By Dave Glenn, ACCSports.com
November 3, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM The period surrounding the Class of 2000 was one of the wildest in Wake Forest football history. Seventh-year coach Jim Caldwell finally was winning football games (7-5 in 1999), and the Deacons were using that on the recruiting trail like an SEC school. They brought in a huge number of recruits and signed an extraordinary number of them. In the end, Wake discovered an unusually large number of productive players but lost many more along the way. That's a formula far more familiar in the SEC than in Winston-Salem, but it's worked pretty well for the Deacs over the last four seasons. While still adhering to higher standards than most of the ACC, Caldwell had begun taking more risks in academics and even character than traditionally has been the norm at Wake Forest. Those risks later contributed to the class' high attrition rate and even drew some attention from rivals. Earlier this year, then-Duke coach Carl Franks repeated a theme he mentioned several times toward the end of his five-year run in Durham: Wake Forest has players on their team that we couldn't recruit a few years ago. In 2003, of course, Caldwell himself isn't benefiting at all from his sometimes-impressive Class of 2000. He's now working with NFL superstar Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, where Caldwell is in his second season as the Colts' quarterbacks coach. Instead, the large group the Deacons signed in February 2000 turned into a nice welcoming present for new coach Jim Grobe in 2001. In Caldwell's first four years at Wake Forest, he won a total of nine games. But the Deacons won five in 1997, three in 98 and seven in 99, including an Aloha Bowl victory. In addition, his Class of 1999 included C.J. Leak, one of the country's top high school quarterbacks, who turned down scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Penn State and other traditional college football heavyweights. So the coach finally could sell the time-worn idea that the Wake program really was on the rise. I wanted to go somewhere where I could win, said quarterback/receiver Anthony Young, after he picked the Deacons over home-state South Carolina. That wasn't something fans were used to hearing very often from Wake recruits. Leak's presence was a major factor in Wake landing some of the state's top players in the Class of 2000, including receiver Jason Anderson and running back Fred Staton, both from Leak's hometown of Charlotte. Anderson's father, George, said the inclusion of C.J. Leak into the program and the promise of an exciting passing game helped the Deacons pull Jason from UNC, N.C. State, Michigan, Clemson and Alabama. In addition, Caldwell was helped by the coaching uncertainties at UNC (off and on with Carl Torbush) and N.C. State (out with Mike O'Cain). Several prospects noted that those programs had fallen out of touch with them during the recruiting process. Defensive end R.D. Montgomery, ranked third in the state by SuperPrep at the time, said he was ready to commit to UNC at one point but later eliminated the Heels from consideration. College coaches have one phone call they can use to talk to you in May, but Carolina didn't call me again until November, Montgomery said. I thought they had dropped me off the face of the earth. I didn't think they wanted me any more. I decided to go about my business. Montgomery also noted another powerful selling point the entire Wake Forest athletic program had at the time: When I was younger, I wanted to go to Wake Forest because of basketball and Tim Duncan. Caldwell may have unwrapped a bowl victory on Christmas Day in 1999, but he also knew that 26 seniors were leaving the program. It was going to be a busy offseason. More than 50 recruits, an unusually high number, visited campus. The Deacons eventually landed commitments from at least 35 of them, signed 31 and had 30 ready to play by the fall, one in the spring (receiver Carlos Ousley) and one the following year (cornerback Eric King). The Wake staff started fast. Five players joined the program by spring football: linebackers Kellen Brantley and Marcus Nesbitt and offensive linemen Seth Houk, Mark Moroz and David Walters. Houk (junior college) and Walters (Iowa) were transfers who quickly became valuable parts of Grobe's interchangeable line, mainly as reserves. Brantley and Nesbitt had gone to prep school and had to get their academics in order. Nesbitt's career never got into gear because of injuries, and he left football and the school in 2002. Brantley played immediately, recording at least one tackle in every game as a freshman, then finishing second on the team in tackles as a sophomore. Though not a superstar, barring