July 10, 2002 WINSTON-SALEM A couple of months ago, Wake Forest might have made the case that it had one of the deepest tailback spots in the ACC.
Leading the way was 1,000-yard rusher Tarence Williams, who is the league's second-leading returning yard-gainer this fall. Backing him was powerful junior Fred Staton, who added 584 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He looked strong in the spring, gaining 157 yards on 15 carries and scoring three times.
Behind them were Nick Burney, a highly regarded junior, who gained 139 yards on 32 carries last season, and redshirt freshman Cornelius Birgs, a speedster who was a top recruit out of Florida. Coach Jim Grobe also recruited Chris Barclay, who won numerous honors in Kentucky, for this year's class.
But in the span of a few days this summer, all of that changed.
First, Staton was declared academically ineligible for the season. This actually had been apparent to the coaching staff since after the spring semester, because Staton was not going to have the NCAA-required number of hours for a third-year player. Currently, Staton's GPA also is below par, but he has a chance to raise that during summer school. However, the NCAA allows only six hours of summer school, so he cannot make the required hours. Staton, who played as a true freshman, will be redshirted.
This is yet another setback for the talented back. Last spring and fall, Staton put on a lot of weight, which had the new coaching staff questioning his work ethic and attitude. He rebounded from that to put together a good season. This time, Grobe tried to put a positive spin on the announcement.
"It could really be a blessing for us because we've got Freddy and Nick Burney stacked side by side," Grobe said. "It will give us an opportunity to redshirt Freddy and then have him for two more years. Then once Nick Burney leaves, we'll still have Freddy for another year. With the running backs we've got, if we can get through the season without Freddy, it's going to help us down the road. We're not going to lose him and Nick in the same year."
While that may be true, the loss of Staton took on more weight the next day, when Grobe announced that Williams, who hurt his foot on June 18, would have surgery on June 24 to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal.
Receiver Ira Williams had similar surgery last year and missed 10 weeks, which would put Tarence Williams out until Sept. 2, missing only the season opener against Northern Illinois. However, trainer Don Steelman said, "It's not a good fracture," and also listed Williams as doubtful for the second and third games (East Carolina on Sept. 7 and N.C. State on Sept. 14) of the season.
No matter when Williams comes back, his conditioning will have been adversely affected. It also raises questions as to how durable Williams (who has been a workhorse) will be, considering he's 5-10, 178 pounds. On the other hand, it could pay off later in the season, if Williams is fresher.
In the meantime, Burney and Birgs are interesting options. Some around Wake have been hyping Burney (who's had his own academic problems) for the last couple of years like he's Herschel Walker, but he hasn't seen much playing time. He did look good in short bursts last season.
However, Birgs is the real wild card. He sat out the spring session with academic problems (yes, that phrase has now popped up with three of Wake's top four backs) but appears to have them cleared for the fall. Listed at 5-10, 198 pounds this spring, he was a second-team all-state selection in football and a top-ranked sprinter as a prepster in Florida.
The coaching staff was impressed enough with Birgs last season to move the other running back in his class, Dominic Anderson, to defensive back this spring. Some who've seen Birgs practice have raved about his skills, but whether he'd be ready to step into a major-college backfield immediately is questionable. Still, keep a close eye on his development in the fall.
It's doubtful that Grobe will play Barclay, mainly because he'd like him to get off to a solid start academically. In general, the policy of mass redshirting is one of the few things the current Wake Forest staff has in common with the Jim Caldwell era, and that's a good thing.
One important note in all this: Grobe's system seemed to work no matter who was in the backfield last year. Granted, some of that had to do with the offensive line, which lost its two best players. However, Grobe and Troy Calhoun, the offensive coordinator, designed a scheme based on line movement, angle blocking and misdirection that seemed to be effective no matter the variables.
They'll be challenged to do the same this fall.
Two Key Figures Leave Quietly
Also in June, Wake Forest lost two athletic administrators, and the news barely made a ripple in the media. The hometown paper printed five sentences, and it's unlikely that the event was reported in any detail anywhere else.
However, both people had a significant impact on the department's rapid ascension in facilities and results over the last several years.
Davis Whitfield, the assistant athletic director for operations and facilities management, was named the director of championships for the ACC. Whitfield spent nine years at Wake, including four in the position from which he resigned.
While Whitfield departed for greener pastures, which is certainly a compliment to his work at Wake, Mike Pratapas' departure was just sad and largely unexplained to the public.
Pratapas couldn't be more of a Wake Forest man. He played football there from 1981-84, lettered in baseball in 1985, holds two degrees from the school and did commentary on football broadcasts. He's played a variety of roles in the athletic department, most recently being the associate athletic director for development since 1995.
In that position, Pratapas played a key role as the head of fund-raising for the many major projects Wake has undertaken recently, most notably Bridger Fieldhouse and the Student-Athlete Enhancement Center (known as the Miller Center). Pratapas was responsible for bringing the courtside seats to Joel Coliseum as a fund-raising maneuver, even giving a speech on the subject at the annual convention of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics in 2001.
"I appreciate the fine job that Mike has done in our department in numerous capacities throughout his career," Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman said. "We will miss him personally, and professionally."
Pratapas reportedly had issues in his personal life that became an obstacle to his work at Wake Forest. Several sources said Pratapas repeated certain behavior, of a personal (not criminal) nature, that he had been warned about previously. Eventually, Wellman was forced to ask Pratapas for his resignation. Nobody was happy about it.
The move was a tremendous blow to Wellman, who was a big Pratapas supporter. Although he successfully kept some sensitive details out of the mass media, Wellman is missing a key figure with Wake alumni and in fund-raising circles. Watch and see if it slows down some of Wake's current projects, such as improvements to the football offices and practice fields.