By Bill Hass,
Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record
August 25, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM On the surface, it's a modest goal. If Wake Forest can post a winning football record this year, it would be the third straight season it has done that. It sounds like a small thing, but in truth it would be monumental. The last time it happened was more than 50 years ago. From 1950-52, the Deacons went 6-1-2, 6-4 and 5-4-1. That was at the tail end of what serves as the golden era of Wake Forest football. From 1939-52, the Deacons had winning or .500 seasons in 12 of 14 years. The first dozen of those were under Peahead Walker, the last two under Tom Rogers. Since then, starting with the creation of the ACC, Wake Forest has played 50 seasons of football and managed .500 or better in 13 of them. Jim Grobe, now in his third season as the Deacons' head coach, is enough of a student of Wake gridiron history to understand the harsh reality of what he's facing. It tells you that we've really not been very consistent in our football program, he said. There have been some really good teams in the history of Wake Forest football, but to find any consistency you have to go back to the days when Peahead Walker was the coach. So that's our goal. The evidence clearly shows that if anyone can return the Deacons to their glory days, Grobe is the man. He has guided Wake to records of 6-5 and 7-6, its first back-to-back winning seasons since 1987-88 under Bill Dooley. Counting the almost forgotten 7-5 season of 1999 under Jim Caldwell, Wake's fifth-year seniors have had three winning records in their careers. That's the kind of thing Grobe points to when he says he doesn't want Wake to be a flash in the pan. Our guys have gotten to the point where they expect to win, Grobe said, and I don't think anyone is wondering whether we can win this year. They know we can, but we've got a really tough schedule and it's not going to be easy. But that's a goal, to get back to the point where it was in the '50s, where our fans and alums expect every year for us to have a good football team and hopefully one day a team with a chance to win a league title. The players seem to have gotten the message. Middle linebacker Brad White calls this the most important season since he transferred to Wake from Georgia three years ago. I think this year is huge because we expect to win eight games, nine games, even more, White said. To fall below that would be taking a step back from what we've done so far. We're trying to make this a program where a winning season is expected and anything less is unsatisfactory. And we're not there yet. By the time I leave in two years, I want to have four winning seasons behind me, and the underclassmen will be expecting nothing less. And when Miami and Virginia Tech come in, we'll still expect to have winning seasons. At Georgia, coach Jim Donnan had four straight top-20 teams and still got fired. White wants Wake to rise to that level of success. That may be far-fetched, but it's a long way up from the losing attitude that permeated the Deacons' program for so long. Despite Grobe's early success, he knows it won't be a quick fix. Wake has to keep building on what he has established so far. From his perspective, it will take six years to evaluate his job. Your first year is a wash, recruiting-wise, he said. When we got here, about half of our class was committed and we stuck by those commitments. The other half we got, we were like a storm blowing in and out all over the South just trying to find players. We're pleasantly surprised with that class, but it's not the (caliber) of our last two classes. When we get to where the guys in last year's class (2001) are fifth-year seniors, that's when you'll start seeing whether we're worth anything or not. We feel like we're bringing the right kids to Wake Forest to fit our scheme and our coaching philosophy, and we'll probably know in six years how well we've done. Grobe will be given every opportunity to complete his task. He's armed with a new 10-year contract after turning away overtures from Baylor, and how fortunate was Grobe that he didn't get caught in the deepening quagmire in Waco? One thing that must be done if the Deacons are to continue on the right path is to improve within the ACC. Wake is 6-10 in league games under Grobe. Of those losses, only three 48-24 to Florida State in 2001, 32-13 to N.C. State last year and 32-14 to Maryland last year were by substantial margins. We've had a chance to win most games in league play at the very end, Grobe said. For whatever reasons, an unfortunate penalty or we didn't execute well enough or the other team executed better in the end, we've just come up short. I think we've been knocking on the door, and unfortunately that's what I've got to tell you about our program right now. I think we're good enough to beat everybody, but we're not good enough to beat people consistently at the end.
