By Bob Sutton, Burlington (N.C.) Times-News
August 23, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM The perpetual underdog tag has been worn well by Wake Forest in recent seasons. It's time to shed the label. That's the only way the Demon Deacons will show true progress and eventually climb a little higher in the ACC football hierarchy.
I think in the past the underdog role was very well-justified, Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. The sense I got at the ACC Kickoff (in Greensboro) was that Miami and Florida State, everybody agreed they are up at the top, and after that everybody was a little bit confused on how the thing is supposed to be sorted out. I think typically we're going to be picked toward the bottom, but maybe we're not quite as close to the bottom.
Even with a foundation in place under Grobe, it's a tall task. People can talk with all the optimism they want in Winston-Salem and they will but there's an offensive line under reconstruction, a defense that was tattered down the stretch last November, and more than a century of gridiron mediocrity to overcome.
Last year, remember, the Demon Deacons fell short of a goal that would be considered extremely modest at almost any other Division I-A program. Grobe, 6-5 and 7-6 in his first two seasons in Winston-Salem after arriving from Ohio, was attempting to become the first Wake Forest coach to post three consecutive winning seasons in more than a half-century. The Deacs fell short, finishing 5-7.
Legendary coach Peahead Walker, Grobe's target in the record books last year, holds a place in Wake Forest history that helps illustrate the unique and challenging nature of the job. Walker posted five straight winning campaigns with the Deacons from 1944-48, prior to the creation of the ACC, and no single coach has strung together three straight since. Since Walker's last season in Winston-Salem, in 1950, no Wake coach has ever left the job with a career record of .500 or better with the Deacs.
Entering this fall, Grobe is sitting at 18-18 overall, 9-15 in the ACC. His career mark, including six seasons at Ohio, is a perfectly level 51-51-1. The Deacons have averaged six victories over the last three seasons, matching the program's best stretch since 1986-88.
While staying on that plateau might be admirable, extending beyond it is the actual mission. Fifth-year senior receiver Jason Anderson said it's appropriate that the Demon Deacons set lofty goals, much like other more established programs in the expanded ACC. That kind of attitude hasn't always been evident at Wake in the past.
Never like this, senior linebacker Brad White said. Players believe around here that they can win again. There's a feeling around here that we can do something special in this league. We're not shooting for seven, eight wins. This team is aiming to win every week. I think this team is experienced enough to know you have to show up every week.
Maybe Wake Forest's version of success over the past couple of years started to backfire. That could account, in part, for last season's late slide. There's no more sneaking up on opponents, who've come to expect physical games sprinkled with a sometimes-deceptive offensive scheme from the Deacons.
The guys play better as an underdog, White said. I think we learned that from the past. If we do become favorites, we have to learn to play with that. Everybody loves that underdog story. When you become the favorite and win as the favorite, then you'll have that respect. I think this team has a chance to break out of that mold.
Much of the Wake Forest approach will be similar to the past three years under Grobe. There's a stable of running backs ready to let loose, but now the team probably has the most versatile quarterback in several seasons directing the offense.
Cory Randolph, who a year ago was an afterthought among ACC quarterbacks, has a year of seasoning to his benefit. He remains ahead of highly touted redshirt freshman Ben Mauk on the team's depth chart. Randolph will have more freedom and, after the coaching staff's reluctance at times to use option plays with Randolph a year ago, the reins will be loosened. Randolph should have the opportunity to be a major difference-maker.
Cory has proven to be a winner, Grobe said. He made a couple of mistakes last year that hurt us, but that was his first year as a starter. Our thought right now isn't getting Cory Randolph to handle more, it's the other 10 guys. Opening the playbook is not a Cory Randolph decision, it's if the other 10 are ready.
Randolph seems to understand that this season appears to be a crucial crossroads for the Demon Deacons, who after other blips with successful seasons have taken their usual nose-dives. He's willing to put things in order.
We didn't have a winning season (last year), so that's the first thing on the agenda, Randolph said. That's really gnawing at us. I don't think there's going to be any dips. In order for us to take it to the next level, that's what we've been talking about. We've risen up, but are we going to stay at that level that might be mediocre, or are we going to take it to the next level?