an injury he will finish this season having started every game since the beginning of his sophomore season. Moroz was part of a string of players Caldwell signed from the rarely tapped recruiting grounds of Canada, where Moroz was a prep tight end. After playing at that position as a Wake freshman, he moved to offensive tackle and has been a force there since. An All-ACC honorable mention selection last fall, he hoped to bid for higher honors this year but was derailed by an early season injury. Some Caldwell commitments never made it to signing day. South Carolina running back Preston Portee failed to qualify and ended up at New Mexico Military Institute, then Eastern New Mexico, then Southwest Missouri State. Pennsylvania defensive lineman Andre Doyle failed to qualify and attended Hagerstown (Md.) Junior College, then signed with Akron, but he left the Zips earlier this year. Florida option quarterback Travis Thurmond ultimately switched to Air Force, where he is a third-team QB for the Falcons this fall as a redshirt junior. Twelve early commitments did make it to signing day. Anderson was one of the shining stars. His dreams of a pass-happy offense didn't materialize, as Grobe brought along an offense focused on the run, but he has made the most of his chances. After redshirting, he led the team in receiving in 2001 and caught six touchdown balls last season, including two in the Seattle Bowl. Defensive back Caron Bracy also drew interest from other big programs, such as Notre Dame, Tulane and Pittsburgh. Like Anderson, he made an immediate impact after redshirting. By midway through 2001, Bracy was starting. Last year, he finished second on the team in tackles, and this season he leads the Deacons. Bracy is quick, but it's his knowledge of the game that puts him in the right place at the right time. He's already an All-ACC candidate, with another year to go. Mike Hamlar was recruited as a running back. In high school, he broke Tiki Barber's single-game school rushing record. After redshirting during his first year at Wake, Hamlar moved to linebacker. He started to see some action as a freshman but was derailed because of injuries. Until the Duke game this season, he had disappeared from the depth chart. He took advantage of his time against the Blue Devils, so he may get himself in position for a larger role next season, when Wake will be thin at linebacker. It really shocked us when he got a chance to play against Duke, Grobe said. He played really physically. He flew all over the field. He made a lot of plays. We'll find out down the road, but it looked to me, for Mike, like the light just kind of came on. And if he'll stay healthy, he played well enough we'd like to get him more snaps. Montgomery, a 6-7, 225-pound defensive end, may have been the most surprising recruit in the class. Not only was he once considered a UNC lock, but he was offered by every other team in the ACC besides Florida State, plus Georgia and South Carolina. But Montgomery has barely played in his four years (including a redshirt) at Wake. He's never put on much weight, and he hasn't been able to find a position. This season he's at tight end, but he isn't the physical blocker Grobe prefers in his system. Montgomery is a popular teammate, with an upbeat personality. His basketball ability even led him into a 12th-man role for Skip Prosser. Perhaps as a senior, he'll be able to combine his size and athletic ability to make an impact. Jerome Nichols came to Wake Forest partly because, he said: They were one of the schools that wanted me as a tight end, which is where I wanted to play. In fall practice, Caldwell debated whether he might play Nichols immediately: He's probably as fine a tight end prospect as a freshman as we've ever had. But that didn't last long, as Nichols redshirted, then was moved to defensive end. Until this season, Nichols generally was a washout, even when given a chance to prove himself because of a thin line last season. But this year, he has been the team's best lineman, using his athletic ability more than strength to make plays. Offensive lineman Brad Palmer was an early commitment who wasn't highly recruited by other major colleges. He actually visited Wake on his own. After seeing some action as a true freshman with the Deacons, he transferred back near his New York home to Division I-AA Hofstra, where he's a senior this year. Cardell Richardson never panned out. He moved from defensive end to nose guard, but he already was behind Goryal Scales at that position. Richardson left school in August 2002 with academic problems. Recruited as an offensive lineman, Joe Salsich also has been on the move, also without much success so far. Salsich moved to defensive end, then nose tackle, then