September 2, 2002 WINSTON-SALEM - The way Wake Forest opened its football season started any number of debates about this team.
The most obvious might have been: How did its specialty positions - kicker and punter - get in such bad shape?
Actually, the answer is quite simple: recruiting. That's usually Wake's problem, but this time it's more obvious than usual.
It was made even more glaring in the opener by the fact that Northern Illinois boasted a kicker (Steve Azar) who was a preseason All-America pick and a Lou Groza Award nominee and a punter (Jimmy Erwin) who averaged 41.8 yards last year and was on the Ray Guy Award watch list.
The Deacons opened the season with two walk-ons as starters: Steve Hale at punter and Matt Wisnosky at kicker. The only other specialist on the roster was Ryan Plackemeier, a late addition to the freshman class.
So what happened? Well, the Deacons simply haven't paid much attention to the position. Before adding Plackemeier this year, they had used only one scholarship on a specialist in the last three classes combined.
The Deacons had been solid at both positions. Matthew Burdick (1997-99) and Tyler Ashe (2000-01) held down the kicking spot. Burdick set a school record for points by a kicker and tied Wilson Hoyle's school record for field goals in a season. Ashe is the school's fifth-highest scoring kicker and boomed most kickoffs for touchbacks.
Tripp Moore (1996-98) averaged more than 41.8 yards a punt for his junior and senior seasons. James MacPherson and Matt Brennie split the punting duties in 1999, then Brennie averaged 42 yards a boot in 2000. Last season, the Deacons divided the duties between MacPherson and Chris Rolle.
Here's the problem: The Deacons signed Brennie in 1998, then didn't sign any specialists in 1999 or 2000. It was easy to understand not signing one in 1999, when Wake had only 10 scholarships to give. But the problem should have been obvious by 2000, when the Deacs had 22 signees. It certainly was by 2001, when Jim Grobe arrived: He added kicker Chris Strappel in the summer as a scholarship player.
The problems were made worse by the fact that Brennie got hurt in 2001, then left the team when it appeared he had fallen behind Rolle. While Rolle got Wake through the season, the coaches weren't very impressed with him, either. When he fell behind Hale and Plackemeier, he saw the writing on the wall and left the team.
At kicker, the Deacons were hurt by the loss of Strappel, who missed spring practice because of academic problems. While he was allowed back on the team in the fall, he wasn't exactly on great terms with the coaching staff, and he eventually left the team.
While Wake is one of the only ACC programs to start walk-ons at both punter and kicker this fall, the practice isn't an oddity. Most football coaches hate to use scholarships on specialists, and many (including star punters Brooks Barnard of Maryland and Dan Dyke of Georgia Tech) of the other starting specialists in the league this season started their careers as walk-ons.
The Deacons' punting problems probably could be solved if Grobe would just let MacPherson do it. But Grobe is too concerned with MacPherson's workload and the possibility that he could get leveled and/or injured as part of the coverage team. So it appears that Wake's only choice - at either position - is to wait for a young player to mature.
Defensive Line Thin, Overmatched
Recruiting problems are showing up in other places, namely on the defensive line.
In the opener, the Deacons were dominated up front, especially right end Roderick Stephen. Northern Illinois repeatedly ran at Stephen as it gained 221 yards on the ground, including 172 by tailback Thomas Hammock. Stephen was moved off the line on running plays and didn't get any penetration on passes.
More importantly, the Deacons have very little depth up front, so they can't even keep their line fresh. Last year, after true freshman Goryal Scales was injured, the Deacons went almost the whole season with three players: end Calvin Pace, nose tackle Montique Sharpe and end Nate Bolling. This year, Bolling is gone, replaced by Stephen, and the Deacons still don't have much behind the starters.
Pace, Sharpe and Stephen were members of the Class of 1998. In 1999, the Deacons signed Chad Rebar as a lineman, but he's spent much of his career on offense and virtually none of it on the field. Only one defensive lineman from the Class of 2000 - end Jerome Nichols - is still on the team and playing at that position. He redshirted during his first season on campus, then didn't play a down last season. He, Scales and redshirt freshman Jason Finklea are listed as the second-teamers this fall.
Wake signed three defensive linemen in 2001: Finklea, Scales and Arthur Orlebar. So Wake is left mainly with seniors - one of whom doesn't seem to be getting the job done - and redshirt freshmen at a position that usually demands a lot of time in the college weight room to succeed. It's not a pretty combination.
Lower Profile Not Always Bad
One player who won't be helping on the defensive line this season is Jyles Tucker, a player who signed with the Deacons in February. Tucker, a 6-4, 245-pounder from New Jersey, was agile enough to also play quarterback and run a 4.6 40. A knee injury slowed his senior year, but SuperPrep ranked him 14th in New Jersey before the season and 12th after it.
Ultimately, shaky academics sent Tucker to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. Nobody in the media reported on Tucker's status until the ACC Sports Journal mentioned it in a recent edition, and even we failed to report him as an academic casualty in our reports during the summer months, after one of his high school coaches mistakenly said he had qualified.
Tucker's saga is a great example of how Wake's relatively low media profile isn't always a bad thing. The Deacons are constantly crying for more media attention, but they don't mind the lack of it in a case such as this. In fact, the media vacuum even allowed the school's sports information department to pull a slick trick.
On the press release announcing the opening of fall practice, Wake simply stated that all members of the freshman class had arrived. Technically, this was true, since Tucker never enrolled. At the same time, it certainly was misleading.
Tucker was part of the Deacs' 2002 recruiting class - he was included on the school's official release on signing day in February - and he was a no-show they failed to mention. Coaches and/or SIDs at other ACC schools that had non-qualifiers at least briefly noted or explained their absences in some fashion, and some schools included the information in the official press releases that covered the rookies' arrival.
The few media outlets that cover the Deacons regularly repeated the same entire class arrives phrase when the freshmen reported to preseason camp, and apparently it never dawned on them to check if all the signees announced in the spring had actually shown up.
Had this been any other ACC school, with the possible exception of Duke, the failure of a football recruit to qualify academically would have been discovered by fan sites, recruiting gurus or media members long before freshmen actually reported. It would have been listed in multiple media outlets, and possibly dissected further, depending on the talent level of the recruit.
As it is, Wake Forest can thank its low profile, its weak football tradition and its unusually small number of full-time beat writers (two) for being able to sweep things like this under the rug.