Randolph has quality receiving targets in Anderson and speedster Willie Idlette, but the Demon Deacons haven't abandoned the running game as their bread and butter. Grobe said he's content with spreading out carries among running backs, even with junior Chris Barclay on hand. Barclay's 1,192 rushing yards last year marked the second-best single-season total in school history.
Everything at Wake Forest starts on the offensive line, which is revamped beyond veteran center Blake Lingruen and promising young tackle Steve Vallos. Eight players are vying for playing time at the other three positions. Grobe said that's a blessing, with up to four redshirt freshmen pushing players who had been backups in past seasons.
I think we can find eight guys we can really count on, Grobe said.
The Demon Deacons are counting on improvement on defense, after giving up 41 or more points in four of their last five games in 2003. There are eight starters returning, but changes nonetheless.
The defense has switched from its unusual 3-3-5 scheme to a more traditional 4-3-4. White moved to outside linebacker after two years as a starter on the inside. Caron Bracy, the team's leading tackler last season, and 2003 reserve Pierre Easley will be at the other linebacker spots. Up front, Wake has at least three freshman defensive linemen who could test the staff's tendency to ease players into prominent roles.
We'd like to keep those guys on the shelf, Grobe said of the rookies.
Returning starters Jerome Nichols and Goryal Scales will be counted on to anchor the line, along with promising redshirt freshman end Matt Robinson. Cori Stukes also has been added to the mix, with the new alignment. Former linebacker Bryan Andrews, a Parade All-American who arrived as a linebacker, has switched to end. The Demon Deacons are still waiting for Andrews, a redshirt sophomore, to make his first big impact, after starting two games last year.
In the secondary, cornerback Eric King will be a rare four-year starter, after becoming the team's first All-ACC first-team selection in the defensive backfield in 16 years. Classmates Marcus McGruder, a cornerback, and Warren Braxton, who shifted from strong safety to free safety, also are returning in the secondary.
There's another weapon in All-ACC punter Ryan Plackemeier, who's back for his junior season. Inconsistent junior Matt Wisnosky is the kicker, but Grobe isn't hesitant about trying others if the need arises.
The bottom line: Even with numerous bright spots, it's hard to tell if the Demon Deacons will be able to make much progress in the win-loss column this fall.
Could we be a better football team than last year and not have a better record? Grobe said. Yes, that's a possibility. We're good enough to beat anybody, but we're fragile enough to lose to anybody. I'm glad I signed a 10-year contract last year, before expansion. We know how tough it's going to be. But I think we're building a foundation.
A year ago, that was constructed nicely in a 2-0 start and a national ranking. By the end, there was a loss at last-place North Carolina and home setbacks to Connecticut and Maryland.
We didn't finish the way we wanted to, Grobe said, but that may turn out being good for us.
Before fizzling down the stretch, the Deacons clobbered Clemson 45-17. The schedule calls for that rematch to serve as the season opener in 2004, and with that 2003 outcome fresh in the Tigers' minds, going to Death Valley is no enviable assignment.
Those guys are probably already tailgating down there, Plackemeier said of the Clemson fans, three weeks before the opener.
That's all OK with Grobe, who already has seen his Wake Forest teams post season-opening road upsets at East Carolina (2001) and Boston College (2003). There could be something good brewing again.
I'm optimistic right now with where we are and where we're headed, Grobe said. I think this could be a special group. It's a neat group. It has the potential to, maybe, come together and be really special.
To do that, Wake Forest will have to avoid past pitfalls and create more consistency. The program hasn't had a three-game winning streak within the same season since 1992.
But now, there's the idea out there that winning could be habit-forming. Meanwhile, the Deacons' recruiting looks better, and the talent level is growing.
Tack on the attitude on that, White said. When we play our game, we can play with anybody. (Our younger players) understand you can't be on a roller-coaster. Yes, you have to play with emotion. Keep our emotions in check and play with passion. If that happens, I think we'll be talking in late December or early January.
That would be quite a large discussion for these Demon Deacons.
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