April 11, 2005
WINSTON-SALEM If Wake Forest's spring football game really was a showcase for the team's "new-look" offense, then it might be a long year for the Demon Deacons. The team's defense dominated the action, and the much-talked about offensive changes didn't blow anyone away.
Still, quarterback Ben Mauk said he believes offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke has made the right changes.
"I think what Coach Lobo has done," Mauk said, "will get us over the top and into a bowl game."
That was pretty confident talk after the regular offense scored only one touchdown in the spring game.
A few tweaks were apparent. Wake ran more I-formation, with impressive redshirt freshman Richard Belton at fullback. The Deacons ran a screen to Belton, and they ran a screen off a fake of the orbit reverse. Both Mauk and Cory Randolph, the two veteran contenders for the starting quarterback job, threw a lot of roll-out passes.
None of it really added up to much in the end, though. Mauk said that one of the changes that wasn't apparent was more latitude for the quarterbacks, referencing a play that remains stuck in the minds of many Wake fans.
"There's chances to check out of runs," Mauk said. "A couple years ago against Purdue here, it was fourth and one, and we couldn't get the first down. If that was the case this year, we could check out of that and go the other way or check into a pass play. So I think a lot of those close games last year, if we had had this offense, we would have won most of them and would have been in a bowl game."
There's little doubt that the "newness" of coach Jim Grobe's unique offense has worn down after four seasons in Winston-Salem, so anything that would make the Deacons less predictable is welcome.
"When Coach Grobe first got here, the first couple years, he caught a lot of teams off-guard with that misdirection, and it still even worked last year," Mauk said. "We're still going to keep a lot of that in the offense, but put a lot of throw game in there. I think both will open up a lot more than last year. Our passing game will open up a lot of holes for Chris Barclay and Micah Andrews and those guys. When you can throw the ball, a lot of other things open up."
Barclay, one of the league's top runners, showed his disgust for the offensive calls several times last year. He, too, is happy about the changes, going into a senior season in which he could become Wake's all-time leading rusher.
"The passing game is definitely an asset, and it's something we've needed a lot since we've been here," Barclay said. "The coaching staff has worked really hard in the offseason developing this, and it will help us out a lot during the season."
Mauk Ending Disruptive Rotation?
The strategy of letting the quarterbacks make more adjustments at the line also fits well with Mauk's style. He did exactly that in high school, where he turned a wide-open, shotgun approach with plenty of audibles and improvisation into a record-setting career.
Perhaps it wasn't a mere coincidence, then, that Mauk was leading the quarterback race at the end of spring drills. While Grobe did not specifically name a starter in April, as many suggested he should for leadership purposes, he did say that he will name one in the fall and not rotate.
"The key for us is, and I've told Cory this, is they can't be even," Grobe said. "If they're ever even, then the young guy gets the nod. Right now, I would say Ben's a little bit ahead of Cory at the end of spring practice. He's kind of the guy right now, and Cory's going to have to come on and take it away from him. We would like to have a quarterback and have a good, strong backup. I know neither one of those kids would be happy with that situation."
Grobe and Randolph also confirmed this spring what the Sports Journal reported last fall: that all wasn't as smooth with the rotation as the coaches and players made it out to be at the time. Grobe said he wasn't happy with what he got out of either player in 2004, and Randolph talked about his problems dealing with the situation.
"Coach Grobe and I sat down and had a long talk in the offseason, and he just said that last year he didn't think I competed at times," Randolph said. "It was just some of the things I thought were going on. Me and Coach Grobe have worked those things out. Those things are quashed."
Mauk, too, said he'll be happy to be rid of the rotation, one way or the other.
"When you rotate quarterbacks like that, it's difficult on everybody," Mauk said. "The offensive line has to get used to a different cadence. The center has to get used to a different quarterback's hands. The receivers have to adjust to the different kind of balls thrown. The running backs have to take handoffs from different kinds of quarterbacks. Everything kind of changes just a little bit, but it still changes. That's kind of difficult."
The other significant offensive trend from the spring game was that Wake threw the ball much more than it ran. It remains to be seen how that will play out in the fall under Lobotzke, an offensive line specialist who's in his second season as the coordinator.
While Wake certainly needs more variety and more success from its passing game, it will have to do it with an inexperienced receiving corps. The team's top returning receiver, Nate Morton, missed spring practice with a ligament problem in his leg. Grobe hopes he can return in the fall. After Morton, the top returner is Chris Davis with 15 catches. Davis, Willie Idlette and others have had serious problems holding on to the ball.
Still, Grobe said the number of passes in March and April shouldn't be written off as a spring-only phenomenon.
"I think (the amount of passing) was significant," Grobe said. "I was shocked a little bit that we didn't run the ball better. You've got to give the defense credit. I didn't think we had much success at all, especially when we had good against good, running the football, so that kind of forced us to throw. We were probably in second-and-long, third-and-long more than we wanted to be.
"I'm not disappointed. If we can move the football and score points by throwing it, I don't have a problem with that. But that's a little bit of a concern coming back in August, that we get a little bit more push (in the running game) up front."
Although there are still major offensive line questions, Barclay and Mauk said most of the spring game running problems had to do with the defense knowing the plays and being improved. Indeed, the Deacons appeared quicker on defense, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. Barclay praised the line, a problem spot in the program for several years.
"They've gotten a lot stronger," Barclay said. "They look excellent. They've worked really hard this offseason in the weight room to get stronger. They play fast as well. They look as good as I've ever seen since I've been here. There's a lot of talent out there.
"Those guys are very athletic on those ends; they can run. It makes it very difficult as a running back to get reads, because those guys can play inside and can catch you outside. Those ends are looking really good."