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Special Teams Among Offseason Concerns

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

May 24, 2005

WINSTON-SALEM - Under coach Jim Grobe, Wake Forest's special teams often have been a mystery. After spring practice, this year's version looks as mysterious as ever.

"I'm disappointed in our kicking game," Grobe said at the end of the spring session.

The problem? Grobe's been saying that since his first game at Wake Forest in 2001, when missed kicks and other special teams mistakes almost cost him a win at East Carolina.

Grobe never has been able to stomp out the problems, and he's never assigned a coach specifically to special teams. Veteran assistant Billy Mitchell has overseen the units, but Mitchell also coaches the running backs. Last season, Wake finished last in the ACC in punt returns, kick returns and field goal percentage.

About the only thing Mitchell and Grobe won't have to worry about is senior punter Ryan Plackemeier. He's a two-time All-ACC pick, and he finished eighth in the nation with a 43.9-yard average last year. In the spring game, Plackemeier booted a ball almost 70 yards in the air.

But Wake also struggled to get the ball to Plackemeier, as it did for the placekicking attempts.

"I don't think our sets were very good," Grobe said. "I didn't think we had good snaps and sets, and our punt snaps were really poor today. From a kicking game standpoint, we've got some work to do."

Those poor sets also made it difficult to judge redshirt freshman kicker Sam Swank. He missed the three kicks he took during the game, from 31, 47 and 55 yards. But in "game situation" practice, Swank went six-for-six, including two from 52 yards. In addition, his miss from 55 had plenty of leg, just sliding to the left.

Overall, Grobe said that despite the misses, Swank was one of the bright spots of the spring.

"I feel really good about Sam Swank," he said. "We've got a guy with a good foot. We didn't set the ball for him a couple of times, and he looked like Hogan's goat, but I think it was more the set than anything else. He's got a good leg. He works hard in the weight room. He'll get stronger. He's a pretty accurate guy. I like Sam."

The reason that Wake is looking to Swank is because Matt Wisnosky is not likely to be back to full strength after the knee injury he suffered last season. Grobe actually used Wisnosky's scholarship because no one thought he'd come back at all.

"Now that he's healed as quickly as he has, he has a little bit of hope that he can completely recover and start kicking again," Grobe said. "So it's probably a month or two away. We'll have to see how that works out. If he gets back to kicking full-speed and we've got a scholarship left, we might make that move. He's pretty athletic. He's bounced back pretty quick. He's even been surprised by how quickly he's bounced back."

As far as the return game, Wake will start the same speedsters as last season: Kevin Marion on kickoffs and Willie Idlette on punts. The problem was that neither could ever get loose to use that speed.

Marion averaged 23 yards a return in 2004, a small improvement over Idlette the previous year. Marion's longest was 43 yards. Idlette had a promising season two years ago, averaging seven yards a punt return, including a 50-yard touchdown against N.C. State. But last year, he fell to 4.7 yards, with a long of 20.

This spring, Grobe also used tailback Micah Andrews on kickoffs, and redshirt freshman cornerback Alphonso Smith on punts.

One positive could be that Wake's improved depth will allow the special-teams units to field fresher men than last year, when a few players served on almost every team.

Offense Will Need Healthy Morton

The worst injury-related news of the spring was that receiver Nate Morton continued to struggle with a leg injury. He practiced a little at the start of the session, but that was it.

"He's just been injured all spring," Grobe said. "He was hurt toward the end of fall and has just never completely recovered from that. In some way, one of the ligaments has been displaced or stretched a little bit, so he just has problems any time he plants or pushes off. He's got an injury where he needs a lot of rest, and I don't think they're going to do surgery on him right now, but maybe, we don't know right now. We'll see. We hope to have him full-speed by the time we get back in August."

Morton is not an All-ACC candidate, but on a team with very little experience at receiver, he's an important cog. Not only is Morton, a converted quarterback, the type of player who can mentor others in practice, he's one of the only receivers Wake has who can hang on to the ball consistently.

Morton led the team with 26 grabs last season. The rest of the returning receivers caught 39 balls combined.

Grobe Supports Diamond Switch

In the offseason, Grobe lost one player, freshman linebacker Mike Causey, in unusual fashion - to the Wake Forest baseball team.

Causey was a three-sport star in high school, excelling in baseball, wrestling (state champion) and football. He signed with Wake to play linebacker, but he was part of a talented young group at that position. That glut helped make his choice, and Grobe allowed him to use his football scholarship while playing for new baseball coach Rick Rembielak.

"I played baseball and football, but my love was football, and in Mike's case, his love is baseball," Grobe said. "Rick owes me. I'm glad that I've been able to help him out, and maybe one day one of his guys will come the other way.

"We've got a good situation at linebacker. Lot of good competition there, and I think Mike saw that and he was torn trying to play both. So I think it's good for him and probably good for us, because we've got to rep the guys who we'll be lining up in the fall."

Causey hit .250 in 12 plate appearances in Wake's first 50 games this spring. The baseball coaches hope that, at 6-0 and 210 pounds, he can become a power-hitting outfielder.