WINSTON-SALEM – Perhaps the most important story of spring football at Wake Forest happened before practice even started. And that story may turn out to be the most important one of the season.
The 2008 Demon Deacons will be loaded, looking to continue their strong run of the last two seasons. The defense will be talented and experienced, and Sam Swank is one of the nation's top kickers. The offensive backfield will feature two of the ACC's best. While replacing All-ACC Kenny Moore at wide receiver remains a bit of a question mark, the real "season-making" unit will be the offensive line.
That's what makes the announcement that guard Chris DeGeare is academically ineligible so important. Wake already lost All-ACC center Steve Justice, plus fellow starters Louis Frazier and Matt Brim, to graduation.
The coaches had hoped that DeGeare, a junior who has started 24 games in his career, would be a key part in holding a new line together. The announcement was not a surprise to many around the program, though. DeGeare had struggled with issues on and off the field last year.
"Chris has been borderline academically for a while, and when you play with fire and you're right at that borderline, then sometimes it catches you," Wake coach Jim Grobe said. "And that's what has happened with Chris.
"He's just got to wake up."
The coaching staff had been telling DeGeare that about his weight, as well. Although DeGeare came in at more than 300 pounds, he was listed at 362 last year and often ballooned higher. He slipped from starting every game in 2006 to nine last year.
"He got too heavy during his career, and this will give us more time to get him in shape and give him a chance to realize how important football is to him," Grobe said. "If football is really, really important to you, then you take care of business in the classroom.
"He's a great person. He's got a good heart. He's just a good guy. He's potentially got the ability to play at the next level. But I think football just has to become more important to him, and I think it will now."
Grobe is viewing the 2008 season as the redshirt year DeGeare never had. He enrolled in the spring of 2005 and played that fall. So far, the player's family is saying that DeGeare, although he's not in school this semester, will be back next season to work in the classroom and on the scout team.
But what does that mean for the Deacons in 2008? Wake has three linemen who have started a handful of games each. Juniors Jeff Griffin and Joe Birdsong will open at tackle, and junior Barrett McMillin will man one of the guard positions. Beyond those three, Wake's linemen have almost no game experience.
Early in spring practice, sophomore Russell Nenon appeared to be the favorite to replace DeGeare. Nenon was originally a highly rated center prospect out of Memphis.
After Nenon are juniors Gage Crews and Boomer Peterson, who have struggled to impress so far. True freshman guard Joe Looney, who enrolled this spring, may be pressed into duty, as DeGeare was in 2005.
Grobe recently spoke of a return to a strategy from his first couple of seasons in which he used rotating linemen. Junior Trey Bailey will start at center. Others, such as redshirt freshmen Ryan Britt and Doug Weaver and sophomore Cannon Gaskin, will enter the fray along the line. Britt started spring practice well, showing the fire that Grobe loves to see.
"Probably what we're looking at is not somebody who can step in and play four quarters," Grobe said. "But if we can find a couple of guys at that guard position, and they can take turns staying fresh and just fighting and being tough and nasty for four quarters, that's what we've got to find out of those young guys."
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the line to Wake's season. In the opening spring scrimmage, the line was swarmed consistently, and the Deacons couldn't run the ball at all. Grobe needs to hope that by the fall he has happier news to discuss about his linemen.
AMINU SHOULD SURVIVE ARREST
Wake Forest's other big news also occurred off the field, with the arrest of top basketball recruit Al-Farouq Aminu.
A day after being named Mr. Basketball in Georgia, Aminu found himself in jail on charges of felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor criminal trespassing. He and two teammates were accused of using a BB gun to shoot a 34-year-old woman, Rebecca Baltich, in the stomach and to shatter the back window of her truck.
All of the details are still trickling out, but it appears that the trio fired from about 45 feet away at about 10 p.m. In the first week of the story, no connection had been made between the players and the woman, and the shooter had not been identified.
After initially chasing the players in his car, yelling at them and calling 911, Baltich's husband, Branden, later said that he hoped that the prosecutors would go easy on the players. He said he didn't know of their athletic reputations until he was told.
"People make mistakes. People do dumb things, particularly high schoolers," Baltich said. "My wife is a very forgiving person, and that side of her feels awful for the boys, too."
All the quotes about Aminu backed the idea that he is a good kid who made a bad decision.
Eddie Martin, the president of Aminu's AAU team, said that Aminu had written a letter of apology: "This is a young man who has never been to the principal's office, who has never really gotten into trouble. It's out of character, and I've known him since he was eight years old."
Taariq Muhammad, the point guard on Aminu's high school team: "He is not that type of kid. I can't see Al-Farouq like that. He was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time. This could serve as a lesson for other kids."
Gerald Arnold, Aminu's high school coach: "There's surprise among the students and staff, and then there's a feeling that sometimes good kids just make a mistake. It's kind of been a wake-up call. When you do something, there's a consequence, and it doesn't matter who you are, even a guy like Farouq."
Wake did not comment on the incident, other than to say in a release that it was gathering facts. It would appear that the felony charge may be dropped, and that the situation will not prevent Aminu from attending Wake.
The school faced a more serious issue in 2006, when football recruit Dennis Godfrey was indicted on charges of raping and kidnapping a 16-year-old girl. The situation took some time to sort out, but he was allowed to attend school. His admission to Wake was deferred until January 2007, after he entered an Alford plea for two misdemeanors, simple assault and obstruction of justice, and was given a year's probation.
Look for Aminu to be on the court in the fall with no consequences, other than maybe some added ammunition for taunts from opposing fans.