August 27, 2005
The Big Picture
Wake Forest Insider: Updates / Analysis
WINSTON-SALEM -- There's a fine line between being competitive and being a consistent winner. Wake Forest has achieved the first objective under Jim Grobe. Now, in the coach's fifth season, the Demon Deacons are trying to reach the second goal.
It's not going to be easy.
When Grobe and his staff arrived, the ACC was a closely knit, nine-team league with one marquee program, Florida State, that everyone strived to equal. For three years, the Deacons hauled themselves up to respectability, if not parity, within the conference.
Then gridiron heavyweights Miami and Virginia Tech joined the ACC. Now Boston College is added to the mix. Considering those developments, it's not hard to imagine Wake Forest losing its footing while trying to work its way up such a slippery slope.
"We had our sights set four years ago on where we needed to be, and the bar got raised," Grobe said. "When Florida State came in the league, all the other schools raised the bar to try to catch (FSU), and now I think it's gone up another notch.
"We had a hard job when we started. It's a little bit harder now, but I think it's actually helping us in recruiting. We're working our way toward being better."
Grobe said the program is further along than he thought it would be. He believes there is the most talent and the most depth on this year's team than on any since he's been in Winston-Salem.
What Grobe has been trying to do is build a roster where his starting lineups are dominated by fifth-year seniors and fourth-year juniors. That process obviously takes time. The coach's method involves redshirting almost everyone in each recruiting class, even though some of them could have contributed during their first year in the program.
"The last couple years have been really tough," he said. "We've had a lot of freshmen on the shelf who could have really helped us, maybe gotten us over the hump and given us a chance to slip into a couple more bowl games.
"We're trying to do what's best for the future and best for Wake Forest. From a coaching standpoint, it's been tough being that patient, but I'd have to say right now that I'm really proud of where we've come in four years."
It's obvious that, under Grobe, Wake has shed its pushover label. Overall, his record at Wake is 22-25. That modest total is the best four-year run since the Peahead Walker era. By comparison, Bill Dooley's best four consecutive years were 18-24-2. Al Groh's best four-year stretch was 19-25. That's how hard it has been to win at Wake.
It's still difficult, particularly within the league. Wake is 12-3 against nonconference foes but just 10-22 in ACC games during Grobe's tenure. On the other hand, most of the Demon Deacons' recent conference losses have been close. Last year, if you toss out the 52-7 torching by Miami, the other six league defeats were by 36 total points.
With a competitive team, however, comes the dreaded "e" word -- expectations. And Grobe is aware that the Deacon faithful are growing slightly restless.
"It's funny how expectations change," Grobe said. "I think people appreciate what we've done, but now that we've become competitive I think their attitude is the same that the coaches and players have -- it's time to start winning our share."
Whether or not that can begin this season remains to be seen. Despite Wake's improvement in overall talent, much of it is still young and unproven. Two of the key players are redshirt sophomores to whom leadership roles have fallen.
One is quarterback Benjamin Mauk, who has supplanted senior Cory Randolph unless he gets hurt or plays so badly that he gets hooked. Randolph (who's also practicing at receiver) is pushing Mauk in practice, which can only help. Mauk showed flashes of promise last season in a role that included a couple of starts, but he was mostly Randolph's backup.
A prolific high school passer, Mauk ended his 2004 campaign with only two touchdown throws, as the Deacons fell near the bottom of the Division I-A passing statistics. So ratcheting up the passing game was a priority for the coaching staff during spring practice and again in August, and the team's aerial attack does look better. Also, the playbook has been simplified, and the quarterbacks will have more freedom to change plays at the line.
"Last year we changed our game plan based on who we were playing and what kind of defense they ran," Mauk said. "This year the plays will change a little bit, but basically we're going to stay the same the whole year. I think it will help us out, because we won't have as much mentally on our plate. It's going to be real exciting because everyone is going to be flying around full-speed, not thinking as much."
Senior running back Chris Barclay is impressed with the strides Mauk has made.
"He's making the right reads in practices," Barclay said. "I'm excited for the offense. We're moving the ball really well, and the passing game looks great. We've integrated an intermediate passing game and some short routes."
If Mauk is going to be more effective, someone from the receiving corps needs to step up and become the kind of threat who will worry opposing defenses, someone like a Jason Anderson or a John Stone. Chris Davis has been an annual disappointment but could finally break out in his senior year. Willie Idlette suffered what Grobe called "the ultimate sophomore slump" after an excellent freshman season but should be much better this year.
