September 26, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM -- Perhaps Jim Grobe has discovered a coaching secret: As he keeps removing starters from the lineup because of injury, the team just keeps winning.
While Wake Forest's press notes trumpet the Deacons' schedule, most independent observers saw that it set up perfectly for a young team. Throw in a group that is without its starting quarterback, running back, left tackle and defensive end, among others, and it looks even more perfect.
Wake's sports information department has made a point of noting that the Deacons are one of only two BCS schools that will play two non-conference road games against BCS teams. While admirable, those two games were against Connecticut (5-6 in 2005) and Ole Miss (3-8). Then throw in games against Syracuse (1-10), Duke (1-10) and Liberty (1-10 in I-AA), and that's a pretty pleasant way for anyone to start a season.
The Deacons have made the most of it, even without key players such as Benjamin Mauk, Micah Andrews, Arby Jones and Matt Robinson. Mauk (broken arm), Andrews (knee) and Robinson (knee) may miss the rest of the season.
Things get quite a bit more difficult from here on out. To continue to win, Wake will need to continue to improve on its strong early defense and must make opponents respect its passing game.
On defense, Wake has been strong against the run, as you would expect with such good linebackers, but it still has a few questions against the pass. Don't think that Clemson, Florida State and others will forget about the Duke tape. If coordinator Dean Hood has to bring blitzes to get pressure, then better opponents may pick Wake apart.
The defense also must continue to produce turnovers. With an offense that's not built on big plays, field position will continue to be a key. The Deacons produced seven turnovers in the first four games this season, compared to four in the first four last year.
On offense, Wake must get its passing game going. Since redshirt freshman Riley Skinner replaced Mauk, Wake has let the passing game loose only in one half (second half against Duke), and even that was a result of desperation. Against Ole Miss, Grobe let Skinner throw only five times.
Granted, the running game has looked good, despite the loss of Andrews. Wake even went back to its orbit reverse against Mississippi, with wide receivers getting seven carries. Plus, Wake hasn't had the need to pass much, as it has had the lead most of the time.
But against better teams, Skinner must be able to take the pressure off the running game. Perhaps more important, considering Wake's play-calling history, the coaching staff must feel comfortable letting Skinner throw downfield.
When you've been to only four bowl games in the past 57 years, it's never too early to start speculating about the postseason when you get off to a good start. Right now, the Deacons would have to fumble badly to fall short of the six wins needed for bowl eligibility.
But what then?
Look at the rest of the league. Right now, Clemson, FSU, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami seem to have a decent chance to get to nine victories (in some cases more). Boston College may be right behind that group.
If so, then two things would help the Deacons: a stumble by one of the aforementioned teams, and/or the majority of N.C. State, Virginia and Maryland not getting to six wins. The more bowl-eligible ACC teams, the worse it is for Wake, which fails to excite bowl officials because of its small alumni base.
Of course, the Deacons can help themselves in a couple of ways.
First, Wake must beat UNC at home. The way the Deacs run the ball, that should be a no-brainer.
Second, and more importantly, Wake must win one or both of its two swing games: N.C. State and Maryland. Not only does it give the Deacons a win, but it makes it more difficult for either program to get bowl-eligible itself. Both games are on the road, and Maryland is the last game of the season, a part of the schedule when Grobe's teams typically have struggled. Still, two wins could get Wake to eight and in strong contention for a "bigger" bowl, such as Nashville (Music City) or Charlotte (Meineke).
Finally, the Deacs could pull an upset out of their games against Clemson, BC, FSU and Virginia Tech. Wake will be an underdog in each game, but none of those teams has been so dominant that the Deacons should be counted out. Wake gets the Eagles at home, which might be the best chance for a surprise.
No matter what, if Grobe gets his program bowl-eligible again, it will mark a step in the right direction for Wake. Remember, Grobe will lose only 11 seniors who are contributing this season, and only three are outstanding players.
BASKETBALL LEARNED IN BAHAMAS
What did Wake Forest learn from its trip for two basketball games in the Bahamas?
Freshman point guard Ish Smith is going to be fun. His personality is so infectious, and he plays the game so quickly, that his teammates will have to keep up. Both are good signs when you look back at last year's team. Smith should be able to push Shamaine Dukes to the bench.
"I think (Smith) loves to play," coach Skip Prosser said. "Your point guard ideally is the personality of the team."
Wake's young big men may be better than expected. Granted, the Bahamian players were mostly forward-sized or smaller, but redshirt freshman David Weaver and freshman Chas McFarland looked good. Weaver had 18 points in one game, and he averaged seven rebounds. He appears stronger and more aggressive than last year. McFarland averaged 9.0 points and 8.5 rebounds.
"(McFarland) was very active," Prosser said. "He got his hands on the ball a lot. He's got a nice touch around the basket. Despite his size, he's coordinated. He was a guy you really noticed over the two days."
McFarland appeared to be a redshirt candidate, with only 213 pounds on his 7-0 frame when he signed. But Wake has only two true inside players in Kyle Visser (6-11) and Kevin Swinton (6-7). So if Weaver and/or McFarland can provide any help, it will be a big bonus.
Freshman guard Anthony Gurley can score. OK, that was his reputation already, but Prosser has confirmed it at the next level. Prosser compared him to one of his former players, Lenny Brown, a member of the Hall of Fame at Xavier. Brown played right away, averaged 15.5 points for his career and was known as a clutch shooter.
The Deacons still need to improve their shooting touch. Wake struggled from three-point range and the free throw line on the trip, much like last year. Wake's returning players shot 30.4 percent from three-point range and 67.3 percent from the foul line last season. Right now, the recruits don't seem as if they'll make a positive impact on those numbers.