September 13, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM -- If Wake Forest doesn't finish with a good record this season after its 2-0 start, the blame will not sit squarely on the injury to junior quarterback Benjamin Mauk. Wake may have a number of problems, but losing Mauk will not be the one that decides the season.
First, Mauk was not a dominant quarterback. While he did have experience, it's not as if he had shown that he could take over games.
Second, redshirt freshman Riley Skinner is not much different than Mauk, other than in game experience. Skinner's physical attributes aren't too different. He can make the same throws as Mauk, and he can run with the ball. Skinner is cool and collected, and he's willing to throw his body around when necessary. Witness the block he threw in his first game to spring a big run. A small difference is that Mauk is a little more comfortable with the option.
Third, Wake's offense recently was re-tooled right into something a young quarterback can handle. While the offense already was run-based, coordinator Steed Lobotzke re-did the passing game in the offseason. He emphasized short, quick throws without as many decisions, thinking it would help Mauk. Now it will play into Skinner's hands, as he doesn't have to learn a complicated scheme.
Fourth, Skinner has been going against Wake's No. 1 defense in practice for a while now. While that might not have been a big deal in the past, Wake's defense is a much stronger test now and has provided Skinner with a good challenge. He's met it with good play in practice and in scrimmages.
Fifth, his teammates are behind him. It was clear after Mauk's injury that while the team didn't have any problems with Mauk, it was excited to be playing with Skinner at the helm. Skinner doesn't have to earn any respect.
What could derail the season? Perhaps Wake keeping the wraps on Skinner too tightly. Going into his first start, all the talk was about how not much would be asked of him, except to avoid mistakes.
"We'll keep our game plan somewhat reserved for now," Grobe said.
"The key is, to the best of our ability, is not making critical mistakes that can change against our favor," Skinner said. "Turning the ball over isn't really an option in our offense."
While all that makes sense, it can be crippling if taken too far.
Skinner and the staff played that way in the first half against Duke, and it cost them. Skinner looked as if he was afraid to do anything, and the staff was very conservative. In the second half, the staff opened up a little out of necessity, and Skinner met the challenge.
Will he do that against the Florida States of the world? Maybe not. But Wake is not talented enough to win many games if its quarterback does not make plays. So the staff and Skinner will have to continue to loosen up and trust his ability as the season goes along.
DEFENSE: UNEXPECTED CONCERNS
Wake has two defensive problems it didn't anticipate this summer: end Matt Robinson and cornerback Alphonso Smith.
When Robinson broke his kneecap in last season's final game, the staff believed he would be back at full strength this season. They continued to sing that song through the spring and into August camp. While they admitted that finding similar injuries was difficult, they continued to believe that Robinson's return was right around the corner.
But two games into the season, Grobe finally admitted that they really weren't sure at all about Robinson's return.
"We've gone to the point where we're not planning on it," Grobe said. "It would just be a bonus if we could get him back. We've gone from hopeful to wait-and-see right now."
Robinson said the leg is at about 60 percent of full strength.
"Matt's biggest problem is strength, and you're talking about a guy who hasn't been able to do anything forever," Grobe said. "The good news is that he has full range of motion, and he has absolutely no pain. They've told him they see absolutely no reason he shouldn't come back 100 percent.
"He's working really hard in the weight room and in rehab, trying to get ready. It's really just
a matter of how soon he can get his strength back, because we won't put him out there until he's full-speed."
Grobe said the critical decision time will be when Wake heads back into ACC play in early October.
"We'd have to really feel good about him," Grobe said. "We'll have to do some things to see if we can get another year for him, because if we can't get another year for him, then any time he's full-speed, we'd put him back out there."
So where does that leave the Deacons? Wake is OK in depth at end, with Jeremy Thompson, Bryan Andrews, Jyles Tucker and Anthony Davis. While Andrews finally has shown that he can be a solid contributor, someone else also will need to step forward and make some plays.
Robinson was the line's motor. He was constantly on the go, and he made plays. Last season, Robinson led Wake with 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The remaining four ends combined for 9.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Smith also was a playmaker last season, but he started this season very slowly. His lethargic, mistake-filled play was a huge surprise from a player who has All-ACC potential.
Last year, Smith was all over the field, breaking on balls with excellent speed or bursting into the backfield on blitzes. But after Duke went right after him with great success, Smith broke down in tears at halftime.
"My first two weeks of the season have been terrible," Smith said after the game. "I'm so disappointed in myself. My footwork was terrible. My alignment was terrible."
He admitted that he might have been reading his own press clippings a little too much.
"I just got a gut check today," Smith said. "I wasn't expecting Duke to come out today and throw at me like that. I got a reality check. I found myself being all relaxed and stuff. I have to get my swagger back."
Smith's attitude is as important to Wake as his play. He sets an aggressive tone that Wake hasn't seen very often from a defensive back. Smith said he was going to go back and watch film from his freshman season.
"I want to see how I was flying around," he said. "I'm out there like I'm some superstar or something, and I'm not. I just need to get that attitude out of my brain. I'm ordinary, like I'm ordinary Joe. I just need to go back to the basics and get this cockiness back and this confidence back before we hit deep in the ACC."