Ryan Finley isn't wasting any of his extra time at NC State

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Ryan Finley is on the floor.

It's midsummer, before his sixth and final season at NC State, and his seating arrangement is by choice. The 23-year-old quarterback is not a fan of doing interviews. He doesn't like attention. He doesn't enjoy suffering through endless, inane patter. He's not particularly interested in accolades or recognition. He doesn't explicitly state that he finds it all beneath him, but it seems pretty obvious. The guy quotes Buddha in arguments; devours books on history and philosophy and religion; is working on his golf game; and is the ACC's top QB and a legit NFL prospect. It goes without saying that he has better things to do than to be here, talking.

So Finley is splayed across the floor of the NC State receivers meeting room, his long, lanky frame surrounded by rows of chairs. In one chair to his right is Kelvin Harmon, the 1,000-yard receiver who has blossomed into Finley's favorite target this season. To his left is tackle Tyler Jones, who has taken nearly every snap for the Wolfpack over the past two seasons on a line that has made Finley the best-protected QB in the country. In the run-up to the season, Finley refused to do interviews alone because he didn't want all the praise for the Wolfpack's offensive success, and that has won him plenty of fans within his locker room.

It's progress that Finley is talking voluntarily at all. A year ago, he was combative even on his best days, but he has grown. He knows the NFL is ahead of him and, like it or not, a little good press matters. So he's talking.

He's also working out. That's why he's on the floor. He's doing leg lifts and planks and stretches so that this whole thing isn't a complete waste of time, and neither of his teammates seems to think this is out of the ordinary.

So, go ahead. Shoot. Whatcha got for the guy who's squeezing in a few quotes between reps? Make it good, because while Finley isn't eager to talk, he is quite likely the smartest guy in the room, and if you're asking something dumb, he's going to tell you.

"Ryan likes to push people's buttons," NC State strength coach Dantonio Burnette said, "to see how they'll respond."

Burnette sees this often. He'll be shuffling through paperwork in his office and suddenly hear shouting down the hall. It's Finley, with his curly gold hair and mischievous grin, like a modern day Eddie Haskell, debating some overwhelmed member of the strength staff on anything from the NBA Finals to the latest book Finley read on nutrition. It's like an episode of First Take, where Finley is Stephen A. Smith.Others come armed with opinions. Finely bludgeons them with certainty.

Even in the offensive meeting rooms, Finley struggles to maintain a poker face. He's here at NC State largely because of his relationship with coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, who arrived from Boise State in 2016 and quickly wooed Finley into following him. They're tight, and yet, Drinkwitz has spent his share of time debating the merits of a play with his QB to the point that there's little good will left between them by the time the meeting's over.

"We've had plenty of knock-down dragouts," Drinkwitz said. "Ryan is much smarter than I am, but there's a fine line where he needs to learn to just trust me."

That line is what Finley's sixth season of college football -- his third at NC State -- is all about. He has walked a winding path to get here, and now he's hoping those lessons have equipped him for this final sprint, a last hurrah in which he overcomes his own id, learns to trust his coaches and his teammates and the media, and he finds a balance that could lead him to an ACC championship and a first-round selection in the next NFL draft. And on Saturday, he'll get to test that balance against Clemson, the one nemesis he has yet to tame. But this time, things might be different.

"It's a fine line between being a douche and being competitive," Finley said. "A lot of us in college football, we're always battling with who we are and who we want to become."

Finley was a stopgap when he arrived at NC State. He'd been a starter at Boise State, but injuries left him buried on the Broncos' depth chart. Drinkwitz promised him a chance to compete for the Wolfpack. The truth, however, was no one expected much of an impact.

"We wanted competition in the room, and we needed depth," head coach Dave Doeren said. "We had no idea he'd become what he is now."

What Finley has become is a legitimate NFL prospect, the ACC's best pure pocket passer and the unquestioned leader of a team that's teetering on the brink of a breakthrough.

Last year, Finley completed 65 percent of his passes, threw for 3,518 yards and accounted for 20 touchdowns while leading NC State to its first nine-win season since 2010. He drew interest from scouts, but he lacked the flash of Josh Rosen or the prototype build of Sam Darnold or the gaudy stats of Lamar Jackson or Baker Mayfield, so when it came to making an NFL decision at year's end, he opted for another year of college.

In doing so, Finley made a conscious choice to become something more than he already was, to devote himself to his team, to refine his game, to open up a bit more so the rest of the world might recognize he is something special, too.

"He wanted to be the best quarterback in college football," Doeren said. "And how many times do you get to lead your own team? He could've been in the NFL as a backup, and it wouldn't have been his team. This is his team now."

When he first arrived, Finley hung out with Doeren and Drinkwitz, still not sure where he fit in. Last year, he ascended to a leadership role on offense, but he was still second banana to the NC State defensive line, a group of seniors who all ended up being selected in the NFL draft. This year, however, Finley's the unquestioned leader of the locker room -- from reining in his dynamic receiving corps on the practice field to pushing a young defense still trying to learn the ropes. The reluctant star is now center stage.

The attention is something new to Finley, a former three-star recruit from Phoenix, who'd gotten his first taste of the spotlight in Boise, Idaho, and had never even tried sushi until he got to Raleigh. Now he has national media hounding him for interviews, NFL scouts tracking his progress, and the team's season resting on his broad shoulders. Heck, when Burnette asked his 3-year-old son what he wanted to be for Halloween this year, the kid said "Ryan Finley."

It's a long way from Boise State.

"I remember thinking I was ready, and looking back, I wasn't," Finley said of his time at Boise State. "And I was thinking, if I'm lucky enough to still be playing football in three years, I'll look back and realize I'm not ready now, either. There's just no replacement for experience."