"I think Willie is back," Grobe said. "I expect him to be more of a difference-maker as a punt returner, and he's catching the ball great."
The offensive line has more depth than at any time since Grobe's first season. The running game should be solid again, even with Barclay sitting out the opener against Vanderbilt. Barclay was with defensive back Riley Swanson when Swanson was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Both received the same team suspension.
That leaves Barclay only 10 games to get the 907 yards he needs to break James McDougald's career rushing record -- tight, but manageable. Barclay also needs three touchdowns to become the all-time school leader. He's a special runner, one whose vision may be his biggest asset. Micah Andrews and De'Angelo Bryant will share the load against Vandy, and Andrews should see a lot of action all season long. But expect Barclay to reclaim his starting berth quickly. Wake will need him in the meat of the schedule.
One of Mauk's tasks will be to make sure the Deacons can sustain drives, especially late in games. They may be able to score more quickly than in the past, but the offense has got to make sure it doesn't go three-and-out in the late stages of close games. That happened too much last year, and the defense wore down by going back on the field too quickly.
That brings us to the second key player, middle linebacker Jon Abbate. His physical, full-throttle style is infectious, and it's going to be needed to help cover for an inexperienced corps of cornerbacks.
"I try to play like I was taught -- sideline to sideline, 110 percent," Abbate said. "Each down could be my last down, so I might as well bust it every play. Knowing you hit somebody and they're hurting but it hurts you too, but not showing it because it feels so good, that's the best part of the game."
Wake needs its defenders to make big plays late in games. If the offense can chew some time off the clock, the defense should be fresher, able to dig in and make plays to win games instead of mistakes that prove costly.
The defensive line looks decent, if a bit thin, and the safeties should be solid. A better pass rush than the Deacons were able to mount last season also would help the young corners. While the ends are the primary rushers, don't be surprised if tackles Goryal Scales and Jyles Tucker occasionally break through to pressure opposing passers.
There is a horde of young defensive players champing at the bit to get on the field after redshirting last season. The most obvious will be the corners -- Alphonso Smith, Kerry Major and Kevin Patterson, all redshirt freshmen thrust into the fire. At least they're confident, with Smith challenging quarterbacks to "throw it our way."
What this all translates into is something of a mystery. The Deacons should emerge 2-1 after their nonconference games with Vanderbilt, Nebraska and East Carolina. Then come two crucial ACC games with Maryland and Clemson, both at home. Although Groves Stadium has not been the kind of place where teams have feared to come, the Deacons have some good wins there (Boston College, N.C. State, North Carolina, Clemson) under Grobe. If this season is going to go anywhere -- i.e., a possible bowl game -- those are games Wake needs to win.
Something the Demon Deacons must avoid this fall are the late-season blues. In 2003, they were 5-4 and lost their last three. Last year they dropped six of their last seven. In their two best years under Grobe, they were able to win three of the last four in 2001 and split the last four in 2002.
Grobe always has had a realistic outlook, and he likes the makeup of this team.
"We have a great work ethic," Grobe said, "and I think we have enough talent to win."
If that's true, then maybe the Deacons really can start winning their share and turning the corner from being competitive into being winners.
Of course, it won't be easy. At Wake, it never is.
The Big Picture
Jim Grobe set the expectations high, but Wake Forest dropped to a "Jim Caldwell-esque" 1-7 in the ACC last year, and Grobe still hasn't finished higher than seventh in his four-plus years in Winston-Salem. The good news is that his recruits are playing now, although it might take another year before some of the better ones are mature players. The Demon Deacons likely will start only six seniors this fall, and perhaps only two others will see much action as reserves. More good news: Wake is breaking school attendance records, and this year's home schedule should attract more big crowds.
Much of the heat for Wake's struggles has been pointed at its coordinators, but Grobe made no staff changes in the offseason. Offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke drew fire for being predictable, but he went wide-open in the spring game. With a young QB and receivers, though, he'll be challenged to not just hand off to star Chris Barclay. Defensive coordinator Dean Hood again had one of the ACC's worst units in 2004, continuing the team's struggle to get pressure on quarterbacks and receivers. Hood has more talent and depth this year, so it's time for him to produce.
