By Bill Hass
August 30, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM - The most important date in Wake Forest's football season falls on a Sunday, and it needs to be a sellout.
Specifically, the date is Oct. 1, the target Wake athletic director Ron Wellman set to obtain commitments for all 22 box suites in the proposed "Deacon Tower" in Groves Stadium.
The suites, which each will accommodate 16 or 17 people, range from approximately $27,000 to $50,000 per year, depending on the length of commitment. They are available in terms of three, five, seven or 10 years.
That's a considerable investment for six or seven autumn Saturdays to watch a team that has, at best, a sporadic tradition of winning. For every good season, there have been several losing ones.
Naturally, the people and companies who fork over that kind of money will expect not only to watch games in comfort, but also to see the Demon Deacons win on a more consistent basis than their history has shown.
Given that scenario, how this year's football team performs in its first five games may have a significant influence on whether the sellout can become a reality. The results on the field are intertwined with the willingness of folks to spend their money.
That's why the Deacons need a fast start in their first five games, to get their fans thinking about qualifying for one of the ACC's eight bowl tie-ins.
"Certainly, a bowl game is something that's a goal for all of us," coach Jim Grobe said. "We want to create a tradition where we're expected to go to bowl games."
That would be quite an accomplishment, since the Deacons have played in just six bowls ever. The last came in 2002, a win over Oregon in the Seattle Bowl in Grobe's second season.
Wellman, who hears feedback from fans, is encouraged that the coaches and players are talking about a bowl game.
"I'm not going to say it's an absolute must to go to a bowl (this year)," Wellman said, "but I expect the program to improve."
With a good stock of upperclassmen on hand from the Jim Caldwell era, Grobe fashioned records of 6-5 and 7-6 in his first two seasons. Then the upper classes thinned out, as Grobe's redshirt policy took root. Records of 5-7, 4-7 and 4-7 followed.
Grobe has avoided the 3-8, 2-9 and 1-10 records that have plagued every Deacons coach since Peahead Walker. In Grobe's last five years, Wake rarely has been an easy touch for anyone on a given Saturday and has battled its way into the "competitive" category.
But now it's time for more.
"We feel this is a year we should be a better football team," Grobe said. "I think our fans have seen us pay some dues with all this redshirting we've been doing. Now we're into our first fifth-year senior class, and we have great expectations, and I think our fans should, too."
The players also are feeling the need for a step forward.
"All I can say is, we're going to surprise some people," junior linebacker Jon Abbate said. "We've got to get out of the mindset of just being happy with being competitive. That's not Wake Forest football anymore. Every day we come to practice, we strive to get better and we strive to reach the top. I really feel like it starts this year. It's time to mature, and it's time to get over that hump, and it's time to get this program to the next level consistently."
Building a program, not just a one- or two-year flash in the pan, always has been Grobe's goal. When he and his staff arrived in 2001, they found that Bridger Field House at Groves was the only facility up to the standards they envisioned.
Since then, the practice locker rooms, meeting rooms and coaches' offices have been redone; lights and an all-weather surface have been added to the practice field; the facade at Groves was bricked last year; and FieldTurf was installed for this season. Next on the list is the Deacon Tower renovation, scheduled to begin after this season and be ready in 2008. Still more improvements are on the drawing board.
Grobe, working with a 10-year contract that extends through the 2012 season, said the finished product of the improvements is still four or five years away. But dividends should be available almost immediately.
"Once the stadium is completed, and even before, we're going to start seeing better results in recruiting," he said. "Once recruits see you really mean business, and you're really trying to compete at the top level of the ACC, obviously your recruiting gets a lot better. They've seen little steps that have been taken. Now we're getting ready to take a major step."
Grobe and Wellman understand that some recruits are attracted to a big campus with an 85,000-seat stadium, and Wake isn't going to be in the running for them. But they believe the stadium renovations, coupled with Wake's appeal as a smaller school with a good education, will help them recruit better athletes.
"High school athletes are definitely convinced by facilities and stadiums and stuff like that," Abbate said. "It definitely puts us on an even playing field with the big schools, and it's going to help us surprise some people in winning more."
Wellman's goal is to make Groves Stadium the "Wrigley Field of college football." He wants fans to experience a "wow!" factor that will make them anxious to get there and eager to return. Winning football is a crucial part of that equation.
So, will there be a "wow!" factor to this year's team? It's possible, despite many predictions that place the Deacons sixth (last) in the Atlantic Division.
"I don't worry about where we're ranked right now," Grobe said. "If I was part of a poll, and I'd never seen Wake Forest be real consistent, that's where I'd put them and make them prove it. And that's what we're out to do. We're out to show people that we're better."
Over the past two 4-7 seasons, the Deacons have lost a lot of close games late. It was Vanderbilt and Boston College last year and a host of games, including Clemson and N.C. State in overtime, in 2004.
