September 25, 2007
WINSTON-SALEM - Wake Forest's surprising 2006 season was fueled by a number of players who weren't even on the radar in the preseason, such as Riley Skinner, Kenneth Moore and Kevin Harris.
This year, Wake coach Jim Grobe seems to be looking to a number of those kinds of players again. Time will tell whether they can provide similar magic.
After four games, it appeared that Josh Adams, a redshirt freshman, would take over the majority of the carries at tailback.
Adams started the season at least third on the depth chart behind Micah Andrews and Harris, but Adams clearly was Wake's most effective back in the early going. Andrews and Harris don't have the burst or the tackle-breaking moves Adams has shown.
Adams solidified his claim to the starting role down the stretch against Maryland. On Wake's 82-yard drive early in the fourth quarter, he carried four times for 27 yards and caught a pass for another eight yards. In overtime, Wake didn't even mess with anyone else, giving the ball to Adams three straight times for 25 yards and the touchdown.
"Amazing, really amazing," Grobe said. "I thought Josh in the fourth quarter and then in overtime was really special. He's a good young back, and he's going to keep coming on. Micah will keep competing, but certainly (there are) a lot of good feelings about that freshman running back right now."
Adams inevitably is going to be compared to Chris Barclay, who left Wake in 2005 as the school's all-time leading rusher. Adams is a 6-0 and 180 pounds, and Barclay was 5-10 and 180 pounds. Both are shifty backs, but it remains to be seen if Adams can match Barclay's vision and toughness.
In fact, Adams might have played as a true freshman last season, as Barclay did in his career, had it not been for a banged-up shoulder.
Also, along the offensive line, young players may completely change the suspect left side. Veterans Louis Frazier and Matthew Brim may find their way to the bench as Joe Birdsong and Barrett McMillan take over. Birdsong and McMillan were on the field for the winning overtime drive against Maryland.
The defense has its share of unknowns starting to emerge as well.
Hunter Haynes and Mike Rinfrette have stepped up on a thin linebacker crew, and Brandon Ghee has stopped the bleeding at cornerback.
Linebacker looked strong, even after losing Jon Abbate a year early to the NFL. But when Eric Berry became academically ineligible and Mike Simmons was lost to injury, suddenly Wake had only two experienced players.
Haynes, a redshirt freshman, quickly is becoming a force on the outside, including eight tackles against Army. Rinfrette, a defensive star in high school, moved from fullback to middle linebacker in the fall and now is seeing significant playing time.
Berry, by the way, won't return to Wake. He's looking to transfer and is no longer in school. The Demon Deacons won't lose any linebackers from this season (leaders Aaron Curry and Stanley Arnoux are juniors), and they will add a number of talented young players as well.
But perhaps the most important new face is Ghee.
In Wake's first two games, opponents threw early and often at Wake's corner opposite Alphonso Smith. Junior Kerry Major and redshirt freshman Marcus Williams were not getting the job done.
In the third game, the Deacons moved to Ghee, and he hasn't looked back. Ghee has missed two seasons, one as a redshirt and one with academic problems. Still, he's Wake's biggest corner at 6-0, and he's run a 4.34 40-yard dash.
Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen knows how to run an offense, and he went right at Ghee on the first play of the game. Ghee stayed with dangerous wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey and knocked the ball away. Friedgen didn't noticeably target Ghee for the rest of the game. Ghee finished with seven tackles, two for loss, including one sack where he ran down Jordan Steffy from far across the field. Ghee also forced a fumble.
DEPTH AT RECEIVER A CONCERN
Looking for a spot of concern? Wake's wide receivers have struggled.
While Moore has continued to be a weapon on both receptions and runs, he hasn't had much help.
Kevin Marion appeared to get over his drop problems last season, but they're back this year. In the first four games, he dropped two big-play passes with no one around him. He's also struggled in the running game. Last year, he led Wake with a 9.1-yard average on 23 carries. This year, through four games, he had carried 12 times for a 4.1-yard average.
The Deacs thought Chip Brinkman might develop into a Nate Morton-style possession receiver, but he's coming along slowly. Brinkman had 10 catches through four games, including four in the Maryland game when Wake often went with three receivers. But he'd gained only 54 yards on those 10 catches.
Demir Boldin had emerged as a redshirt freshman two years ago, but he missed last season with academic woes. He hasn't seen much of the field this year and had only one catch through four games.
The only other option this year would be redshirt freshman Marshall Williams, who's a speedster but has been sidelined with a high-ankle sprain.
The Deacs targeted wide receivers in recruiting and will have several to add to the mix next season. But Skinner will need some improvement this year from his current crew if the offense is to get on track.
BANK DEAL WILL HELP GROVES
Wake Forest's efforts to change its football image got a boost when BB&T announced a 10-year deal for naming rights to what had been called Groves Stadium.
The Demon Deacons are in the middle of several years of renovations, starting with the football offices and practice fields and progressing this year to the seven-story Deacon Tower. Next will come improvements to bathrooms, concession stands and Bridger Fieldhouse.
Athletic director Ron Wellman has stated that he wants Wake Forest football to be played at the "Wrigley Field of college football." The BB&T deal, which reportedly will pay Wake a little less than $1 million per year, will help accelerate that process.
However, while ticket sales were strong this year, Wellman is hearing some public backlash about various higher costs and seat-licensing plans, plus the removal of the Groves name from the stadium.
Wellman said he spoke to the Groves family about one and a half years ago about this possibility, and that they understood that times had changed.
He's trying to walk a balance between doing what Wake needs to do to be competitive in college football (remember Bill Dooley's complaints that Wake would not do just that) and not gouging its fans.
"We don't want to lose the goodwill of those individuals who are stepping up and buying season tickets because we have a great program," Wellman said. "But we also want them, when they come to the stadium, to have a great experience not just because we have a great team on the field, but because of the stadium and the amenities that they have in the stadium.
"There are amenities that fans expect today when they go to a college football game. And right now, quite frankly, we have difficulty supplying those amenities to our fans in the stadium."
Privately, athletic department officials have been amazed that many of the complaints - from their own fans - have centered on the idea that Wake isn't really a football power, despite last year, so it shouldn't be acting like it.
Wellman is sticking with the idea that this is necessary to compete, and he's not giving in to the idea that Wake will be lowly again in a couple of years, and thus expansion will look ridiculous.
"It would have been easier to establish the seat-rights program coming off a lesser year than last year," Wellman said. "We knew there would be that allegation, and we were very sensitive to it. But we also want to get the stadium done."