By Bill Hass
August 30, 2007
WINSTON-SALEM Richard Belton has a ready answer when anyone asks what it was like to sit out his freshman season at Wake Forest.
"I tell people it's like working for an entire year but not getting a paycheck," said Belton, a fourth-year junior fullback.
Most high school seniors believe they can make an immediate impact on the college level. The truth is, that's usually not the case. Wake Forest has built its program on selling recruits that the "paycheck" is down the road.
That succeeded beyond everyone's expectations when, in the sixth year of the Jim Grobe era, the Deacons won the ACC championship and played in the Orange Bowl. Much of that success was because of Grobe's carefully constructed redshirt program, with fifth-year seniors and fourth-year juniors in the key roles.
Now that the Deacons have proven it can be done, the next task is to show that 2006 wasn't a one-hit wonder. History is not kind. After bowl games in 1979, 1992, 1999 and 2002, there were dropoffs to losing records, usually the first of several.
"You want a program, you don't want a season," Grobe said. "Last year was one of those years where everything fell into place. We won early, we gained a lot of confidence, we won a couple of games on the last play and that snowballed. We got used to winning and sometimes it was pretty ugly but we found ways to win.
"Unfortunately there's no science to that. I think we're in position to be a really good football team this year. I think we're in position to be a really good football team in future years. Sustaining success year in and year out is something you strive for, something you lay a foundation for. But there are no guarantees."
This season will test whether the redshirt philosophy can sustain a program past one great year. Anything less than a second straight bowl appearance, which hasn't been done since the 1948 Gator Bowl and 1949 Dixie Bowl, would be a major disappointment.
The Deacons will need stellar seasons from their older players, some of whom have not made big contributions so far. Last season, that was exactly what happened with nose tackle Jamil Smith, defensive tackle Jyles Tucker, cornerback Riley Swanson and wide receiver Willie Idlette, all fifth-year players who had the best season of the careers.
This year, it could be the likes of senior safety Aaron Mason, defensive tackle Zach Stukes, wide receiver Kevin Marion or offensive linemen Matt Brim and Louis Frazier. All have played and had their moments, but not consistently.
"As you look at our football team, we've got some guys that we expect to play well," Grobe said, "but I think the key to our season is some of the guys we haven't counted on in the past stepping up and being for-real guys for us."
Mason, currently in the three-man rotation at safety, believes it's his time to make a lasting impression.
"In the long run, if you look at it from a logical perspective, you realize you're a better player once you get older," Mason said. "The sooner you realize that, the better player you can mold yourself into being later on."
That's what Wake tells its recruits. Although true freshmen do play defensive end Jeremy Thompson and guard Chris DeGeare are two current examples usually it's because there's a critical depth problem at a particular position.
The redshirt year gives players time to get stronger and quicker in the weight room, to practice with the scout team against the first- and second-teamers, and a period to adjust academically and socially to college.
According to recruiting coordinator Ray McCartney, selling the redshirt idea is a matter of trust that the staff will "protect" every player.
"What we mean by that is, a lot of people will promise you that you will play as a true freshman," McCartney said, "and then when you get there you find out you're covering kickoffs or you're on a PAT team. That's playing, but you're not getting significant minutes, so you're blowing your true freshman year and you're gone in four years. Your best playing days should be in front of you as a fifth-year senior.
"Our ACC championship team, when you look at the number of fifth-year seniors that helped us win, it's amazing. So you're looking out for their best interest, not throwing them to the wolves as a true freshman if we feel they're not ready."
After players arrive for fall practice of their freshmen year, it sinks in that they're really not going to play. That's when the coaches have to reinforce what they told them during recruiting.
"That redshirt year is not a whole lot of fun," McCartney said. "It's a growing and learning experience that helps them down the road. They also get to know their coaches, who will be with them for five years. That bond between coach and player starts before they ever step on the field in a crucial situation."
Belton said it was a matter of getting over the initial shock of not playing and making the best of his redshirt year.
"There's a lot more to it than Xs and Os," he said. "It's how to develop good habits of watching film and how to lift properly and how to take care of your body and how to eat well and how to become a better person and take on the role of being a college athlete."
The idea is that older players, having been through so many repetitions in practice, will make fewer mistakes in crunch time. Wake's 2005 team was 4-7 but was close to reversing that record if it hadn't blown a few close games. In 2006, Wake won three games with interceptions inside the last minute and set up the winning drive in the championship game after an interception in the fourth quarter. It's no coincidence those plays were made by fifth-year players Gattis, Ghee and Swanson and fourth-year player Jon Abbate.
