October 26, 2005
WINSTON-SALEM - Lost in the attention that Wake's quarterback changes have received was a shift in offensive philosophy that has helped those quarterbacks.
Previously under coach Jim Grobe, Wake ran an offense in which plays were called or changed at the line, but that usually was done from the sideline. The Wake quarterback would back off from center, get a play call, then tell his team.
But starting with spring practice this year, Wake's coaches tried to put in more play checks at the line for the quarterbacks. This was the result of a couple of factors.
First, new quarterback Benjamin Mauk had operated under a similar system in high school, where he had a lot off leeway on such matters. Though he was still inexperienced as a collegian, the coaches believed he could handle it. Second, Wake had found itself caught in some bad situations over the previous two seasons. On some crucial plays, often key third- or fourth-down conversions, Wake's quarterbacks hadn't been able to check out of some plays for which the defense appeared prepared.
The most famous of those (so famous that the players still reference it this year) was a fourth-down situation against Purdue in the third week of the 2003 season. As Wake closed in on the goal line for the winning score, star tailback Chris Barclay was stopped on a short fourth-down play, leading to a 16-10 loss.
Later, the Purdue defense admitted that it pretty much knew what Wake was going to do, and Barclay and quarterback Cory Randolph said they could see in advance that the play wasn't going to work.
But as the 2005 season progressed, it became apparent that Mauk wasn't dealing too well with the situation. Overall, he was just doing too much thinking, both before the play and during it. Grobe wanted to do something to address that, and at the same time he made the change to Randolph. So when Randolph took the field, he had a shortened playlist and much less to think about.
Randolph's resulting decisiveness and confidence against Clemson and Boston College were clear, even compared to his play last fall. Grobe hoped the strategy change would do the same for Mauk, after he returned against N.C. State because of Randolph's ankle injury.
"I just thought we were asking Ben to do too many things," Grobe said. "The thing I'm hoping is we'll see a faster, more decisive Ben Mauk, a guy that will be a better decision-maker. And when he makes a decision, (we want him to) go with it full-speed and not be out on the field worried too much about making mistakes."
Mauk did show a more confident demeanor against N.C. State, although he still had moments during plays when he seemed to be thinking too much. Still, he said he could tell a difference from the first few weeks.
"Coach Lobo (Lobotzke) simplified a lot of things," Mauk said. "They took a lot of the checks off the quarterback's plate."
It will be interesting to see how this progresses, as it would be nice to have a quarterback who can both make calls at the line and execute without paralyzing himself. It may be an issue that isn't revisited until spring practice.
TEAM NEEDS QUICK-STRKE ABILITY
Another thing lost in the focus on the quarterback situation has been what little explosiveness the Deacons have to help those quarterbacks.
The problem really came into the spotlight against BC, when Wake had to move the ball quickly down the field. Instead of being able to throw the ball 20 yards to a receiver breaking open from his man, Wake had to run some screens and short passes to its fullback.
Wake has hit the occasional big play, such as Kevin Marion's 67-yard orbit reverse run or Kenny Moore's 74-yard TD reception on a streak pattern. But as for being able to consistently threaten a defense, the weapons just aren't there.
Even Barclay, who will go down as one of the league's top all-time rushers, doesn't have breakaway speed. He's a frontrunner for first-team All-ACC honors and certainly Wake's biggest weapon, but he's not often a threat to go 50 or more yards.
"One of our issues offensively has been big plays," Grobe said. "We need to somehow find a way to have more big plays in our offense."
Grobe has tried to find playmakers. He recruited speedy wideouts such as Willie Idlette, Marion and Chris Davis. But he's found that those players often have been unable to match their talent to their speed. Moore's catch was Wake's only reception of more than 46 yards through eight games. Davis' longest catch was 14 yards. Idlette's was 19.
Even the 46-yard catch by Demir Boldin was a good example of the problem. Boldin's catch came on the first play of the game against State. He clearly had the defense beat on a crossing route, but he was eventually caught and forced out of bounds at the 13. Wake couldn't get into the end zone and had to settle for a field goal.
A faster player would have put the Wolfpack down a touchdown right off the bat. This ability to scare defenses is what allows teams to complete those 20-yard routes. Defensive backs have to respect the receivers, so they can get driven deeper while the receivers come back for catches. This problem also has extended to kick returns, another place where teams can use playmakers to change games.
Wake has been at the bottom of the league for the last two seasons, and it's there again this year. Through eight games, the Deacons were averaging 15.4 yards on kickoff returns, with a long of 32. By contrast, N.C. State was averaging almost twice that much (31.4 yards) for the season. Wake was averaging 6.7 yards a punt return, with a long of 22. Miami was averaging 14.3 yards per return.
DEFENSE FINDS YOUNG PLAYMAKERS
The good news is that while Grobe is still searching for some difference-makers on offense, he's finding some on defense - and they're young.
Jonathan Abbate burst onto the scene last year, finishing fourth in the league in tackles and displaying a reckless, all-over-the-field style. This year, sophomore Matt Robinson has continued to emerge, and he's been joined by redshirt freshmen Antonio Smith and Aaron Curry.
Robinson has used his speed at end to register seven tackles for loss, including four sacks, plus he's broken up four passes and forced two fumbles. Curry, a large but quick linebacker, has played more and more as the season progresses. He's had six tackles for loss, five passes broken up and a blocked kick.
As predicted here, Smith already has emerged as a star. A bouncy cornerback, he has the confidence to be aggressive and the speed to back it up. Through eight games, he had six tackles for loss, three interceptions, eight passes broken up, one forced fumble and two blocked kicks.
"He's a playmaker," Mauk said. "He blocks punts, intercepts passes, makes big tackles. He's all over the field."
Grobe said two things stand out in his big-play defenders. First, the four practice the same way they play - hard, fast and with enthusiasm. He constantly talks about their attitudes and their "motors."
"(Smith) comes out and has fun at practice," Grobe said. "He bounces around. He picks everyone up. I don't think we have anybody on the football team that likes playing more than Alphonso does, and that's a little bit contagious. Aaron Curry is another one of those freshmen that picks everyone up because they have fun playing out there."
The second thing is experience: knowing that aggressive play is the only way to change games.
"Our kids are playing with a little bit more abandon," Grobe said. "Part of it is experience. Some of our young guys, they found out that playing cautious doesn't do a lot for you, so you might as well have fun and go out and make plays. More than anything, our young guys are more comfortable with our scheme, and they realize that sitting on their heels isn't going to get it done. You've got to go make something happen."
Now Grobe just has to figure out how to find more athletes who can go make something happen with the ball in their hands.