June 30, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM With football practice right around the corner, it's a good time to remember what coach Jim Grobe was telling us the last time he walked off the Groves Stadium field. March was ending, and Grobe after a less than scintillating spring scrimmage appeared to be hoping that someone would suddenly add a few extra months to the calendar. Aug. 30, and the season opener at Boston College, didn't look nearly far enough away.
Perhaps more than most years, the period between spring practice and the opening game is critical this year for a young Wake team. For one, while Grobe has recruited speed, he knows his team needs to get stronger.
One of the things that's important for us is we went with early spring practice so we could have a longer weight-room period with those guys until August, Grobe said. Especially before we come back in August, we've got to get our guys stronger. We're going to have to play with a lot of young players. You'd better be strong to play the kind of talent we've got to play against.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the defensive line, which lost all three starters. On its projected two-deep chart, Wake has no player heavier than 283 pounds, and three of its six players are 250 or lighter. The Deacons were so unimpressed with Jerome Nichols (274) that they moved 230-pound linebacker Jamaal Argrow to end in the spring.
Especially with guys like Jerome Nichols and Jason Finklea, they just need a ton of time in the weight room with (assistant) Ethan Reeve, Grobe said. We're going to play against some awfully big people.
If the body improves, the mind will have to follow, especially on offense. Wake lost eight starters and will link up a new quarterback (Cory Randolph) with a new offensive coordinator (Steed Lobotzke) and new quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen, who has never played or coached the position.
The problem for us right now, when we go to the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball, our guys aren't confused about what to do, it's just doing it once the ball is snapped, Grobe said. Being a full-speed player while you're thinking is not easy.
Now add in the Deacons' schedule, ranked in one preseason publication as one of the 25 toughest in the nation. Most can see why Grobe is a worried man, despite his new 10-year contract and early success in Winston-Salem.
After opening at BC, Wake gets N.C. State, Purdue and East Carolina at home, then goes to Virginia. The Wolfpack and Cavaliers are expected to be among the nation's top 20 teams, and Purdue may not be far behind.
I can promise you, if you go play a good team like Boston College, even if you could balance up talent-wise, and I'm not sure we can, but if we could, the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to come out on top, Grobe said. That's always true early in the year, and you hate to go up with a bunch of green, inexperienced guys knowing that you need to limit mistakes.
It's possible the Deacons could muster only a 1-4 mark in that stretch, which could doom the mental approach of a young team for the rest of the season.
Toss in some health problems (offensive lineman Mark Moroz) and a few off-the-field questions (center Craig Jones, back Fred Staton, etc.), and it's easy to wonder: Is Grobe just doing his best Lou Holtz soft-pedal, or is he seriously trying to lower expectations for what could be a down year before what looks like an upswing?
He responded honestly this spring when asked whether the program could dip this season.
That's possible, he said. We're just not very mature right now. We're making too many mistakes. A big key for our football team will be how quickly our guys mature, and I'm talking mentally more than anything else. We just have to get some guys who haven't played in front of a lot of people and haven't played on a regular basis to grow up in a hurry.
The real work is just about to begin.
Friendly Commission Doesn't Hurt
Winston-Salem suddenly is a draw for prep athletic events, which can't help but get Wake Forest's name out in front of a few more prospects and their parents.
For years, most North Carolina championships have been held in Charlotte, Chapel Hill or Raleigh. But in less than a year, Winston-Salem has landed the state championships for cross county, wrestling and Class 2A football, as well as pulling in the Western Regional basketball tournament. That event, which determines half of the state final pairings for boys and girls basketball, had been held in Hickory for more than 20 years.
In addition, events such as the State Games and some AAU championships are on their way, and state prep officials have been looking at Wake's track and soccer facilities for future events.
While Wake Forest hasn't been directly involved in landing these events, the Deacons have a number of friendly faces on the Greater Winston-Salem Sports Commission, which has provided all the legwork and funding.
Cities pay for the right to hold high school championship events, in exchange for the potential income from the influx of fans. The Deacons helped up that price when they charged $10,000 for the use of their football stadium. UNC and N.C. State had never charged for use in past years.
But the Sports Commission has written the checks, perhaps influenced by members such as Ben Sutton, the president of ISP Sports. Sutton has two degrees from Wake and spent nine years leading the Deacons' sports marketing efforts. He formed ISP to market the Deacons and other colleges. Another friendly face on the board belongs to Don Angell, who was added before the basketball negotiations. Angell has donated more than $1 million to Wake Forest.
The end result will be that thousands of prep athletes will filter through Winston-Salem in coming years, and most will be exposed to Wake in some way during that time, through a campus visit or in a locker room or fieldhouse. The Deacons hope many of them will associate happy memories with their visit.
So far, so good, judging by recent comments from Dick Knox, the deputy executive director of the N.C. High School Athletic Association.
It has been tremendous for us, with the people we have worked with, Knox said. We get very positive comments back from our coaches. Most of us know that if you have been involved with athletics at any point in time, if it is not positive, you will hear about it. It has been extremely positive.