If the ball bounces the right way a couple of times, we can probably say we're .500 in the league or a little better. But we've got to understand we've got a ways to go. We want to one day challenge for a title, and you can't do that if you're not winning more games in the league than we've won the past two years. Whether the Deacons can pull off that third straight winning season, or at least manage .500, is problematic. They are young in some key positions quarterback, the defensive line and the offensive line, where mounting injuries could pose a serious depth problem. Much of the offensive success depends on Cory Randolph, the league's most inexperienced starting quarterback. The coaches love his athletic ability, and he played in nine of the 13 games last season. But while he's not a novice, he's basically untested. Talent-wise, if you watch Cory Randolph run around and throw the football, he looks better than (graduated QB) James MacPherson, Grobe said, but Cory hasn't done it (on the field) yet. MacPherson, unappreciated outside of the Wake campus, made sound decisions and few mistakes last year. Randolph likely will be prone to more errors, but he's got to learn. He sounds confident enough. The most important thing is to make sure you know every single detail that can help you on the field, Randolph said. I also need to be a leader for the young guys and show them how to do things. It's the little things that make a good leader hard work, execution, if things go bad don't be down, pick others up, hustle. Incidentally, don't believe the occasional reports that touted freshman Ben Mauk will wind up as the starter this year. It's Randolph's job unless he gets injured or completely falls on his face. Grobe wants to redshirt Mauk and Bruce Hall, whom the coaches also like a lot. The real competition should come next spring, when Mauk and Hall have a season of learning the system under their belts. There are plenty of weapons to work with. Tailback Chris Barclay, a surprise as a true freshman in 2002, should really come into his own. So should wide receiver Jason Anderson, the star of the Seattle Bowl, who averaged 23 yards a catch last year. Nick Burney will give the Deacons more of a running threat at fullback. The vulnerable area is the offensive line. Tyson Clabo, one of the best linemen in the ACC, will rarely come off the field; he'll be moved around to all four guard and tackle positions. Center Blake Lingruen is solid. So is tackle Mark Moroz, but Moroz will miss the first two games and maybe more as he recovers from a sprained knee ligament. Guards Chad Rebar (leg) and Joe Salsich (hand) also must recover quickly from injuries. A lot will be asked of some unknowns, especially redshirt tackle Steve Vallos. Another factor in the offense this year is Steed Lobotzke, who moves into the coordinator's role after coaching the guards and centers. He replaces the innovative Troy Calhoun, who moved to the NFL. Moving from the sideline into the coach's box has given Lobotzke a broader view of the game, and he's eager to put his ideas into action. I feel like a better coach now that I've widened my scope, Lobotzke said. I've been looking forward to this opportunity. I've wanted to call plays. I have a lot of ideas and a lot of answers. Whether they're right or wrong, they're answers. We're going to have some wrinkles, a little different look. That's me as the coordinator instead of Troy, and it's also the best 11 players that we have. That changes every year. You don't have (fullback) Ovie Mughelli and (tight end) Ray Thomas every snap, so we're probably not in as much I pro as last year. Defensively, there's considerably more experience in the Deacons' unusual 3-3-5 scheme, although there's an entirely new front line. Veterans such as White at middle linebacker, Kellen Brantley outside, free safety Quintin Williams and cornerback Eric King will have to hold things down until the front three gain experience. Don't be surprised if youngsters Jyles Tucker and Bryan Andrews get a lot of time at end. Neither will be the equivalent of All-American and first-round draft pick Calvin Pace this year, but down the line they could be quite a pair. As in the past two years, the Deacons need some success early to have a chance to reach their modest goals. Their opener, at Boston College, is tougher than the one they lost last year at Northern Illinois. If they can come out 2-2 against Boston College, N.C. State, Purdue and East Carolina, things can go well. If they start 1-3 or 0-4, it could be a long season. But even if Wake fails to reach .500 this year, it should be only a temporary step back. Grobe is the perfect fit for Wake Forest. We want to be the kind of football team that has four, five or six straight bowl games, like Boston College, Grobe said. I think right now people respect what we've done. I would like to get to the point where people expect us to be a good program. We're not quite there yet, but we're working on it.