October 20, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM Halfway through Wake Forest's 2003 football season, the outlook was gloomy. The Deacons had lost two in a row for the first time since the early weeks of Jim Grobe's first season, and they were coming off the most dispiriting loss in Grobe's tenure. While the losses to Purdue and Virginia this season were disappointing, Wake at least put itself in a position to win. But against Georgia Tech, despite coming off a bye week, the Deacons seemed to be barely there, a rarity under Grobe.
Grobe seemed somewhat in shock during the postgame press conference after Tech's 24-7 victory. He even discussed the re-evaluation of all parts of his program. The first half of the season began to take on some perspective, as N.C. State's subsequent losses diminished the impact of Wake's earlier upset.
But a week later, the Deacons had a get-healthy game against Duke. After the 42-13 blowout, the Deacons emerged healthy emotionally and physically, and they took further steps toward healing their ailing running game. Now the perspective on the season is probably right back where it was before it started.
The Sports Journal and others forecast Wake Forest as a .500-type team that would have to scratch and claw to become bowl-eligible, and that again seems to be a reasonable goal. The Deacons even have a chance to post their first .500 mark in the ACC since 1992.
Grobe made two interesting moves after the Georgia Tech game. First, he switched from having meetings on Fridays to having practices, admitting that some of his younger players learn better on the field instead of in a classroom. But what was most telling during the week after the Tech game was how Grobe approached the mental aspect of his team.
The Deacons admittedly had practiced poorly at the end of their bye week, and the results showed on the field. Many coaches would have responded with a week of fire and brimstone before the Duke game. Instead, Grobe threw the ball into the players' court.
I told the players that's up to them, Grobe said. They can decide when they want to put the intensity back in. From a coach's standpoint, we're not going to change a bit. We'll work harder, but we're not going to change. We're going to continue to teach fundamentals and teach them how to block and tackle better. But as a football coach our job is not to be cheerleaders. Our job is to coach them, and their job is to be ready to play. We've had very few times we've had a problem with that.
Grobe, like his basketball peer Skip Prosser, has proven particularly adroit at using the media to get messages across to his players or team. He knew, in this case, that a public challenge was necessary.
One of the red flags raised coming into the season was the loss of leadership from last season. This Wake team has a lot of leaders by example, guys who concentrate on doing their own jobs well and believe everyone else should be doing the same. But sometimes that's not enough, and the team lacks players who can stand up and motivate the team or a unit.
Senior Quintin Williams, who sometimes has tried to step from his shell and fill that role, agreed with Grobe's strategy.
The coaches, they're right, he said after the Duke game. All they can really do is coach the team. It really is the players' team. If anybody watched our week of practice, they would have seen a definite pick-up in intensity and focus.
Rare 3-3-5 Defense Still Surviving
If anything about the Wake program is due for an offseason evaluation, it's the 3-3-5 defensive concept.
The scheme came into favor late in Grobe's first season, and the staff has stuck with it. But the main reason for the scheme was just necessity. The Deacons had few talented linemen and were thin at linebacker, while the secondary was deep. However, while the numbers fit the scheme, the talent never really has.
To succeed in any three-down setup, a team needs linemen who are big and can occupy the offensive line, keeping them off the smaller players who are expected to make the plays. Wake hasn't had the size or talent up front to do that. The secondary has been deep, but other than superb cornerback Eric King, it hasn't been overly talented or fast.
The Deacons haven't been able to get pressure on the quarterback, either, even less this season without the amazing individual talents of first-round NFL pick Calvin Pace. To get any, coodinator Dean Hood has to use a several-player blitz, which means bringing not-so-quick linebackers and exposing the pass coverage.
The result has been a defense that has just survived, finishing seventh in the ACC overall last season and heading for a similar finish this fall. Wake was out-gained in each of its first seven games this season, and only its knack for turnovers has kept the defense's head above water. At the same time, the most points it had given up this season (prior to the Florida State game) was 28, in the season opener at Boston College.
So what will the future hold?
Fans already are getting a look at some of it, especially in the secondary. As the season winds on, the coaches are finding more and more playing time for four redshirt freshmen: cornerback Riley Swanson, free safety Josh Gattis, bandit Patrick Ghee and strong safety James Adams.
Youth has had some time along the defensive line, though not as much. Sophomore Arthur Orlebar has been the most impressive new face, going along with veteran sophomore Goryal Scales. Sophomore John Finklea, redshirt freshman Bryan Andrews and freshman Jyles Tucker also have seen time, though they haven't been as impressive.
Looking at the potential defensive depth chart for 2004 is interesting. After several very thin years along the line, the Deacons will have eight experienced linemen, plus four redshirt freshmen. The defensive backfield also will be loaded: Four veterans return, plus the four sophomores-to-be mentioned above, plus two talented redshirt freshmen, plus the possible return (from running back and a knee injury) of Dominic Anderson, who looked impressive as a DB last season.
Unfortunately, sandwiched in between is a very weak linebacker unit, where Brad White will be the only experienced player returning. Redshirt freshman Pierre Easley is getting few snaps now, and Jonathan Abbate is the only linebacker redshirting this season. The rest of the list is an unimpressive bunch of career backups: Mike Hamlar, Trevor Harris, Jason Pratt and Chris Owen.
Unless someone surprisingly emerges from that group, the coaches will have to do some creative thinking. The number of bodies up front would allow the Deacons to return to a four-lineman scheme, with more traditional tackles inside and quicker players, such as Tucker and Andrews, on the outside. The Deacons even could try a two-linebacker scheme, considering their bandit position functions somewhat like a third linebacker. Another option would be to move Andrews back to linebacker. As a prep player, he was highly regarded there, and he's been pushed around a lot this season in his stints as an end.
Whatever the staff does, fans should see more of the influx of speed that Wake has been recruiting lately. Players such as Gattis, Adams and freshman DB Devin Blake were track standouts, and up-front players such as Easley, Andrews, Tucker and freshman end Matt Robinson are much quicker than past recruits.