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One Issue Already: Middle Linebacker

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff




July 31, 2007

WINSTON-SALEM – Wake Forest football coach Jim Grobe spent much of last year making up for lost starters, managing to have the finest season in school history while losing his quarterback, tailback, defensive end and others.

Most likely, he felt as if he had done his penance, and this year would be better.

But before Grobe even could get to spring practice, another starter was gone: middle linebacker Jon Abbate. The team's leading tackler, Abbate declared a year early for the NFL draft.

Then, before Grobe even could get to fall practice, another starter was gone: middle linebacker Eric Berry. That's right, the guy who was going to replace Abbate.

Berry managed to become academically ineligible, which was on top of a spring where he was ridden unmercifully by Grobe about his weight. Berry reached 288 pounds, almost 30 more than his proposed playing weight.

This problem is even more frustrating than last year's injuries, since it was preventable.

While Wake certainly has one of the tougher academic environments in Division I-A football, it's very difficult for coaches to understand how a player can become academically ineligible these days. With academic advisors, study halls, tutors and all the resources available to football players in particular, it seems that you'd really have to work hard not to be eligible. It's almost as difficult to believe that a program couldn't monitor its players well enough to head off the overwhelming majority of these issues.

But Berry is the third Wake player in the last two years to be knocked out by academics. (It could be more, because some players leave without explanation.) Combined with the weight issue, Berry will have to work pretty hard to get back in good graces next year.

The good news is that if he can, Wake's linebacker corps should be outstanding in 2008.

The outside linebackers, Aaron Curry and Stanley Arnoux, are juniors this season. They finished second and fourth, respectively, on the team in tackles last year. Berry, also a junior, had 26 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles, and he filled in nicely when Abbate battled injuries. Berry already used his redshirt season, so he will not gain an extra year of eligibility by sitting out 2007.

So where does that leave Wake this season?

"We've got some good players," Grobe said. "The thing we're going to miss was the experience we had with both Jon Abbate and Eric Berry.

"It's a shame, because that linebacker group was going to be one of the best anywhere around. Now I think we have a chance to be talented. We just won't have near the depth we would have had."

While Curry and Arnoux combined for 152 tackles last year, the other returning linebackers had only 19.

Juniors Mike Simmons and Chantz McClinic are not viewed as more than reserves. Sophomore Dominique Midgett is the best available candidate at middle linebacker, but he's basically played only on special teams so far.

Grobe will need two redshirt freshmen, Matt Woodlief and Hunter Haynes, to step forward quickly. Both had strong prep reputations, and both played well in the spring.

But an inexperienced middle linebacker makes coaches very nervous. Grobe already has mentioned the possibility of moving Arnoux inside and playing the more inexperienced players outside.

Depth is a big deal to Grobe. He knows that it's one of the ways that a less-talented team can pull an upset. His best teams are often those when he has enough bodies to rotate, so that he has fresh players even at the end of games.

"With Eric out of the mix, my concerns become not so much the talent we will be able to put in our starting lineup, but the depth," Grobe said.

To that end, Grobe moved Mike Rinfrette, a sophomore fullback, to linebacker to see if he could help. Rinfrette is a big (260-pound) bruiser who was a defensive standout in high school, where he was his conference's defensive player of the year as a junior and senior.

Grobe also recruited three linebackers this season: Kyle Jarrett, Tristen Dorty and Gelo Orange. Jarrett likely would be the most ready to play, but Grobe probably will stick to his guns and try his best to redshirt all three.

"We're just trying to find six good linebackers that we can play," Grobe said, "because you just can't get through with three starters."

That shouldn't be a problem for Wake in 2008, when it might have one of the ACC's best linebacker crews, but Grobe will have to work to get there this fall.

PROSSER HAD BUILT FOUNDATION

The Sports Journal has written in this space about how difficult it would be for Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser to ride an ACC program to the bottom of the league and then bring it back to the top. Historically, it's basically unprecedented.

Now, unfortunately, Prosser will never have the chance to prove us wrong.

In a tribute to his dogged spirit, Prosser refused to give in to the losing of the last two seasons. His final recruiting class is shaping up to be one of his finest. At the time of his tragic death on July 26, Prosser left Wake in a great position to return to prominence and beat the historical trend.

The Demon Deacons should boast an impressive team for both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.

Here's a look at the program's projected 2008-09 lineup:

Point guard will be manned by two speedsters, junior Ish Smith and sophomore Jeff Teague. If Smith can harness his speed, he could be an All-ACC player by this stage.

Shooting guard will feature senior Harvey Hale, junior Anthony Gurley and sophomore Gary Clark. If Hale and Gurley can become more consistent with age, this group will be strong. Clark is an exceptional shooter.

Small forward will be loaded with junior L.D. Williams, freshman Al-Farouq Aminu (a top-10 recruit), sophomore James Johnson and senior Cameron Stanley. Williams and Aminu have All-ACC potential.

Power forward will have junior Jamie Skeen, an inside/outside threat.

Center also will be strong, with juniors David Weaver and Chas McFarland, along with freshmen Ty Walker (top 25) and Tony Woods (top 75).

Are there holes? Sure.

Outside shooting still could be a question mark, and the big men will have to mature. Finally, of course, all of this assumes that this summer's commitments (Aminu, Walker, Woods) follow through and sign with the Deacons.

But the best sign is that this lineup is extremely athletic and versatile. Williams could play shooting guard, if needed. Weaver and Walker both should be able to see minutes at power forward.

A better sign? Only Hale and Stanley will be gone in 2009-10, pointing to a full rebuild of the program.

That would be quite a fitting tribute to Prosser.