October 10, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM -- Now that Wake Forest has stepped up its level of competition, it's time to examine its reality.
Sure, Wake's wins in its first five games were reality -- sort of. The games will go into the record books, but the season will be judged by what happens the rest of the way, against stiffer competition.
So what can be taken from the first half of the season?
The Truths * Wake Forest is a bowl team.
Knock the first five foes all you want (and deservedly so), but Wake is a good enough football team. The Deacs certainly played well enough to beat Clemson, and they will win at least two more games before the season is over.
That bodes well for 2007. The Deacs will lose only 11 seniors who contribute, and only three of those are stars. They get to miss the three best Coastal programs (Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech) on the schedule. Of their four non-conference opponents (at Baylor, Navy, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt), only Navy currently has a winning record.
* Wake finally can return kicks.
Coach Jim Grobe's first Wake team featured talented returners such as John Stone and Fabian Davis. Since then, the Demon Deacons have been at the bottom of the league in kick returns.
Does it make a difference? If the Deacons had returned kicks to the level of UNC (second in the ACC in kickoff returns, fourth in punts) last year, they would have gained 491 more yards in field position.
The last four years, Wake averaged 17.8 yards per kickoff return. Through six games this season, Wake averaged 21.4. That would be more, but Clemson squibbed five kickoffs after Kevin Marion returned the first one 93 yards.
The last four years, Wake averaged 6.6 yards on punt returns. Through six games this season, Wake averaged 12.1.
What's the difference? Most fingers point to assistant Tim Billings, who also has made great strides with the wide receivers.
* Riley Skinner is Wake's quarterback.
Mark it down: Skinner will start next year, too. Even if Benjamin Mauk comes back from his arm and shoulder injuries, Skinner is the better player. He's already shown it, just a few games into his redshirt freshman season.
Mauk's prep exploits are long behind him, and many on the team feel he didn't deal well with his benching last season. That's why you didn't see any hand-wringing when Skinner took over. Players are ready to play for him, and he's shown he can do everything Mauk could do, and he's done it much earlier in his career.
* Wake Forest needs a game-breaker.
The Deacons don't have a player who can change the game with one play, which makes a huge difference when the competition improves. Next year, maybe running back Josh Adams or receiver Marshall Williams (sub-4.4 40), both freshmen, will step forward.
* Wake can win the Atlantic Division.
OK, Wake is a good football team, but people began to speculate about division titles when Wake was 5-0. It won't happen.
The Deacons are talented enough to sniff .500 in the league, but they likely will still finish outside the top three in the six-team division. As usual, Wake needs a few more players, most likely along the lines, to challenge the next level.
* Wake can pressure the quarterback without blitzing.
Under defensive coordinator Dean Hood, Wake has struggled to rush the passer. When it did, Hood usually had to bring the house.
But in the first five games of 2006, Wake had 17 sacks, and the best news was that 10.5 of those came from linemen. The Deacons had only eight from linemen last season, and 4.5 of those were from Matt Robinson, who's injured this year.
Against Clemson, though, Wake was back to its old habits. Quarterback Will Proctor had all day to sit in the pocket. Hood will need to bring back the blitz against better opponents, and that will leave Wake's secondary exposed.
* Alphonso Smith is an All-ACC cornerback.
Yes, the Sports Journal itself said he was that good before the season. Smith showed last year that he was fast, aggressive and confident, all great qualities for a corner.
But it appears that he took the offseason off after such a good freshman campaign. Smith has been bad this season -- not just off his game, but outright bad. He has been beaten on the corner; he's struggled on kick returns, and he got ejected against Clemson for throwing a punch.
Cornerback is such a mentally taxing position that Smith may not get his mojo back until next season, if then.
* Wake Nation will get excited about football.
Apparently, the only question Wake fans were asking on Oct. 7 was how soon does basketball season start? (Exactly a month later with an exhibition game, if you're wondering.)
Against Clemson, Wake announced a crowd of 35,920, the fourth-largest in Groves Stadium history. But you couldn't tell it by looking at the stands. C'mon, even though the weather was cool, misty and windy, people should have been clamoring for those tickets. The Deacons were 5-0 for the first time since the last World War, and they were playing a hated rival.
The Question Marks
* Can Wake continue to show offensive variety?
This has been a complaint about the Deacons and coordinator Steed Lobotzke for several years.
At times this season, Wake has been very conservative, which is understandable with a young quarterback. But it also has rolled out new plays and new formations, such as a three-back set (two fullbacks) against Clemson.
But when the game got tight, so did the Deacons. Grobe said he overruled Lobotzke's call for a pass near the end of the fourth quarter and told him to keep it on the ground. Wake did, but didn't get anywhere, and eventually lost its lead.
That was entirely too familiar to previous seasons for many Wake observers.
* Can Wake stop the turnovers?
One of Grobe's keys has been to win the turnover battle, and it's one of the reasons that Wake has been competitive compared to the Jim Caldwell era.
Under Caldwell, Wake averaged 12.1 fumbles per year and 15.3 interceptions. In Grobe's first five seasons, his teams have averaged 9.2 fumbles and 9.4 interceptions.
So far this year, the Deacons have thrown only two interceptions, but they already have put the ball on the ground 12 times, losing nine. If Wake is going to pull some upsets against ACC foes, it'll have to stop fumbling.
* Will Grobe pick a running back?
Since Micah Andrews' injury, the three-headed tailback has not performed particularly well. Most observers see redshirt freshman Kevin Harris as the back who can step forward, but will he?