October 11, 2005
WINSTON-SALEM - Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe made a decision after this season's fourth game that might impact his program for at least another year, if not longer.
After the Demon Deacons struggled offensively during their 1-3 start, Grobe benched the quarterback of the future, sophomore Ben Mauk, and went with the present, senior Cory Randolph. Really, even calling Randolph the present was a stretch at the time, as he was essentially the past, having spent most of this fall at wide receiver.
Earlier in the season, the Sports Journal and many others said that if Mauk struggled, Grobe should resist the urge to replace him, because this isn't just about this year, it's about next year. Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal columnist Lenox Rawlings wrote of the decision: "Desperation will make a coach soak his logic in $3 gasoline and strike a match."
Logically, it seemed as if a move to Randolph was a mistake. To remove the future from your lineup, you had to believe at least one of two things. The first of those would be that Wake still could make a bowl game this fall. If you don't believe that, then why would you play for more wins this season? Why wouldn't you concentrate on development?
It's doubtful that Grobe, although usually pretty optimistic, believed this. The schedule still contained Florida State and Miami, almost sure losses. So that would mean Wake would have to win all five of its other games to be bowl-eligible: Clemson and N.C. State at home, plus Boston College, Duke and Georgia Tech on the road. While Wake certainly shouldn't be counted out of any of those five, counting on winning all five should have seemed a pretty big stretch, especially with how Wake looked in its first four games. Nobody really believes this was the driving force behind Grobe's decision.
Perhaps it was issue No. 2: believing that both Mauk and the young Deacons might be destroyed mentally by continuing to play poorly and lose.
This makes more sense, but you also have to believe that Randolph will work out, and that Mauk will recover from the benching. If you make the move and it doesn't work, then you have a doubly shaken quarterback and a team that questions him and believes it can't win. It was difficult to see how the move would work, considering that Randolph couldn't produce last year. If he was the answer, he never would have lost the job in the first place.
But to Grobe's credit, the move to Randolph worked wonderfully well, starting with a stirring win over Clemson. The Wake players were more upbeat than at any time since going 3-1 in late September last year. Grobe closed his press conference with a line that summed up what he hopes is the biggest outcome of the move.
"The best thing for us, regardless of what happens the last six games," Grobe said, "is our guys know they can win."
But in the end, the biggest question really isn't how this season will turn out, but what will become of Mauk. He has shown flashes, but he hasn't been able to put together prolonged periods of success. You can blame a lot of that on the rotating situation last year, but Grobe also gave him plenty of chances to take the job then.
This year, those excuses don't fly, as the job was Mauk's entirely. He showed leadership and toughness at times, but not the ability to make good, quick decisions, especially when trying to throw the ball downfield. It got worse after the shellacking at Nebraska. Mauk appeared to be in shock after that game.
"Ben just after the Nebraska game seemed so indecisive at times," Grobe said.
Being benched probably won't help his confidence, but Grobe believed that was better than letting him continue to sink. Will he be given a chance to swim again this year? Both quarterbacks and Grobe have spoken out against any sort of rotation again, so all the snaps appear to be Randolph's for now.
RECRUITING EXPLAINS LINES' WOES
The Demon Deacons are paying for some bad recruiting decisions with a lack of depth, and sometimes talent, on both of their lines.
Of any position, linemen are the players who need the extra years of experience the most. They need to be as big and as strong as possible, plus learn the various techniques of the positions. The Deacons are short on those kinds of players.
Along both lines, Wake has four starters from the classes of 2001 and 2002 (only three it actually recruited in those years). Compare that to the top programs in the ACC. Florida State starts six linemen who are seniors or redshirt seniors. Virginia Tech starts seven, and Miami starts eight.
Not only does this affect the talent level, it hurts the depth. When reserve tackle Louis Frazier went down against Clemson with a knee injury, that left true freshman guard Chris DeGeare as the offensive line's only true reserve. Greg Adkins and Brodie Overstreet were already out. Redshirt freshman Eric Gaskins could play tackle, but Grobe doesn't think he's close to being ready.
So for a coach who would like to rotate 10 offensive linemen if possible, to keep them fresh, that's a big problem. Tackle Steve Vallos and center Steve Justice had played every snap halfway through the season, which isn't Grobe's style. When Grobe's teams were playing well, he was able to bridge some of the talent gap by keeping his linemen fresh.
So what went wrong?
Wake recruited 13 offensive and defensive linemen in 2001 and 2002, but only seven remain. That's a particularly low number for a solid academic school such as Wake, which doesn't usually lose many players.
On offense, Adkins remains a valued reserve from the Class of 2001, but classmates Craig Jones (off-field problems) and Kreg Rotthoff (injuries) are both gone. Jones actually contributed before his problems, and Rotthoff's resume was a good one, but he never was able to translate it onto the field.
From the Class of 2002, Arby Jones and Vallos are starters. Dan Callahan is now a tight end. Dustin Abercrombie, a lightly regarded local product, transferred. Wesley Bryant, a starting tackle, is from Florida's 2000 class, having sat out a year with the Gators and then another year after transferring.
The offensive line's problems are compounded by the fact that Overstreet (2003) hasn't played much because of eye problems, Frazier (2003) isn't that good, and there are no 2004 recruits. (Gaskins was a defensive recruit moved to offense this year.) That a coaching staff that builds around the run could skip an entire year of offensive linemen is inexcusable. Wake is paying for it this year and may continue to pay in the future.
On defense, Goryal Scales (2001) is the lone veteran starter. Classmates John Finklea (injuries) and Arthur Orlebar transferred. Finklea struggled when healthy, but then a torn Achilles basically ended his chances of making an impact.
Wake recruited three defensive linemen in 2002, led by Bryan Andrews, one of its most heralded recruits ever. He was joined by Jamil Smith and Daniel Orlebar. Andrews and Smith are reserves, but both have been disappointments.
Andrews has never found a position that suits him, as he's too slow for linebacker and not strong enough for end. His attitude also has been repeatedly questioned. Smith had made five tackles in his career through the FSU game this year. Orlebar and his brother left for Appalachian State over a dispute with the coaches, which included questions about the effectiveness of Wake's weight-training program.
The only good news from this situation is that Wake is building for the future. The Deacons have four starters from the Class of 2003 and one from 2004, and all are showing significant skills. Meanwhile, Wake may be paying for that brighter future this season.