Those Wake teams were made up largely of redshirt freshmen and third-year sophomores. Now those players are fourth-year juniors and fifth-year seniors.
"The best teacher is experience," defensive coordinator Dean Hood said, "and hopefully those guys will be the ones to make the plays for you this year."
Hood likes the fast pace and reaction time of his unit. The starters are primarily veterans who have been in the same scheme for three years. Middle linebacker Abbate, a junior, and senior safeties Josh Gattis and Patrick Ghee form the core, with support from sophomores such as linebacker Aaron Curry and cornerback Alphonso Smith.
But defensive collapses weren't the only reason for Wake's demise in some games. The offense, despite a big-play man in record-setting tailback Chris Barclay, often failed to sustain drives and make key first downs late in games, forcing the defense back onto the field too soon.
Ironically, although the offense will lack Barclay's breakaway capability, it might be better at chewing up the clock with Micah Andrews and De'Angelo Bryant, two powerful runners.
As always, Wake seeks to improve its passing game to add more balance to its attack. Coordinator Steed Lobotzke is looking for four receivers to break out of a nondescript pack. The leading contenders are Willie Idlette, Kevin Marion, Kenneth Moore and Nate Morton.
Maybe the key man in the receiving corps is new assistant coach Tim Billings, the replacement for Kevin Sherman, who moved on to Virginia Tech. Billings is an experienced aide who also has been a head coach, so he understands what makes players tick.
"He's pretty matter-of-fact," Grobe said. "He's not a yeller and a screamer, but when he tells you something you better listen. He has (the receivers') attention, and they know he means business. He demands good play."
To be successful, the Deacons must get a solid, James MacPherson-like season from quarterback Ben Mauk, a fourth-year junior who has worked on cutting down his mistakes, such as forcing the ball into a crowd or taking a big sack. The coaches want him to play his role and execute the game plan.
"It's a lot more comfortable back there," Mauk said. "The offensive line has good depth, the receivers are coming along, and we've got three really good running backs, so all I have to do is just not mess it up this year. In the past, I tried to put too many things on my shoulders instead of just executing the game plan."
As usual, there isn't much margin for error. A big concern already is whether Matt Robinson, a junior defensive end who can pressure the quarterback with his quickness off the ball, will be sufficiently recovered from a broken kneecap to play a few games into the season or at all.
In addition, true freshman Dan Caldwell may not be ready to handle the punting chores right away. If he's not, the kicking game could be an adventure.
On the other hand, the early schedule sets up extremely well, with five games the Deacons are capable of winning, starting with Syracuse on Sept. 2. As Grobe said, "we can't stub our toe right out of the game like we did last year with Vanderbilt."
Wellman said the early interest in Deacon Tower's box suites and other, less expensive premium seats has been greater than he anticipated. If the Oct. 1 sellout goal isn't met, he said, the project will be reevaluated and likely delayed.
But if an improved Wake Forest team can get off to a good start and fan the flames of interest for its followers, Deacon Tower just might reach that goal.
WAKE FOREST INSIDER: UPDATES/ANALYSIS
- For the second straight offseason, Wake Forest placed an emphasis on diversifying its passing game. Last year's spring focus faded in the fall, though, and Wake ran much of the same scheme.
This year, the spring game and August scrimmages showed a large number of pass plays to the backs and tight ends, long ignored receivers under Jim Grobe. The move could help junior quarterback Benjamin Mauk immensely. A short, varied passing game would allow Mauk to calm his happy feet in the pocket more often and not have to make as many deep-downfield decisions.
"We've got to give our quarterbacks options," Grobe said. "If you don't involve everyone in your throw game, you limit yourself."
Nobody in the program wants to talk about it, but if Mauk can't finally put things together behind a veteran line and with a less burdensome scheme, he may never get it. The Wake coaches spoke in August about unfair expectations (Mauk set national records in high school) and a lack of support from teammates, but this is Mauk's fourth year in the program. It's time.
- Wake received some surprise play in August from two upperclassmen on whom many around the program had given up: wide receiver Kenneth Moore and defensive tackle Jamil Smith.
Moore, a junior, finally has inserted himself into the picture at receiver, one of Wake's weakest positions. According to the coaches, Moore got more serious about the game, and he's been the most impressive receiver since the spring.
"Kenny Moore has really stepped up," first-year receivers coach Tim Billings said. "He's kind of become the leader of the group."
Grobe singled out Smith as one of the spring's most impressive players. Much of it is because of a newfound toughness that had been missing in his play.
The staff also praised offensive lineman Chris DeGeare, who played in 11 games last year but was inconsistent as a true freshman. Grobe also said that redshirt freshman Mike Rinfrette has impressed, and the staff is trying to find ways to use him at fullback, tight end or in an H-back role.