Perhaps the biggest convert was athletics director Ron Wellman, who agreed with Grobe's redshirt idea and, after the 2002 season, awarded him a 10-year contract. This year will mark the halfway point.
"There are a lot of coaches out there who are hesitant about redshirting because they only have a five-year contract," McCartney said, "and they're scared to death in year four or five they could be let go, as we have seen in some elite programs. That (contract) has facilitated what we've done and has followed the track that Coach Grobe felt that it should."
For the Deacons, what's needed this season is for the older players to carry them through tough times in fourth quarters, much like 2006.
"We've got the blueprint now," Mason said. "We know what it takes to win games and finish games in the fourth quarter and go to the ACC championship. I don't think there will be a falloff; actually, I know there won't be a falloff because we know what it takes."
WAKE FOREST INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- No discussion of whether Wake can repeat its success of last season is complete without comparing the schedules. In 2006, the Deacons had a perfect schedule to build confidence and momentum. Even long-time suffering fans would have had difficulty saying that Wake wouldn't open at least 4-1 and had a good shot at 5-0. The Deacons played all four of their non-conference games, including a I-AA team, and the worst team in the league (Duke). The five were 11-44 combined the previous season. Wake didn't have to face a conference contender until Week 6.
This season, the Deacons open at Boston College, a division favorite, then face Nebraska, No. 20 in the AP poll. Four of their first six games are ACC games. Although Wake does get Army and Vanderbilt later, they also have Navy (9-4 last year). The Deacons also have to go on the road to two places where they've struggled: Clemson (two wins in the last 23 games) and Virginia (one win in the last 11 games).
- Jim Grobe can't stop talking about his freshman class. Asked a question recently about his redshirt freshmen, Grobe spoke briefly about that class and moved on quickly to the freshmen. He spoke about how Wake's recruiting was continuing to improve and that he was excited to see the players in action. But with more talent, comes more temptation.
It's not Grobe's style, as he's become known for redshirting virtually every freshman who has come through the program. But you wonder a bit whether Grobe will like the taste of the good life he had last year, and whether he might turn to a freshman if he thinks that player could help Wake make another run.
The most likely candidate just might be quarterback Skylar Jones. It might seem odd that if Grobe played a freshman that it would be a quarterback, since that position takes some getting used to and Wake has a good one in Riley Skinner. However, Grobe loves quarterbacks who can run, and Jones is the only one on the roster who can. Grobe loves it so much that he had Kenny Moore take direct snaps late last year, just to test defenses.
Jones has 4.33 speed (the fastest at the Nike Combine) and could provide that kind of attack this year. He's proven this fall that he can pass if needed. But really, Grobe might be tempted to reach for almost any position if talent, depth or injuries become issues. Wake recruited four linebackers, which could be a problem spot, plus talented players at almost every position.
We'll see how much willpower Grobe can show if another gold ring is within sight.
- Chalk up another round of success this fall for Tim Billings, the assistant whom Grobe brought in last year to coach wide receivers and special teams.
Last year, Billings transformed a weak unit into one that blocked, caught and ran. Kenny Moore, who basically hadn't done anything in his career, proved he could be a good receiver, then saved the season with his running ability.
Lost in that shuffle was the first good season from Kevin Marion, as well. He had tantalized with his speed, but disappointed on the field. It wasn't until Billings toughened him up and worked on his fundamentals that Marion contributed. He only caught 10 passes, but he carried 23 times for a 17.5 yard average and became a kick returner that teams feared. This fall, Marion has shown continued improvement, shining in the scrimmages.
In addition, Billings has brought along Chip Brinkman, who has caught one pass in two years but was a surprise of the spring, and Marshall Williams, a redshirt freshman who may have as much talent (4.34 speed) as any in the unit. Look for Williams to improve under Billings and contribute more and more as the season goes by.
Throw in the return of Demir Boldin, the most physical of the bunch, and Billings may have taken one of the league's worst units to one of its better ones in two years.
- Running back was such an issue last year, turning into a position where Grobe was just happy to find warm bodies. This fall, it's been a focus as well, but in a more positive sense.
Grobe has been pleased with the return of Micah Andrews, who appeared to be ready to be Wake's next star back before his knee injury. Grobe says he hasn't seen any tentativeness from Andrews. But there have been some surprises behind Andrews and Kevin Harris, who looks more mature.
