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Great Start Despite Blocking Problems

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

WINSTON-SALEM — One constant of the Jim Grobe era at Wake Forest has been the team's ability to run the ball. So, despite a surprising 3-1 start, many eyebrows were raised around the program when the Deacons struggled mightily on the ground. During Grobe's first two seasons at Wake, the Deacs led the ACC in rushing. Last year, they averaged 241 yards a game on the ground and 4.4 yards a carry. This season, through four games, those numbers were 153 and 3.5. So what's the problem? Two popular fan theories — that Grobe's schemes aren't as surprising anymore, and that new offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke isn't as good as departed Troy Calhoun — don't seem like reasonable explanations. Last year, most teams already had seen Wake's schemes once, yet its rushing numbers went up from the previous fall. Lobotzke (see below) doesn't seem to be calling things much differently than Calhoun. One major change this season is at fullback. In Grobe's first two years, he had the luxury of leading most of his running plays with Ovie Mughelli, who's now in the NFL. At an athletic 250 pounds, Mughelli was a punishing blocker who opened lots of holes and left many a linebacker on his back. This year, because of Fred Staton's ineligibility and Damon McWhite's weight problems, Grobe is left with converted tailback Nick Burney at fullback. Burney had never been a fullback prior to last year's Seattle Bowl, and with 216 pounds on a 6-3 frame, he doesn't cut nearly the imposing figure of Mughelli. Although the fullback position doesn't get much attention, it's impossible to understate the negative effect of Mughelli's absence on Wake's running game. It's almost as if the Deacons lost another lineman from the mix. Also, with Burney being a senior, the Wake staff had better hope that McWhite — whom they thought highly of coming in — improves, because he's the only other fullback on the roster. The staff once thought about true freshman D'Angelo Bryant there, but his future appears to be as a power tailback. Other changes have happened up front, where Grobe was most concerned coming into the season. While the line wasn't the disaster some anticipated through the first four games, the dropoff was noticeable. Two years ago, the Demon Deacons had a true rarity in college football: 10 quality offensive linemen, rotated at times as fresh, five-man units. Last season, Grobe had four talented blockers in his rotation, plus three other pretty solid players. This fall, after an injury to starting left tackle Mark Moroz, the Deacs had only one talented, experienced player — left guard Tyson Clabo — surrounded by lots of question marks. That's quite a difference. Among the young players, only redshirt freshman guard Steve Vallos made a particularly strong impression in the opening month. Tackle Wesley Bryant, a Florida transfer who was much-hyped out of high school, has been an inconsistent disappointment. Injuries have caused problems as well. In addition to Moroz, veteran center Blake Lingruen failed to impress after being injured in the season opener, and tackle Greg Adkins, guard Chad Rebar and guard Joe Salsich also missed time. The problems and injuries caused players to move constantly, both up and down the line and even from other positions. Daniel Orlebar is now in the rotation, a month after being moved from defense. Constant position-switching is not healthy for a young line, either. After the ECU game, Clabo joked that he just waits for the other players in the front five to line up, then he goes and stands wherever the hole is. These problems also haven't helped Grobe's preferred strategy of rotating a number of linemen to keep them fresh. The return of veteran center Craig Jones, who was suspended for three games, will help in this area. The staff also has high hopes for several freshman linemen, especially Steve Justice and Brodie Overstreet, but it's doubtful that they will play this season, unless the injuries continue. Finally, the running backs themselves have been part of the problem. Chris Barclay proved his talent last season as a true freshman, and Cornelius Birgs has been elusive at times. But both have been nursing injured ankles all season, and it's shown. The position also suddenly became thin when Staton became ineligible, Burney had to move to fullback and Dominic Anderson blew out his knee in the opener. That didn't allow Barclay or Birgs to take much time off to mend. It also led to a trend where one back had to do much of the work. In the first three games, the tailback with the most carries for Wake had an average of 77 percent of all the tailback carries. Last season, with four tailbacks available, the Deacons' top tailback in each game averaged only 48 percent of the tailback carries. Only four times in 13 games did Wake top 50 percent, and only once did Wake even get to 70 percent; Tarence Williams had 19 of the 27 tailback carries against Florida State. So the lack of depth is hurting now, but it could be worse down the road if Birgs and Barclay are worn into the ground. That's one of the main reasons Grobe went ahead and took the redshirt off Bryant in the ECU game. The original plan was to wait for an emergency to do it, but Grobe decided that being a three-tailback offense was better for the long haul. Lobotzke Adopts 2002 Philosophy Lobotzke doesn't seem to be calling things too differently from Calhoun, and in some ways, that's a negative. Yes, Calhoun did help Wake lead the ACC in total offense last season. But Calhoun had serious stretches where his offense would grind to a halt, often — or so it seemed — the victim of being overly conservative. Part of the problem was that James MacPherson wasn't built to be a big-armed, big-play quarterback. But at the same time, the Deacons didn't use a short passing game that could take advantage of their talented running backs, tight ends and wide receivers. In the offseason, Grobe complained several times about not being able to get any big plays in the passing game, especially for a team that ran as well as Wake did. This season, Lobotzke showed flashes of breaking from the norm. His play-calling kept N.C. State off-balance, and it featured a trick play (a receiver pass to the quarterback) and several swing passes to running backs or screens to wide receivers. Those were variations not seen around Winston-Salem recently. Then, against Purdue and ECU, Lobotzke seemed to return to a lot of the old conservative ways. The biggest call was the late fourth-down call against Purdue, where the Deacons ran an inside run out of the shotgun and failed, basically ending the game. Even a number of Wake players criticized the play after the game, with ball-carrier Barclay essentially saying he knew the play wouldn't work after he saw how Purdue lined up. He also questioned going from the shotgun for less than a yard. Beyond that call in the spotlight, Lobotzke had other problems. He again ditched any of the easier short passes, returning to Wake's two favorites: the lob-it-up bomb, and the difficult sprint-out, throw-on-the-run sideline out pattern. Again, the tight ends and running backs fell out of the pass plans. Even when Randolph was struggling, Lobotzke didn't give him a couple of easy completions to get him going again. Overall, Lobotzke probably embraced the running game too much when it wasn't working. With the game-breaking talent Wake has at receiver, the strong arm of its elusive quarterback and its problems on the ground, it might be time for the Deacs to lean more heavily on t