December 5, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM -- Somehow it was fitting that the end of the ACC championship game was all about a Wake Forest wide receiver.
Willie Idlette caught the big pass. He took the ball on an end-around and delivered the clinching first down. Perhaps even a more telling moment came on the play before the "big pass," when Idlette caught a screen and put his head down and barreled into a defensive back.
In a season of turnarounds for the Demon Deacons, no group performed a bigger about-face than their wide receivers.
The group was terrible last season -- not just bad, absolutely terrible. Every dropback was followed by a cringe, as everyone waited for the dropped pass, fumble or other disaster. That was when the receivers could even get open.
Nate Morton was the best of the bunch, with 39 grabs. Morton was sure-handed, but not much of a threat. The next four on the reception list were a graduating running back (Chris Barclay), two receivers who were leaving the program (Chris Davis-graduation, Demir Boldin-academics) and the fullback (Richard Belton). Who was left? Tight end Zac Selmon (10 catches), Idlette (nine), Kenneth Moore (eight) and Kevin Marion (three).
This year, Morton again led the way with 34 grabs, but Idlette finally looked like the player he appeared he'd become as a freshman, adding 31 catches and three touchdowns. Moore caught 30 before moving to running back, and Selmon and John Tereshinski combined for 24 at tight end.
Marion grabbed only six passes, but he finally became the kickoff returner Wake thought he could be, averaging 23.8 yards and striking fear in opposing teams. Idlette and Moore combined to average 11.2 yards on punt returns. The season before, Wake averaged 16 on kick returns and 5.3 on punt returns.
The group changed from one that dropped balls and preferred to dance and go out of bounds when they did make catches to one that made tough catches, took on defenders and blocked hard.
This transformation didn't just happen because of maturity or Riley Skinner's accurate arm. The root cause traces back to the offseason, when Kevin Sherman decided to leave his position as a Wake assistant in charge of wide receivers for the same role at Virginia Tech.
Wake coach Jim Grobe chose to replace Sherman with a veteran. In 23 years of coaching, Tim Billings had been a head coach, a coordinator and had spent time on both sides of the ball. Perhaps more importantly, he was a special teams whiz, dating to his days at Marshall.
Billings knew how to win from his time at Oklahoma and Marshall. He knew that wide receivers should be tough blockers from his days under Barry Switzer, when the Sooners ran the ball down team's throats. He knew about innovative passing games from trying to defend them at Marshall's practices.
He brought all that to the table immediately. By spring practice, the Wake defensive backs already were raving about changes in the receivers. Cornerback Alphonso Smith said he thought they had been infected by Billings' defensive-minded approach.
"They block. They run hard every play," Smith said. "All of them have an attitude, every single one of them. In the past, they wouldn't do that."
LOBOTZKE FINDS SOME CREATIVITY
So Billings breathed life into the receivers and the special teams. But he also contributed to one of the other big turnarounds of the season, the reputation of offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke.
A year ago, many Wake fans were calling for Lobotzke's head. His run offense had become predictable, and his pass offense was almost non-existent. He didn't show much diversity to hide the weaknesses.
It was a far cry from Grobe's first two years at Wake, when Troy Calhoun made the offensive calls. The Deacons were unpredictable then, and they shocked the league with their blocking schemes and play calls. The unpredictability masked the talent gap. After Calhoun left for the NFL, the Deacons seemed to get more and more conservative each year.
Those moments have popped up a few times this season, including some close-to-the-vest calls against Clemson (which Grobe took credit for) and running De'Angelo Bryant up the middle on third down in the second half against Georgia Tech. But overall, Wake was back to being unpredictable.
"We've been pretty creative this year," Grobe said, "finding ways to move the football."
That creativity does more than just cross up defenses. It motivates players. Skinner says the team wants to practice it.
"Playing in this offense is fun. You get to do everything," Skinner said. "I get to throw the ball, run it, block. I've even caught a pass. Everything is great, the reverses are just another play for us. So I don't know too many schemes that can be as fun and keep the defense on their heels like ours does."
Lobotzke adjusted to a new quarterback, a slew of running backs and still managed to keep defenses off-kilter.
"For us, half of our offense is smoke and mirrors," he said. "Play them one time, give em your best smoke and mirrors, and see what you can get away with."
While that's true in many ways, Wake is still a tough blocking team. You can't run the ball any other way.
"Everybody wants to talk about their razzle-dazzle stuff," Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey said. "They are physical. You better get that other junk out of your head."
Billings made his receivers a threat in the passing game, allowing Lobotzke more freedom. It was the hard-nosed blocking and tough running of Billings' group that made it possible for Wake to start running outside again. Gone was the strict reliance on the zone-blocking runs between the tackles. In addition, Billings insisted that Moore could move to running back when the rest of the staff resisted, and the move helped save the season.
"They are so lateral all the time, they get you running east and west, and all of a sudden they hit you up the middle with that big fullback or the tailback, or a post to Idlette," Gailey said, noting the play that eventually caused his team's demise. "So they've really evolved."
That's really the key word: evolution. Not just since last season, although there's been a lot of change in the personnel and the playbook. More like in a career.
Lobotzke is only 36, and this is his first coordinator role. He's certainly smarter in his third season than he was in his first. He's also smart enough to take advantage of the talent around him, such as Billings, in order to evolve.
Fortunately, Lobotzke also works for a head coach who places a value on his assistants and has a strong track record with them. Grobe was willing to hire someone who had almost as much experience as himself and who had been a head coach. He didn't fear conflict and just focused on the right man for the job.
Billings has proved to be just that, providing many small but key pieces in the big, beautiful puzzle of this Wake Forest football season.