- Three names missing from the 2006 depth chart are receiver Demir Boldin, cornerback Brandon Ghee and running back L.J. Flintall. Boldin and Ghee were academic casualties who enrolled in the fall and should return to the team in 2007. Flintall left school after being accused of on-campus theft.
Boldin played well last year after getting a chance midway through the season. His loss especially will hurt because of Wake's woes at receiver. The loss of Ghee will be felt on special teams, where he could have been a standout. Flintall was no better than No. 4 on the depth chart, behind classmate Kevin Harris.
- Injuries lingered for the Demon Deacons at a couple of key positions as September neared.
Defensive end Matt Robinson is struggling to return from a broken kneecap. Even if he does get back to action, his key attribute is speed, so you'd have to wonder how effective he would be. Robinson has an opportunity for a medical redshirt, as he missed his freshman season with a shoulder problem.
If Robinson can't go, the spotlight again will fall onto senior Bryan Andrews. A one-time prep All-American linebacker, Andrews has been a consistent disappointment since arriving in Winston-Salem, and Grobe said he didn't have a particularly good spring.
"I want to be remembered for something," Andrews said, "not just being a Parade All-American coming out of high school."
In other lasting injuries, reserve tackle Louis Frazier has been slow to come back from a knee injury, and freshman Dan Caldwell is still mending from a summer boat injury that left several gashes in his leg. Caldwell was supposed to replace All-American punter Ryan Plackemeier, but now Sam Swank may handle both the kicking and punting duties.
THE BIG PICTURE
Attitudes are pretty positive around Wake Forest football, despite the fact that Jim Grobe is 13-21 since going to a bowl game in his second season. Grobe hasn't won more than three ACC games in any of his five seasons, but Wake is working on a major stadium-improvement plan. The reason for the smiles? Grobe has fought through the lean years when his transitional recruiting classes matured with consistent competitiveness, something rarely seen on the gridiron in Winston-Salem. Now he's emerging on the other side, with his players and experience and a good deal of talent. He appears to have built a foundation that will keep the Deacons always in the fight, though probably not for a league title.
The PooP Both Wake Forest coordinators have taken some heat over the past several years. Defensive coordinator Dean Hood used to be the whipping boy, but as his unit gained talent and depth, the focus turned more to offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke. Wake's offense has gone from an eye-opener several years ago to predictable, and the Deacons haven't developed any kind of diverse passing game to help them succeed. Still, keep an eye on Hood, as his unit now has very high expectations, and he still hasn't proven much. If he doesn't produce this time, he has no excuses.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 1-7 (8) 3-8 None
1997 3-5 (6) 5-6 None
1998 2-6 (7) 3-8 None
1999 3-5 (5) 7-5 Aloha Bowl (W)
2000 1-7 (8) 2-9 None
2001 3-5 (7) 6-5 None
2002 3-5 (7) 7-6 Seattle Bowl (W)
2003 3-5 (7) 5-7 None
2004 1-7 (10) 4-7 None
2005 3-5 (4A) 4-7 None
ACC: 23-57 (.288)
Overall: 46-68 (.404)
Building Blocks Ten starters return on defense (pending Matt Robinson's recovery from a broken kneecap), and the unit is fast, deep and aggressive. The Deacons should go from one of the league's worst defenses to one of the better ones. Wake has more talented linebackers than it can put on the field at one time, led by junior wrecking ball Jon Abbate. Alphonso Smith has All-American talent at corner, and Patrick Ghee and Josh Gattis are two of the league's top safeties. The offensive line, led by All-ACC tackle Steve Vallos, returns four starters.
Coming On Strong Running back Micah Andrews averaged 5.8 yards per carry as Chris Barclay's backup, and while he doesn't have Barclay's speed, he's tougher inside. Sophomore linebacker Aaron Curry could have an eye-opening year. Senior defensive tackle Jamil Smith, long a disappointment, had one of the team's best spring showings. Six redshirt freshmen will bolster the offensive line, led by tackle Jeff Griffin. Sophomore kicker Sam Swank is a Lou Groza Award candidate.
Cause For Concern?
Quarterback remains the No. 1 concern, one year after Grobe had to pull Cory Randolph back from the receiver ranks to bench Benjamin Mauk. A record-setting prep passer, Mauk hasn't shown a lot of poise and has three touchdown passes against nine interceptions for his career. He hasn't shocked anyone in practice so far, either. Mauk's receiving corps was horrible last year and didn't get any new talent. Willie Idlette, Kevin Marion and Kenneth Moore have looked better, but the unit was hurt by the loss of Demir Boldin (academics). Defensive line, although improved, remains a shaky unit, especially if Robinson can't play.
The Whole Truth "(Defense) needs to be the strength of our team. If we're going to be a really good football team, we've got to be strong defensively. We're more talented than we have been. We're deeper than we ever have been, and we've got an attitude that I really like. We've got a pretty tough mentality on defense right now."
- Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe Chart By Wake Insider