November 1, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM Jim Grobe should spend his second off-week of the season picking a quarterback. Not figuring out what the rotation should be, but choosing one guy and sticking with him. If he wants the other player to get one pre-planned series in each game, fine, but no more than that.
Why is this such a big deal? Because what Grobe is doing right now is hurting both players, his team and possibly the future of his program.
When the season began, Grobe and his staff had a clear plan. Redshirt junior Cory Randolph was their starter, and he would be relieved by redshirt freshman Ben Mauk for a series in the first half of each game. The Sports Journal predicted that Grobe wouldn't be able to stick to this plan, mainly because of Randolph's undeniable drawbacks and Mauk's impressive skill set, and the coach didn't take long to stray.
Grobe played Randolph for the entire East Carolina game, but he then began working Mauk in for more series as Randolph struggled. In the Demon Deacons' recent 24-22 victory over hapless Duke, Mauk got all the time down the stretch, when Randolph looked rusty after missing practices with a toe injury.
With three games to go, Grobe has no obvious plan for the quarterback position. If the 4-4 Demon Deacons would like to go bowling, he must develop one quickly. Suddenly energized North Carolina is coming to town next, and challenging road trips to Miami and Maryland await to close the regular season.
The staff's current approach isn't helping Randolph, who gets to spend every minute looking over his shoulder. Randolph played one of the better games in school history against ECU, but Mauk actually ended up playing more the next week because Wake blew out North Carolina A&T. Randolph responded by capping off the winning drive against Boston College with a touchdown pass. The next week at N.C. State, Mauk played two series in the first half and two in the second, the Deacs' only possessions of the fourth quarter.
While Randolph has not clearly won the job, it can be difficult to make plays when you're not in a rhythm or when you're wondering whether a mistake will cost you your job. Randolph is very much a rhythm passer, someone who needs some reps to get a feel and some success to help him gain confidence.
Grobe's decisions have been sporadic. Mauk was experienced enough to play the fourth quarter at N.C. State, but not the overtime? As a result, Randolph was asked to lead the offense in OT, despite not having run a play since the third quarter.
Grobe's current approach isn't helping Mauk, who likely feels as if he has a very small window in which to make a big impression. This plays right into Mauk's natural weakness, which is to try to make too much out of plays that are dead. It's dangerous to put him into a position where he feels as if he has to make magic every time.
While more game action is helping Mauk develop, it's all under the shadow of having to prove himself to play more. He's not able to make decisions with the same mental process that a normal quarterback can, such as feeling OK with throwing the ball away because he knows he'll get another chance in the next series. He can't learn something about a defense, then come back out and apply it. It might be another quarter or another week before he plays again.
Decision Will Affect Next Season
Grobe's current approach isn't helping his team, either. Most importantly, perhaps, he's preventing a leader from developing at quarterback.
The starter at that position certainly is the leader of the offense, and he's often the leader of the team. Randolph can't grab a hold of the team if he keeps standing on the sidelines for significant parts of big games. Mauk can't do it because he'd be stepping on the starter's toes.
In addition, the team must continually adjust to the players' different styles. Although the Wake staff has said that Mauk is a copy of Randolph, they aren't exactly the same. Coaches must deal with slightly different strengths and weaknesses when making play calls. Running backs get different handoffs, fakes or pitches. Receivers get different reads or throwing styles. Linemen deal with different calls or scrambling styles.
Worse, players begin to develop affinities for one quarterback or the other, which can slowly break a team apart, as well as hurt on-field performance. It is becoming clear in private that some Deacons have preferences, although it doesn't appear to be a big problem yet. The coaching staff sets the tone for the players, and not showing confidence in either quarterback is a dangerous message to send. Putting clear confidence in one builds up that player in his teammates' eyes.
Moreover, Grobe's current approach isn't helping the future of his program. This situation isn't going away unless Grobe makes it go away. It's not as if Randolph is a senior who will be out of the picture next season. Grobe can't go into next year with this same undecided situation, so he should make the choice now.
If the staff is convinced that Randolph will be the guy next year, then play him and limit Mauk. If that causes Mauk to pout (doubtful) or transfer (unlikely), then so be it. If they're convinced Mauk will be the man next year, then play him and limit Randolph. If anyone is worried that Mauk isn't ready this year, few people thought Wake was a bowl team this year anyway, so who cares?
The positives of making a decision far outweigh the negatives of the current approach. The team gets consistency and a leader, the two players know where they stand, and the program can plan for next year. The future quarterback gets three games as the clear starter and an offseason and spring to prepare (and lead) for a leading role. He can develop a better relationship with his receivers. The backup can plan for his future, if he wants to change positions, schools or anything else.
Grobe should look to his own history for why this is the time to make a decision. During his first season at Wake, Grobe opened by alternating Anthony Young and James MacPherson at quarterback. Grobe stuck to that plan through the first six games of the season, and Wake went 3-3. At the time, neither was a clear choice, and Grobe showed no signs of making a choice.
Then Young hurt his foot, and Grobe was forced to go with MacPherson down the stretch. Wake went 3-2, losing to two bowl teams (Clemson and Georgia Tech) by 12 points total and beating Virginia and North Carolina on the road.
More importantly, the move helped set up the only bowl season in Grobe's tenure. MacPherson took control of the team, and no one had any questions, even though Young was still in the program. Grobe even managed to play Randolph a bit in 2002, but he kept Randolph limited and never confused the roles of the two in anyone's eyes.
Wake will be set up in a similar situation again next year, with the talent to make a run at a bowl game. But Grobe's decision about his quarterback now could determine how well that run turns out.