When the NC State depth chart was released for the season opener against Tennessee, both positions that running backs and tight ends coach Des Kitchings are in charge of were loaded with a plethora of names, while most other spots went only two-deep. Three running backs populated the backfield on paper, while a quartet of tight ends were vying to replace the graduated George Bryan.
There was obviously a lot of competition for those starting spots, and that remains to be the case six games into the season, although some players have begun to distinguish themselves.
The running back position opened with redshirt sophomore Tony Creecy on top, but classmate Mustafa Greene started the second game. Greene was suspended indefinitely before the third game of the year and has not returned, while Creecy got the nod against South Alabama.
Senior James Washington, who started all 13 games last season, appeared in the first three games before going down with an ankle injury, and Creecy was also injured for the game against The Citadel, so true freshman Shadrach Thornton got the starting nod in game four. The rookie responded with 145 yards rushing and two touchdowns in his first collegiate game, in addition to four catches for 26 yards and some nice downfield blocks.
"I think part of it is because he competes," Kitchings said. "Even if you're not fully skilled in all of those areas, if you're competing and working every day in practice, at some point, good things are going to happen. I think he's worked hard in practice trying to better himself with catching the ball, understanding his blitz responsibility in pass protection and continuing to progress as a runner. When you put forth the effort, good things are going to happen.
"I'm not going to say he's been great every play out there, but there's been spots where he's been good. There's still things he's got to work on in running the ball, pass protection and route running. He's not there yet, but he's done some good stuff."
Although he has played in just three games, Thornton ranks second on the team with 261 yards and two scores on the ground. He ranks first among all rushers with multiple carries with an average of 5.3 yards per carry, and he has added nine catches for 88 yards and another score via the air. The rookie from Hinesville, Ga., also leads the squad with an average of 116.3 all-purpose yards per game.
"In camp, he showed that he had some capabilities to do some things, and he's doing them on the field," Kitchings noted. "The way that our numbers were at running back, we didn't see a need to play him. Injuries caused things to happen, and one thing that Shad did during the early part of the season when he was on the practice squad, he went 100 miles per hour and still practice hard. You never know what's going to happen and the opportunity came.
"He was able to take advantage of the opportunity because of the work he put in during practice. Now, he still has a lot of work to continue to do during practice, but as long as he continues to do that, he's got a chance to be a good player."
Creecy has returned and looked strong since his injury - he torched Miami for 120 yards on the ground and scored twice. He has played in five games this year, and leads the team with 298 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He also ranks third with 18 catches for 89 yards and another score, but he is just as valuable for what he gives the team off the field as what he does on Saturdays between the white lines.
"Creecy has been great," the coach said. "He's evolving, being a leader for us offensively, and it shows in his play, particularly the last three of four games. He brings a very strong, physical element to the game in running, and he's also a good receiver for us in the pass game. He has taken his game up a notch, and that's a byproduct of competition. We had great competition in the spring, we had great competition and then you bring in a freshman that's producing. If you're a competitor, you try to raise your game, and that's what Creecy has done; that's a compliment to him.
"They push each other. Creecy has done a good job with being a leader and a mentor in the sense that he understands that Shad is going to have to play for us, so he needs to help him understand what the coaches are trying to tell him. It's been a great environment in that room with the running backs, and those guys have taken on those roles amongst themselves to try to be leaders on this team, to try to go out there and produce on a daily basis in practice and on Saturdays."
The running back position can only get stronger with the possible returns of Greene, who has 101 yards rushing in two games, and/or Washington, who has 63 yards and a touchdown on the ground in three games. Redshirt senior Brandon Barnes has also been in the mix over the past three contests and totaled 101 yards and a touchdown.
At tight end, redshirt senior Mario Carter and redshirt junior Asa Watson have emerged. Watson tallied four receptions in the win over No. 3 Florida State, and is up to 11 catches for 124 yards on the year, while Carter, the bigger of the two at 262 pounds, has been a solid blocker, in addition to hauling in 12 passes for 111 yards.
"It's coming together," Kitchings said of the tight ends. "Is it there yet? No, there's a lot of things that I'd like to see them do better - same with our running backs - but it's coming together. Asa is fast, but he's exceptionally strong and powerful, too, so he can hold the point on his blocks. Mario is big and strong, but he runs well enough and catches the ball well, too.
"They do compliment each other - Asa may be a little faster, Mario is a bigger guy and does a good job blocking, but there's competition again because one guy wants to play a lot, and so does the other one. That's great, there's nothing wrong with healthy competition."