined to still have a running option available to take some snaps at the position.
Enter true freshman quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, a two-star recruit from Jefferson, Ga., who seemed bound for the Ivy League until NC State came through with a scholarship offer at the last second. He committed a few days after the tender while on an official visit.
A few days before the season opener against Louisiana Tech, Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren talked to the offensive coaches about installing a few plays with Shirreffs as the trigger man in a wildcat attack. It was a fortunate move that paid off immediately.
"I just said, 'Hey, let's just have a couple of runs for Bryant in case something happens,'" the coach remembered. "I didn't want us to have one quarterback and all of the sudden our quarterback run game is gone."
Shirreffs was the contingency plan because two of the Pack's other wildcat options, receivers Travares Copeland and Rashard Smith - both prep signal-callers - were unavailable for the job. Copeland was battling a lingering hamstring issue, while Smith had a lot on his plate, serving as one of the team's top receivers, as well as the No. 1 kick and punt returner.
"We didn't feel like putting those guys back there was the best thing for our team," Doeren said. "We gave Bryant a quarterback lead and a couple of power runs with one throw, and then he went in and did a good job.
"That has just built due to necessity. With Pete being the only guy with any game experience on our team, we have to be smart about what we do with him."
At first, the wildcat plays were a welcomed move back under center for Shirreffs, who had spent some time as a linebacker and fullback leading up to the season opener. Although he took snaps in game one, he was listed on the roster in the press box as a fullback. The 6-3, 220-pounder even took to wearing gloves, something he did not do in high school, after his position switch.
Shirreffs admitted that he didn't expect to see time under center in the first game of his rookie campaign.
"I had an inkling that I would play, but not at quarterback," he said. "I was ready to play, but it was a surprise to me. I had prepared for it, though."
After the injury to Mitchell, Shirreffs was back to being a full-time quarterback, in practice and on the roster. The gloves stayed on for one more week, but they came off during the bye week and aren't coming back, according to the quarterback who noted he is more comfortable throwing without them.
The youngster debuted with nine snaps against Louisiana Tech and rushed for a total of 34 yards. The following week, he made the most of his eight plays against Richmond, completing all three pass attempts for 19 yards and a touchdown - the Pack's only one through the air so far this season. He also rushed four times for 36 yards and a score.
"I was happy about those, but I was kind of expected to score those by the play calls," he said. "It felt good to score and put points on the board, but I just did my job. It wasn't anything special.
"These last couple of weeks have been up and down. I've learned just to stay the same. It's been a roller coaster for sure, and the game was a roller coaster for everyone, but it feels good to get a win."
For all of the ups that Shirreffs had in that week two win over Richmond, there was also a down. He fumbled inside of the red zone and was still disappointed about the miscue more than a week later.
Doeren called it a learning moment for the signal-caller and noted that the freshman is growing by the day.
"Everybody knows what he did during training camp with switching around. With him settling into one role, now we can start to grow the package," he said. "He only had three plays that he could run the first week, and now he might have five or six.
"He's getting more and more confident. He's starting to see things better in the run game, and the different passes he can do off the runs have gotten a lot better. He's more versatile."
Doeren explained that the rookie is such a good athlete that he would have probably found a way onto the playing field, even if he wasn't involved with the wildcat package. That was why the position moves with Shirreffs began in the first place.
"We were just trying to use his athleticism because he's a great athlete and really strong," Doeren noted. "I think he would be playing where [fullback Tyler] Purvis is right now in a role had we not had the [Mitchell] injury. He would've been starting on two or three special teams and playing 'H' in our offense."
Shirreffs tried to win the starting quarterback in training camp, but did not give up hope for playing as a true freshman even after it became clear he would not be the opening field general in 2013. He was willing to play wherever he was needed.
"I came in with the expectation of trying to play," he said. "I wasn't going to accept the fact that I wasn't.
"I think we [the freshmen class] all wanted to make an impact. Everybody came in with the idea of doing that, and this summer we just worked really hard."
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has been pleased with what he has seen from Shirreffs so far, but he expects the quarterback to continue to get better, just like the rest of the rookie class.
"When injuries occur, you have to rally and try to change things up to be as competitive as you can be with the tools you have in the box," Canada said. "That's what we're doing.
"He has played well and we've had a lot of young guys play well. They've just got to continue it. That's a hard situation, playing with a bunch of true freshmen, and they've got to grow up fast. They're going to get a great opportunity to do that on Thursday night."
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