This is what really makes Finley stand out among the herd of talented QBs. Sure, he has more experience than nearly anyone, with two injury-plagued seasons resulting in a sixth year of eligibility. But more important, he's the rare breed of introspective athlete, a guy who wants desperately to understand himself as much as he understands the game.

Lessons? Finley has had his share. Some of them come from the field, some from his books. The one he's focused on now is about making the most of a moment. This moment. The one he couldn't have expected to have and now is obligated to own.

"I wasn't supposed to have this opportunity, so it's like, F it," Finley said. "I'm playing with house money."

The first time Finley met receiver Harmon, they didn't exactly click.
They'd arrived the same time in 2016, Harmon as a freshman receiver and Finley as the transfer QB. Harmon is a gamer, and Finley is an unabashed competitor in whatever arena happens to be immediately in front of them, so the two played Madden.

Harmon won easily, and he relished rubbing it in.

"I hated his guts," Finley said in a typically wry fashion that makes it impossible to tell if he's being serious.

The two are tight now, Finley praising Harmon's work ethic in motivating the rest of NC State's receiving corps, which now appears to be among the best units in the country, and Harmon crediting his QB with allowing him to flourish on the big stage. But it's also entirely possible that, for a few days there, Finley really did hold a grudge. That's just how he operates.

"Golf, racquetball, pool -- he's always competing," Burnette said.

When it comes to football, Finley's need to be the best borders on obsession. He reads everything he can get his hands on, devouring books on nutrition and leadership and exercise. He has undergone sleep studies to ensure his body receives ample recovery time. He's an advocate of Tom Brady's TB12 method, a rigorous regime of performance enhancement. He avoids gluten in hopes of adding some heft to his wiry frame. Burnette said he'll shoot off a text to Finley about some topic related to football, and an hour later they'll still be trading messages.

"He's a constant learner," Drinkwitz said. "He's truly always working on his craft. He's competitive about being a great player."

The need to learn extends well beyond the field. Finley has two master's degrees already, a perk of six years on campus. He spent his summer reading "Sapiens," a book about the history of humanity. He has studied Gandhi in hopes of learning more about finding inner peace.

Some of his teammates have embraced that mindset, too. Finley shares books with receiverStephen Louis, and the two often discuss what they've learned from their reading.Jones, Finley's roommate for the past three years, doesn't quite get the allure of that stocked bookshelf. It's just football, right? But all those deep dives into philosophy and psychology and history connect with the task at hand.

"It's growing as a person, and that translates onto the field," Finley said. "Who you are off the field is who you are on it. There's no flipping a switch."

In Drinkwitz's office, the table is lined with photographs of NC State's quarterback lineage: Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett, Russell Wilson, Mike Glennon -- all NFL starters after their time in Raleigh. Finley's photo could be there someday. Heck, he probably wants his photo to be a few inches bigger than the rest, because what's the use of working toward being anything short of the best? Or maybe he doesn't want his photo there at all, because what's the sense in comparing Finley to anyone who came before? More likely though, is that Finley has given precious little thought to it at all. He has a mantra for 2018, one he wishes he'd understood better years ago: simplicity.

"The first part of my career didn't go nearly as planned, and that was something I had to work on," Finley said. "I realized one of the reasons I wasn't as successful as I wanted to be was I was too worried about what everyone else was doing and not about myself."

There is much within Finley's control, and he has tinkered with the finest details to find the right formula for success. But this year, he's not interested in any more trial and error. The point of routine is simply to will one into existence, he said. The specifics don't matter.

There is much out of Finley's control, too. This is what weighed on him for so many years, and it's only with the benefit of age and experience and wisdom that he has been able to separate those things out of his worldview and find peace in a world that doesn't always bend to his whim.

This week will test that ethos. Clemson, an adversary that has tormented Finley as much as any other, awaits. In his first year at NC State, a chip-shot kick sailed left and the Tigers prevailed. A year later, Finley's offense hung 31 on Clemson -- a product of 491 yards of offense, the second most by a conference opponent of the Tigers in five years -- but still came up seven points short of victory.

In attempt No. 3, Finley's Wolfpack has an opportunity to finally scale the mountain, topple the defending ACC champs and gain the inside track to the division title that has belonged exclusively to the Tigers or Florida State for nearly a decade. How does anyone keep a matchup with that much history and emotion and high stakes simple?

"How I see it is it's not about them at all," Finley said. "It's about us playing our best. If we don't play our best, we're probably not going to beat them. Same goes for them. If they don't play their best, I don't think they'll beat us. There's a fine line between watching film and preparing for a team and just doing your job."

This year, Finley is just doing his job. He trusts his coaches. He has let the world in on his process. He's comfortable on the floor, doing leg lifts mid-interview, still charmingly, maddeningly, uniquely comfortable in his own skin.

If there's an exception to Finley's credo of simplicity, it's his reading list. Right now, he's working through three or four books at once, with another sitting on his bedside table, begging him to crack it open and dive in.

The book he just finished seems to fit this moment in Finley's career perfectly. "The Alchemist" is a novel about a boy who has a dream that sets him on a journey to find his destiny. Along the way, the boy begins to understand his own role in shaping his future, that fate is not prewritten and that man's will to achieve is sometimes greater than all the forces of the universe.

"When a person really desires something," the boy is told, "all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream."

Maybe the universe will be on Finley's side Saturday. Maybe not. There are more books left to read and lessons to learn, and all that is unknown is still greater than one QB can contemplate. Even Ryan Finley.

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