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Weekly NC State offense notebook: Tabari Hines faces old team

NC State fifth-year senior wide receiver Tabari Hines knows Saturday’s game at Wake Forest will be personal.

Hines caught 123 passes for 1,496 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons at WFU. He had a career year in 2017, when he hauled in 53 receptions for 683 yards and seven touchdowns for the Demon Deacons, but graduated and transferred to Oregon.

That move didn’t pay off due to an injury, so the Florence, S.C., native returned to his ACC roots and enrolled at NC State for his last year of college football.

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NC State fifth-year senior wide receiver Tabari Hines played his first three college seasons at Wake Forest.
NC State fifth-year senior wide receiver Tabari Hines played his first three college seasons at Wake Forest. (Ken Martin/TheWolfpacker.com)

The 5-10, 185-pound Hines has settled into being the Wolfpack’s fourth wide receiver, with 21 catches for 192 yards and a touchdown, but hopes his return to Winston-Salem will spark the second half of his final college season. He still has several friends on the Wake Forest squad, but isn’t quite sure if he’s ever been in the visiting locker room before.

“I’m here now, and I have to prepare for the moment,” said Hines, who earned a psychology degree at Wake Forest. “I have to stay ready and stay humble.

“It’s going to be a weird feeling just warming up, being in a different color uniform.”

Hines is close to the WFU wide receivers, defensive backs and other older players. The trash talk has already begun.

“It’s all friendly talk and nothing personal,” Hines said. “We are still kind of friends. We worked hard and blood, sweat and tears with those guys. It definitely will be fun.”

Wake Forest has won nine of the last 11 games against NC State in Winston-Salem. Hines definitely has a unique perspective on the friendly rivalry.

“I believe they [WFU] get up for this game and take this game seriously,” Hines said. “They consider it a rivalry, and I don’t know if NC State considers Wake Forest a rival.

“I know being in that locker room, they consider it a rivalry. They get up for this game.”

If he had stayed at Wake Forest and been healthy last year, he knows he wouldn’t have been part of this year’s squad regardless because his eligibility would have been exhausted. Hines has watched fifth-year senior Scotty Washington and redshirt sophomore Sage Surratt blossom at wide receiver after his departure.

Surratt has 53 catches for 881 yards and nine touchdowns this season, while Washington is third on the team with 32 receptions for 523 yards and seven scores.

“Those guys want to be contested catches, and they want to go down the field and take deep shots,” Hines said. “They want to jump over people. That is on tape. Sage Surratt is tearing it up this year.”

Some might think Hines’ favorite Wake Forest moment was catching eight passes for 139 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-24 win versus NC State on Nov. 18, 2017. Instead, he picked the Belk Bowl that season where Wake Forest rallied for a wild 55-52 win over Texas A&M. He caught eight passes for 58 yards and two scores.

“Everybody thought we were pretty much going to lose,” Hines said. “The game started off and we were down 14-0, but we managed to put up 50-plus points.”

Hines will be catching passes from his third quarterback of the season. Redshirt freshman Devin Leary will get his first start against Wake Forest, and he throws with a few more miles per hour than his predecessors.

“Devin is a really good quarterback and is fearless,” Hines said. “He just wants to make plays like everyone else. He has that ‘it’ factor to him, which will help us get over the edge.

“All our quarterbacks are pretty good, but Devin definitely has a bigger arm than a lot of guys.”

Ikem Ekwonu Flashes Cover Skill, Acting Chops During Bye Week

Freshman left tackle Ikem Ekwonu just wanted to eat when he unwittingly became part of NC State football’s spooky Halloween video.

Head coach Dave Doeren and his staff tried to lighten up the bye week with a little fun sprinkled in with practice. It’s a long season and the mood wasn’t the greatest after falling 45-24 at Boston College Oct. 19.

“That [the video] was after practice, and I was very hungry,” Ekwonu said. “I just wanted to get some food. I saw some cleaver-looking things and I was like, ’Oh no.’ I knew it was going to be a bad day.

“Eventually, I got my food, so it was all good.”

The 6-4, 298-pound Ekwonu understood what the coaches were trying to accomplish, which included him playing some defensive back in practice last week.

“I played DB against [defensive end] Jeffrey Gunter,” Ekwonu said. “I watched a little bit of film of Jalen Frazier, who is a freshman here. I had to get in my stance and get inside of my heels and tried to drive him off the line. After that, it was a foot race.”

Ekwonu thinks he locked up Gunter pretty good, but he doesn’t expect to quit his day job.

“I think the cornerbacks we have now are pretty good,” Ekwonu said. “I don’t think they need me at all. He did get behind me, but I think I did a good job of walling him off the ball. He did wind up catching it, but a yard out of bounds.”

Ekwonu and the NC State offensive line will get a tough challenge in Wake redshirt junior defensive end Carlos Basham, who plays at both end positions. The 6-5, 275-pound Basham has 32 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hurries and 5.5 sacks this season.

Ekwonu, who has started the last two games, will surely get tested.

“He has really good length and very good speed off the ball,” Ekwonu said. “I’m really excited about going against top defensive ends like that in the the ACC.”

Former Walk-On Thomas Ruocchio Moves Up Depth Chart

For NC State redshirt junior tight end and former walk-on Thomas Ruocchio, being put on scholarship in the preseason had multiple ramifications — chiefly that it meant he was likely playing a role. Now Ruocchio has the potential to see that role, which has been primarily on special teams, expand after he worked his way up to second on the depth chart at the position coming out of the bye week.

Ruocchio came to NC State as a preferred walk-on from Cardinal Gibbons, a high school located literally across the street from the Wolfpack’s Carter-Finley Stadium. But the son of two UNC grads was not necessarily originally clamoring for a chance to wear red and white.

That first changed during his third year in high school.

“By sophomore year of high school I realized that college football was going to be a legitimate opportunity for me,” Ruocchio recalled. “I was just working my butt off to try to get into the best place I could. I got invited to a game [at NC State] my junior year to come here, and after about 15 minutes I fell in love and this was my main goal.

"This was my No. 1 spot. Being a local guy, being right across the street, you could see Carter-Finley from most of my classes in high school. This was a dream come true, absolutely.”

As a senior at Cardinal Gibbons, his stats may not have jumped off the page — 10 receptions for 114 yards — but he was an all-conference performer, team captain and Cardinal Gibbons’ Offensive MVP.

That led to him receiving his chance for the Wolfpack as a preferred walk-on. Then this summer, a cleverly devised ruse led to the big reveal that he would be on scholarship for the 2019 season.

The football staff started up a team game of Jeopardy. Three walk-ons were “randomly” drawn out of a hat to be the captains. Ruocchio was one of them. When it was time for Final Jeopardy, those captains had to answer the clue. While each of them were looking down at what they were writing, on the board revealed that they were all on scholarship.

“I looked up for half a second and then the whole team was jumping on my back,” Ruocchio recalled. “It was pretty cool. It was definitely a lifetime moment, for sure.”

Ruocchio’s perspective on the scholarship is that it justified his spot on the team.

“It’s definitely been a main goal since I showed up on campus cause I know one of Coach [Dave] Doeren’s policy here is if you play on the field enough you get a scholarship,” Ruocchio said. “So I knew if I had a scholarship I would get some playing time. So that was really a main goal of mine when I showed up.

“To see it was a very rewarding feeling because it lets you know that I’ve accomplished what I came here to work for, but the work’s not done. You got your scholarship, now it’s how can I help this team anyway that I can. The work ethic hasn’t changed. I keep that same walk-on chip on my shoulder the whole time, but it was a huge honor.”

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