By Bob Sutton,
Burlington (N.C.) Times-News
April 21, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM There was no need for Wake Forest to waste time savoring its Seattle Bowl success when making plans for the 2003 season. The Demon Deacons went back to work rather early, with coach Jim Grobe intent on the team keeping the momentum it built during his first two seasons in Winston-Salem. Wake wrapped up spring drills during the last weekend of March, before many schools held their first practices. That left lots of time for the real work to begin.
Grobe said the Deacons must become physically stronger, so he pointed them in the direction of the weight room. There's a good four months for the Deacs to buff up before the formal preseason workouts begin.
We had a lot of carryover from the bowl, he said. Now we have to get ourselves stronger.
While the going was good, Grobe wanted to keep things going. He also sought to find out who would fill some of those all-important leadership positions vacated by a large senior class. Thus came the decision to start spring practice so early. Spring brought a chance to refine and revise. And with the sweat required in the coming months, it might have been relaxing in relative terms.
We had the excitement so that it was like a continuation of last season, because it was, linebacker Brad White said. It felt like we were just playing.
The mood change was evident around this program, which has back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1987-88. With that, expectations have been on a steady rise under Grobe.
The Wake Forest coach is careful to keep suggestions of glamour in check. It's a grind-it-out style that works best for his team and fits its personality as well. There's also the matter of replacing eight starters on offense and four on defense, including star end Calvin Pace, and the issue of sorting out erratic play on special teams. That combination of topics ought to be enough to ensure that the focus lands in the proper places.
We're just not very mature right now, Grobe said. The key will be how quick some of these guys mature, and I'm talking mainly mentally.
That might start with quarterback Cory Randolph, who'll be a redshirt sophomore this fall. He takes over for James MacPherson after staying ahead of Zac Taylor in the spring. Grobe said Randolph's ability shouldn't be an issue, but he must work on becoming a leader. Without a major vocal presence, he'll do that best with his performance.
Randolph's first public appearance as the first-string quarterback came with mixed results in March's final scrimmage. After the game, he said it's all about dealing with the pressure of the position.
It's not really all that different, he said. The objective is still the same. I have to go out and earn my spot. You find out how to handle the pressure. We'll grow up. We've got to learn each other's talent. We kind of had to find out a lot of new things this spring.
The offensive front also is under reconstruction. That was further tested in the spring because Mark Moroz, a returning starter at tackle, sat out with a knee injury. Because of the modifications along the line, Tyson Clabo, normally a guard, lined up some at tackle.
The running attack has been a staple in Grobe's offense, but stalwarts Tarence Williams and Ovie Mughelli are gone from the backfield. That left Nick Burney and Chris Barclay in line to take a bulk of the carries, although Cornelius Birgs and Dominic Anderson, converted from strong safety, also looked strong at times.
Junior R.D. Montgomery, at one time a walk-on to the basketball team, is contending to take the starting spot at tight end. He's joined there by Dan Callahan, a converted tackle. Fred Staton, who missed last season because of academics, is back in the mix at fullback.
Meanwhile, the receivers had reason to be anxious during spring workouts, because of a retooling of the passing game under new coordinator Steed Lobotzke.
We looked at different ways to throw the football, said Grobe, who's not likely to abandon regular use of the misdirection running game. We kept the quarterback in the pocket a little bit more.
Willie Idlette showed that he might push Chris Davis for playing time at one of the receiver spots, to complement Jason Anderson on the other side. It's that type of competition that bodes well for the Deacons, a flavor that in some past seasons was missing at many positions. Idlette is one of several 2002 freshmen who redshirted and could be ready to step into prominent roles in 2003.
The defense dominated most of the spring, adding to Randolph's learning curve. The defense's aggression was something Grobe expected to see. He would have been bothered if the defense didn't have its way at times.
We all know the system, White said. We all are moving as one unit. We're just as confident as we were against Oregon, and we all saw how that went.
The Demon Deacons won the Seattle Bowl in a 38-17 romp to finish with a 7-6 record.
That comfort level goes only so far. White was the team's leading tackler last season, but the group in front of him is gone. Jamaal Argrow made the move from linebacker to defensive end to try to help stock the line.
I don't really have a good feel either way with the defensive front, Grobe said. You kind of see more of a group rather than individual guys.
Until those individuals distinguish themselves, there will be concerns about the defense's ability to hold up. There might be more blitzing from the Deacons than in the past, a strategy that could compensate for a less-sturdy front. Newcomers are bound to make an impact on defense. During spring drills, there were times when the second unit nearly blended with the first-stringers.
That's a pretty salty group, Grobe said, referring to the second-team defense.
The number of candidates for leadership roles seems larger on the defensive side, when considering White, linebacker Kellen Brantley and defensive backs Quintin Williams and Eric King.
Developing depth again is a concern for the program. Generally, Grobe wants to keep true freshmen off the field on game days, allowing them time to develop during a redshirt season. It's a pattern the program probably must follow in order to create long-term stability. It's not all about talent, it's about numbers.
If you talk about being one-deep, the talent is there, Grobe said. Those seniors we lost, in a lot of cases, was not the most talented group. But they were tough and knew what to go out and do.
That departed senior class set a nice tone. It's an attitude the Deacons didn't dare let go of, even if it meant jumping into spring practice shortly after the team charter touched down from Seattle.