November 8, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM - Optimism is not something totally foreign to Wake Forest football, although it might seem that way.
Wake fans were optimistic in 1999, after coach Jim Caldwell led the team to an Aloha Bowl victory, ending the Deacons' second good season in three years.
Wake fans were optimistic in 1988, when coach Bill Dooley led Wake to winning seasons in his first two years at the helm, including the first consecutive winning ACC records in school history.
Wake fans were optimistic in 1979, when one of their own, John Mackovic, led the team to eight wins and a Tangerine Bowl bid in his second season. There certainly have been other pockets of optimism over the mostly inglorious years of Wake football.
The common denominator? Disappointment.
After Mackovic's magical season, he went 5-6 the next year and left for the NFL. Wake wouldn't have another winning season until 1984.
After Dooley's winning ways, he won only eight games over the next three years. Though he won the Independence Bowl in 1992, he clashed with an administration unwilling to spend money on football, and he left the cupboard bare.
After Caldwell's bowl win, he went 2-9 the next year and was fired.
Wake Forest has never been able to sustain football success, which begs the question: Is this just a special season, or does coach Jim Grobe have Wake on the verge of being a consistently competitive program?
Well, even Grobe has found how easy it is to disappoint at Wake. After winning seasons in his first two years, including a bowl victory, Grobe went through three straight losing years before this one. He knows that when you're not recruiting prep All-Americans left and right, you're more likely to have those dropoff years.
He's also smart enough to know that this is a special season. Other than a botched snap against Clemson, almost everything has gone Wake's way. The Deacons had to go to the final seconds to beat Duke and UNC, the ACC's worst teams this fall. Wake beat N.C. State with three field goals from more than 50 yards and a key fumble. The Deacons continue to be out-gained in most games, but they still find ways to win.
Still, before you completely write this off as another one-shot wonder, there are other signs to examine.
First, Grobe's teams have remained pretty competitive over the last three seasons, beyond their records. Eleven of Wake's 21 losses were by eight points or less. That wasn't the case in the past failures, which were complete drive-off-the-cliff dropoffs.
Second, Grobe and his assistants obviously understand how to coach at Wake Forest and are committed to it. They haven't spent their time with eyes on quick wins or other jobs. They know how to recruit within their limitations. They've stuck with redshirting and their basic schemes.
Third, those schemes are repeatable, not some fly-by-night plans. Wake runs the ball, doesn't turn it over, and plays bend-but-not-break defense.
Fourth, the school finally appears to be behind the program in a serious way. Wake will never make huge money off its football program, and it may never capture the hearts of its city, which is filled with other ACC alumni.
But because athletic director Ron Wellman has stabilized all of the Wake athletic programs, he can spend money on football. He's convinced enough powerful alums that this is a program with a future, worthy of investment. Within two years, the Deacons will have completed renovations of the football offices, practice facilities and Groves Stadium.
Fifth, and most importantly, Wake has the players coming back to keep winning, unlike in many past years, when Wake won with experience, then had nothing left coming back.
Quarterback Riley Skinner has three more seasons ahead. Micah Andrews will return for a year at running back, and he'll have sophomore Kevin Harris and two talented redshirt freshmen behind him.
At wide receiver, Kenneth Moore and Kevin Marion return for another year, and Demir Boldin should return from academic problems. Redshirt freshman Marshall Williams could be the best of the bunch.
Kicker/punter Sam Swank will have two more seasons.
The Deacons will lose their two best offensive linemen, Arby Jones and Steve Vallos. But three starters will return, and five sophomores and two redshirt freshmen will join the mix.
The defensive line will lose Jamil Smith, Jyles Tucker and Bryan Andrews. But because the linemen have rotated this year, Wake will return four players with significant experience and should get back play-making end Matt Robinson.
The linebacker corps should continue to be strong, losing only Pierre Easley.
The secondary may be Wake's biggest question mark next season, as it will lose three of four starters: Riley Swanson, Patrick Ghee and Josh Gattis. Wake returns plenty of experience, though, and should add talented Brandon Ghee from academic problems and redshirt freshman Alex Frye. In addition, getting Alphonso Smith back to the form of his freshman year would almost be like adding a new player.
So all signs point to Wake continuing to be a competitive ACC program beyond this year, assuming that Wake can hang onto Grobe. Winning games and new facilities should only continue to bolster recruiting.
Will Wake find itself at the top of the division each November? Probably not. But it's not difficult to pencil Wake in for another seven or eight wins and another bowl next season, either.
BASKETBALL: YOUTH RUNNING WILD
The picture is not nearly as rosy on the basketball side at Wake Forest.
After a pedestrian season last year, the Demon Deacons are hoping that an influx of recruits can change the pace. In fact, the school's marketing pitch is "Speed Demons" for this year's squad.
But the early returns have not been terribly kind so far.
Wake is certainly more athletic, but the early public glimpses didn't showcase that speed. The Deacons haven't shown a pressing defense, and they've looked sluggish in the half-court offense, a trend in recent years.
About the only thing quick about the Deacs has been their trigger fingers on three-point shots. Wake will have multiple shooters this season: Shamaine Dukes, Ish Smith, Harvey Hale, L.D. Williams, Anthony Gurley, Cameron Stanley and Casey Crawford.
Inside play is not Wake's strength, although senior center Kyle Visser has looked good so far. So perhaps the plan will be to shoot more quickly and use the team's athleticism to rebound, instead of having to battle inside.
Smith, the exciting freshman point guard, may or may not pick up the team's pace. He's looked extremely quick at times, but some of his rushes to the basket are ill-advised, as he hasn't shown the ability to score in the lane.
But Smith clearly is showing that he's the kind of creative passer with court sense who can get shots for his teammates. While Wake fans may have to put up with some turnovers, at least in the early going, Smith should be the point guard that was missing so badly last season.