May 30, 2007 WINSTON-SALEM Last year, the defensive line looked as if it would be a strength for Wake Forest. Instead, it turned into a bit of a question mark.
This year, it appears that the defensive line will be a question mark going into the season. But if all goes well, it could turn into a strength.
Heading into 2006, coach Jim Grobe expected to have two young and talented starters returning at end: Matt Robinson and Jeremy Thompson. In the middle, he had experienced players such as Zach Stukes and Jamil Smith, the surprise of the spring. Jyles Tucker was athletic and versatile, able to play inside or outside. Senior Bryan Andrews added experience on the end.
But Robinson, who had boasted 10.5 tackles for loss the year before as a redshirt freshman, never did return from a kneecap injury. Thompson, though he played most of the year, was extremely banged-up.
That led to some musical chairs up front for much of the fall, and it also forced some younger players, including tackle Boo Robinson, into major minutes. The line held together fairly well, as Wake finished in the middle of the league in run defense, but it was a constant source of questions.
After the Demon Deacons' magical season, the line lost a lot of that experience. Tucker, Smith and Andrews are all gone. But instead of a desperate situation, the Wake coaches see a unit that could be even better this fall.
Robinson and Thompson are healthy again. Robinson revved around spring practice as if his leg had never been injured.
"There's never been a low-key Matt Robinson," Grobe said. "He's all over the field. He's got every bit of his speed and quickness back."
While Robinson's return may be the most obvious sign of hope, Grobe sounded almost as pleased by the return of Thompson, who was talented enough to play as a true freshman.
"Jeremy Thompson right now finally looks like the old Jeremy Thompson," Grobe said. "I don't know that at any time last fall he looked like the guy we recruited."
Even better news is that Wake may have one of its most talented groups of defensive tackles. That position traditionally has been a problem spot for the Deacons. One of the most difficult things to recruit for a struggling football program is big athletes, and Wake often got pushed around up front in the past.
Stukes and Boo Robinson will anchor the inside. Stukes improved from 12 tackles in 11 games the year before to lead Wake's defensive line in tackles last year with 42.
"He's grown up quite a bit," Grobe said. "I didn't think he was a very tough guy. He's always been very talented, but I thought at times he was not real physical. I thought he babied himself a little at times over injuries I didn't think were that significant. But he's just really proven to be a very mature, disciplined, tough guy."
Boo Robinson, at 326 pounds, proved to be hard to move and more athletic than expected. He finished with 35 tackles as a redshirt freshman last fall.
The best news may be the depth across the line, a luxury Wake has not had often in the past. On the outside are juniors Anthony Davis and Antonio Wilson. On the inside are sophomore John Russell and a group of talented young players, including redshirt freshmen Michael Carter and Dennis Godfrey. Russell, who is light for tackle at 250 pounds, nevertheless stood out in the spring.
"I'm liking John Russell at defensive tackle," safety Kevin Patterson said. "He's looking real nice. His technique has improved tremendously. He's in on almost every play in practice. He's looking real good."
Carter was good enough last year that Grobe had to resist playing him as a true freshman, and Godfrey is a physical specimen who's been held back by off-field issues.
With an inexperienced secondary on hand, the play of the front line will be that much more important. Defensive coordinator Dean Hood has had to rely on the blitz to create pressure in the past, but if the line can generate heat without help, that will allow Hood to keep the secondary out of dangerous coverages.
HOOPS CONCERN: THIN FRONTCOURT
The Wake basketball program now must face life without Patrick Patterson.
Of course, Wake never actually had Patterson, the last available talented big man in the Class of 2007. But for a long time, there was some slim hope that he would commit to Wake, helping to solve some drastic frontcourt issues.
But Patterson won't be coming to help, and now the question is whether James Johnson will be able to, either. Johnson still hasn't met NCAA academic requirements, and Wake might have to sweat it out for another month or two.
Without Johnson, the Demon Deacons would have only 10 scholarship players next year, and only three of those would be taller than 6-6. One is 7-0 center Chas McFarland, who still is considered a bit of a project. Even with Johnson, a 6-8 combo forward, the Deacons would be relatively small.
Another big question is how much coach Skip Prosser will commit to an up-tempo game. Prosser arrived at Wake with an up-tempo reputation, and he talks a lot about it, but the evidence has been spotty so far.
On offense, three of Prosser's six teams rank among the top nine scoring teams in Wake history. On defense, however, Prosser hasn't forced tempo much and rarely has pressed. He may have to do that this season to offset Wake's probable rebounding woes.
Prosser also has had issues in the past of being the one dictated to. For example, when opponents go big, he has been likely to go big to answer those mismatches, as opposed to trying to impose his will with his own mismatches.
David Weaver, a 6-10 center entering his third year (redshirt sophomore season) on campus, will be Wake's only true big man in 2007-08, and Weaver has had foul issues. McFarland could spell him, but it's a stretch to expect much out of him at this stage. Jamie Skeen, a 6-8 forward, can rebound some but thus far has shown the mentality of a guy who mainly likes to shoot three-pointers.
Looking at that picture, you might expect to see Wake in a three-guard offense pretty often this year.
If Weaver or Skeen is in foul trouble or needs a breather, the Deacons could put the remaining player in the middle and have a lot of "small" choices. Point guard should be a strength, with Ishmael Smith and Jeff Teague. Freshman shooter Gary Clark boosts the inconsistent duo of Harvey Hale and Anthony Gurley at shooting guard. L.D. Williams is a developing force at small forward, backed by Cameron Stanley and possibly Johnson.
If it can avoid being killed on the boards, that lineup could be very quick and aggressive on both ends.
The good news is that lineups with a variety of quick, versatile players have seen a lot of success in recent years. However, Wake is so thin up front that you can't help but wonder if it again will find itself in too many difficult situations this season.