back to the offensive line. He might have been part of the rotation as a reserve this season, but he's been sidelined with a broken hand. The biggest disappointment in the class was Staton, who picked Wake Forest over Virginia, UNC, Syracuse, Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia Tech. In high school, he was a powerful running back and a state champion sprinter. The Deacons had a recruiting advantage, but it wasn't because of their football program. Staton ran track with Caldwell's daughter, and he hit it off with the head coach and his family. He's almost like a second father, Staton said of Caldwell. Staton was physically mature, and Caldwell knew he might have to use him right away. The backfield boasted only career reserves Jamie Scott (later moved to linebacker) and Chris McCoy, along with unproven sophomore Tarence Williams. Though Williams emerged, Staton did play as his backup, then had a strong sophomore season as a reserve, gaining 583 yards and scoring seven times. But Staton constantly battled his weight and his academics. While his weight got him in the doghouse consistently, especially after Grobe took over, his academics kept him off the field. He had to redshirt in 2002 and, despite the program's persistent hopes, never got up to speed enough to return this season. Safety Quintin Williams also had to play right away, though his resume wasn't as strong as Staton's. Williams was just a solid in-state player, not highly recruited, but also the valedictorian of his class. He's been a fixture in the secondary since he arrived on campus, and he does it with smarts and hard work. He's not particularly fast, but he's developed into a big hitter. Although quiet by nature, he may be the most respected player on the team. Brian Woychik also wasn't recruited by any major programs, and he's been unable to crack the lineup along the offensive line, despite plenty of opportunities. Young may have had the most interesting career of any player in the class. Although he played quarterback in high school, he was recruited as a receiver by Wake because of the presence of Leak. But three games into his career, he was the Deacons' starting QB, after Leak and James MacPherson suffered knee injuries. I wanted to redshirt and get a year up under me so I could get bigger and stronger, Young said at the time. But they told me what the scenario was, and if it happened like that, I was going to have to play. And that's what I'm going to have to live with. There's no way around it, and there's no way I can change it. If that sounds like someone not exactly embracing his chance, well, that's Young. Though he showed spectacular flashes, especially with his running, his attitude and time in the training room were sometimes questioned by coaches and teammates. Grobe finally decided that Young couldn't lead the team, and he moved him out of the quarterback rotation with MacPherson when Young hurt his foot midway through his sophomore season. Wake switched Young back to receiver, and hopes were high that his size and speed would be a potent combination, but it has yet to produce results. The thing from Anthony that we need like we needed when he was at quarterback is the consistency, not the flash-in-the-pan kind of stuff, Grobe said. I think he's got to make the average catch routine, because he drops some balls that hit him right in the hands. On signing day, Wake added 10 new commitments, an unusually high number for the Deacs. That style differed greatly from Grobe's approach, which involves early identification and targeting of talent and lots of early commitments. While major programs often wait until the last minute while trying to land high-profile recruits, Caldwell didn't strike much gold. Of the 10, seven haven't had any impact on the program. Linebacker Brian Donahue, lineman Brandon Drury and lineman Rod Eason left Wake Forest almost immediately. Donahue returned closer to home, walking on at Oklahoma for two seasons, and Eason was derailed by a broken leg. Drury failed to qualify academically and apparently never resurfaced at another school. Lightly recruited offensive lineman Ryan Tekampe and defensive end Jacob Petty, who received a few other Division I-A offers, both left the team in 2002. Petty remains a student at Wake. Recruited as a fullback, Trevor Harris later moved to linebacker but has contributed only on special teams during his time in Winston-Salem. The quarterback injuries almost threw Jeff Whitaker into the fire as a freshman as well. With Leak and MacPherson out, Whitaker found himself as the backup to Young heading into the Florida State game during his freshman year. But Whitaker, who also punted and kicked, never saw the field, and in 2002 he transferred to