Done For Me Lately
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1995 0-8 (9) 1-10 None
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
ACC: 20-60 (.250)
Overall: 43-71 (.377)
Steve Vallos was the only offensive lineman Wake could count on last year, and he's still the only known standout. Barclay, although delayed by a one-game suspension, should close in on most school rushing records during his final season. On defense, relentless linebacker Jon Abbate led the team in tackles as a freshman, and safeties Josh Gattis and Patrick Ghee have become a dynamic duo. Ryan Plackemeier is a superb punter.
Coming On Strong
Most of Wake's defense is young, aggressive and fast. Sophomore end Matt Robinson, though undersized, typifies the fight Grobe desires. He led the team in tackles for loss last fall. Sophomore end Jeremy Thompson also has impressed. Besides Abbate, Wake has at least four redshirt freshman linebackers who should see action: Aaron Curry, Antonio Wilson, Eric Berry and Stanley Arnoux. Grobe couldn't stop talking about them in the spring.
Cause For Concern?
The offense is full of questions, with a new quarterback, fullback, receivers, kicker and a number of unknowns on the line. Ben Mauk takes over at QB full-time, an improvement over rotating that should allow him to become a real leader as well. Redshirt freshmen may start at fullback (Richard Belton) and kicker (Sam Swank), although Grobe has been very happy with both. The line struggled last year, and many of the same characters are back. Receiver is the shakiest, though, featuring a young, speedy group that's had trouble hanging onto the ball.
The Whole Truth
"For the last two years, we've had very small senior classes without very many starters. Unfortunately, we're that way again this year, but I'm not really prepared to say we're young. We'll have a good, solid junior class, a really good redshirt sophomore class. I really like the redshirt freshmen. So hopefully all those dumb mistakes we've made for the last couple years that have kept us from getting over the hump, we can settle down a little bit and make the plays that help us win."
-- Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe
CHART BY: THE WAKE INSIDER
Wake Forest Insider: Updates / Analysis
Last year, the season-long controversy at Wake Forest was over who should play quarterback. Finally, and too late for some, coach Jim Grobe has closed that issue sort of.
Ben Mauk is the quarterback, but Grobe has to keep Cory Randolph in no-man's land. On one hand, if Mauk goes down, Grobe needs Randolph to be ready. He looked better in fall practices than expected, and he's still better than the young backups. But Grobe also knows that Randolph has talent Wake can use on the field. Plus, the coach doesn't want to ruin the senior season of a player who has worked so hard for him.
So instead of simply working Randolph at No. 2 quarterback, Grobe also is running him at wide receiver. Two potential problems: (1) Randolph not getting enough work at either position to be sharp, and (2) if Mauk struggles, the potential for another QB controversy. So far, the best thing about the changes has been the attitude of Randolph, who balked last year at the rotating system.
"I talked to my dad about it, and he said you can take two approaches," Randolph said. "You can go out there with a bad attitude and waste the season, or you can use this as an opportunity to enhance your skills."
"I am not telling you that Cory walks around with a smile on his face all the time," Grobe said, "but I could not ask for any better effort than he is putting in right now."
This year, look for the offensive controversy to be about balance.
Grobe always has been run-oriented, and he's consistently put Wake at the top of the ACC in rushing. In addition, he has one of the best backs in the league, and possibly the country, in Chris Barclay. At the same time, his new QB was a record-setting passer in high school. Mauk grew up leading a run-and-shoot scheme, with multiple receivers and a spread field. The other variable is that Wake's receivers are mostly unproven, and many have had trouble holding onto the ball.
One criticism of Wake's offense has been its lack of imagination and variety in the passing game. But Grobe and coordinator Steed Lobotzke showed that they're trying to make progress by throwing the ball a bunch in the spring game. The hope, obviously, is that Wake can have better balance than any Grobe offense so far. Still, watch to see if the play-calling swings too much in either direction.
Wake continues to be one of the few ACC schools without a designated special teams coach. Perhaps the Deacons should reconsider. In 2004, they were second-to-last in the league in punt and kickoff returns. In 2005, they were last in both and field goal percentage. The spring game and fall practice saw snapping problems and kicks being blocked.
Think special teams don't make a difference? When receiving any kind of kick last year, Clemson gained an average of nine yards more than Wake Forest. At about six returns a game, that's 54 yards of field position. The Tigers went 4-2 in ACC games decided by seven points or less. The Deacons were 1-6.
Wake likely will try some new return men, such as Alphonso Smith on punts, but the real hope is that having more depth (10 redshirt freshmen may help) will allow better, fresher players to contribute all across the special teams.