First, senior De'Angelo Bryant continues to get a lot of work. We thought Grobe had finally given up on Bryant as too big and slow last year, but he's back for more. Bryant can catch the ball out of the backfield, but he is not the small back that Grobe prefers for his zone-blocking scheme. So we're not sure what the fascination is.
Second, the redshirt freshman backs Josh Adams and Lucas Caparelli have not stepped forward. Grobe almost looked to Adams last year when Wake was looking for backs, but Adams (one of Wake's highest rated recruits recently) still has not made an impact in practice.
- Wake had high hopes for Aaron Mason in 2005, but after opening the season as a starter, he was derailed by a concussion. He hasn't started since. But Wake badly needs some experienced safety play this year, and Mason has looked very good so far. Mason gives Wake more speed than Patrick Ghee, but he'll have to prove he can match Ghee's football instincts.
The other defensive standout has been John Russell, who is fighting for playing time along the defensive line. He may not start, as Boo Robinson and Zach Stukes have that locked down, but his practice play should mean Russell will see plenty of playing time.
What hasn't emerged yet is a standout linebacker to fill the shoes of Eric Berry (academics), who was filling the shoes of Jon Abbatte (early NFL). Grobe hasn't been blown away by the young linebackers, and he lost some depth when Mike Simmons left the team (chronic injury).
- Looking for historical precedence that Wake will repeat the magic? Well, the Deacons haven't exactly been able to string together successful seasons in the past. After its last four bowl appearances, Wake has posted a losing record the next season. Over that stretch, the Deacons' average post-bowl record is 3.5-7.8.
The Big Picture
Wake Forest shocked the world (and probably even itself) last year with its ACC title and BCS bid. Coach Jim Grobe is adored by the fan base and the media, the Demon Deacons sold a record amount of season tickets this year, and significant facility improvements continue to happen. The program probably hasn't been on such solid footing since Peahead Walker was running the show in the 1940s. While Grobe may have difficulty duplicating last year's success, there's little doubt that his approach to recruiting and schemes will keep the Deacons very competitive. At Wake, historically speaking, that's no small feat.
Offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke deserves much of the credit for last year's success, after he took the heat for making the offense too predictable in the past. Despite significant injuries, he again was able to make Wake a team for which opponents struggled to prepare. However, when the Deacons were in that position several years ago, teams eventually caught up with them, and the "unique" offense sputtered. This year, Lobotzke has even more weapons, so it will be interesting to see if he's able to continue to keep defenses off-balance. He'll also have to decide how much to change from a run-heavy approach, now that he has a proven quarterback in Riley Skinner.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 3-5 (6) 5-6 None
1998 2-6 (7) 3-8 None
1999 3-5 (5) 7-5 Aloha Bowl (W)
2000 1-7 (8) 2-9 None
2001 3-5 (7) 6-5 None
2002 3-5 (7) 7-6 Seattle Bowl (W)
2003 3-5 (7) 5-7 None
2004 1-7 (10) 4-7 None
2005 3-5 (4A) 4-7 None
2006 6-2 (1A) 11-3 Orange Bowl (L)
ACC: 28-52 (.350)
Overall: 54-63 (.462)
Skinner is a perfect Grobe quarterback: efficient and accurate. Micah Andrews returns from injury to run behind Richard Belton. Kenny Moore emerged last fall as a top receiver and running threat. All-ACC center Steve Justice and the right side of the offensive line are solid. Sam Swank is one of the nation's best kickers and punters. Linebacker Aaron Curry is the leading returning tackler, and tackle Zach Stukes is the veteran on a deep defensive line.
Coming On Strong
Right tackle Jeff Griffin could be Wake's next all-star lineman. Chip Brinkman could replace Nate Morton as the "hands" receiver. Sophomores Boo Robinson and John Russell look strong in the middle of the defensive line, and ends Jeremy Thompson and Matt Robinson are finally healthy. At safety, the Deacons hope that Chip Vaughn can become a star, and that Aaron Mason can blossom as a senior.
Cause For Concern?
The offense is loaded in many ways, but the left side of the line could derail everything. Seniors Matt Brim and Louis Frazier, a converted guard, will have to step up significantly. The defensive backfield has talent, but losing three starters (Josh Gattis, Patrick Ghee, Riley Swanson) takes away a lot of experience. Linebacker was supposed to be a strength, but the early exit of Jon Abbate (NFL) and the academic problems of Eric Berry left the unit much younger and thinner than expected.
The Whole Truth
"Ever since we got up here for the summer and started training, it's been all about this year and not last year. It was fun last year, but it's over now. We've got a tough one ahead of us."
Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner
Chart By: The Wake Insider