Florida, where he arrived as a walk-on. Other than throwing an incomplete pass on a fake field goal attempt, he hasn't seen any action for the Gators. The Deacons did find three players in the last-minute mix, however. Safety Warren Braxton wasn't highly recruited from Virginia, and he didn't see any game action until last season. But since then, he's been a solid starter. Center Blake Lingruen redshirted, then backed up four-year starter Vince Azzolina in 2001. He's developed into the starting center since then, although his play hasn't been remarkable, and an injury has slowed him this season. The best player of the group was offensive lineman Tyson Clabo, who somehow got away from Tennessee. His father, Phil Clabo, was an offensive lineman at Tennessee and a teammate of current Vols coach Phil Fulmer. His mother, Leslie, is a Tennessee graduate. His uncle, Neil Clabo, played at Tennessee before punting in the NFL. Tyson was raised in Knoxville. But Clabo didn't start playing really well in high school until his senior season, and by then many schools had written him off. His only three Division I-A offers came from Wake Forest, Middle Tennessee State and Marshall. Since arriving at Wake, though, he's been a fixture on the line, starting the last three seasons. He's quotable, likeable and one of the team's hardest workers. Offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke, whose focus is the offensive line, has coached two first-team All-ACC linemen at Wake, Michael Collins and Blake Henry. I'm telling everyone that I meet that this is the best one of the three, Lobotzke said. I think he's got the best chance at a pro career because of his height and his arm length and his foot quickness. He's intelligent enough to handle an entirely new pro offense every week, the way they like to do things. He's everything all those pro guys are looking for, and I hope he gets a great shot at being an early draft pick. By the fall of 2000, Wake had added three additional players. Defensive end Jordan Davie didn't last long before returning to Canada, and Tyrek White never contributed. The only late addition to have an impact was cornerback Marcus McGruder, who's had a roller-coaster career. After redshirting, McGruder burst onto the scene with 52 tackles and three interceptions as a starter. But last year, he played less and less as the season went on. This year, McGruder is back as a starter. He really had a down year last year, and we can't really put a finger on why, said Dean Hood, the Deacons' defensive coordinator. He's come out here like his old self, but a couple of years later, so that's nice. One player didn't arrive at Wake Forest until 2001, and he didn't stay long. Receiver Carlos Ousley, who was lightly recruited because of his down-to-the-wire academics, came to Wake in January after getting his SAT score, but he was gone by March. Ousley wears his braided hair long, and Grobe, who cut his coaching teeth at Air Force, told him to get it snipped. Ousley refused and Grobe, who had just arrived in December, wouldn't budge, so Ousley left for Arkansas. While he's reportedly been impressive in practice and spring drills there, he hasn't done much in games for the Razorbacks so far. He caught three passes last season (two for touchdowns) and one so far this season. He's still wearing his hair long, by the way. Overall, 13 players from the 2000 class left the team before exhausting their eligibility, a percentage that ranks the Deacons among the worst in the ACC. That's a remarkably high number of departures for Wake Forest, which often loses only a couple of players from a particular class. Thirteen players lost is even larger than some entire Wake recruiting classes, such as the 10-man group the Deacons signed in 1999. On signing day in 2000, Caldwell took offense to the negative reviews of the class, including SuperPrep's No. 9 ranking in the ACC. The Sports Journal ranked the Deacs seventh in the conference, ahead of Duke and N.C. State. I don't think there's any question about it: We've really strengthened our program with this class, Caldwell said. This class, in my estimation, is one of great quality. I think you will see this class probably have more of an impact more quickly than any other class. Caldwell was right. The class has been better than expected, contributing the second-most starters in the ACC, behind Florida State. The players have had an impact just not quickly enough to save Caldwell. Instead, they've been building blocks for Grobe, who's attempting to be bowl-eligible for the third straight year. Nobody believes Caldwell could have had the same success with this group, but he did leave a nice gift for his successor.
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