By Tom Berry:
High Point (N.C.) Enterprise
April 11, 2005 WINSTON-SALEM Wake Forest rarely finished what it started last season. Yet when coach Jim Grobe explained why the Demon Deacons finished 4-7 overall, despite being tied or leading in the fourth quarter in all but two games, he finished quickly. The answer was obvious.
"We lacked stamina, and there wasn't anything we could do about it," Grobe said. "It was a depth issue."
Wake's lack of depth contributed to losses in both of its overtime games. Exhausted bodies contributed to six defeats by a touchdown or less, with the team's first five defeats coming by a combined 30 points. The Demon Deacons were surprisingly competitive in the expanded ACC, yet they surprised no one by finishing tied for last place with Duke at 1-7.
Josh Gattis, a redshirt sophomore last season, typified the Deacons' lack of depth in 2004 by rarely leaving the field. He was a fleet and productive free safety, ranking second on the team with 71 tackles and leading the league with three fumble recoveries. Yet by the end of the fourth quarter
"(Gattis') tongue was hanging out," Grobe said, "because we couldn't get him off the field. He played all the snaps at safety, on the punt coverage team, the punt block team and the kickoff coverage team. He didn't play on the kickoff return team, but I'm sure he practiced it."
As Grobe drilled his team through spring practice, leading up to Wake's spring game on April 9, he discovered a valuable commodity: more depth. More good players, combined with more experience, should help the Deacons finish games this season, which will open with a home game against Vanderbilt on Sept. 1, then a much-anticipated battle at Nebraska on Sept. 10.
Last year's senior class consisted of just 10 players. The group, which included stars such as cornerback Eric King, linebacker Brad White, center Blake Lingruen and wide receiver Jason Anderson, helped the program produce its best four-year span (22 victories) since 1944-47.
With so few key departures, Grobe returns a decent amount of experience with 43 lettermen, including nine starters on offense and six on defense. He won't get caught in a situation like the one against Florida State last season, when six or seven redshirt freshmen were on the field at the same time offensively.
"That's not a real good combination against a team like Florida State," Grobe said. "Freshmen and sophomores have a tendency to have more stamina issues than upperclassmen. Older guys handle it better."
Grobe has more players and better health along the offensive line, which struggled as much as any position last season for a program that needs rotating linemen to power its no-huddle, misdirection attack.
Steve Vallos, a returning second-team All-ACC performer, has settled in at right tackle after playing four positions last season. Arby Jones remains at left guard after starting the last seven games there, and Grobe said the redshirt junior had "maybe the best spring of any offensive lineman." The versatility of Greg Adkins, who moved to center after starting seven games at guard last season, and Matt Brim, a starting tackle who has been moved to guard, also should help. Grobe said he feels good about having two players at every position up front.
"I'm hoping we're going to get back to the days where we can play a lot of people in that offensive line," he said. "And I hope we're getting there."
Grobe has his most talented recruiting class poised to make an impact. All but one player who entered school in the fall of 2004 are redshirt freshmen, and many are poised to challenge upperclassmen for starting spots. Most of that 17-man group are on defense, including linebackers Aaron Curry, Stanley Arnoux, Antonio Wilson and Eric Berry.
Any of the four could start. They'll push returning star Jonathan Abbate, who led the team with 101 tackles last season and was the runner-up in voting for ACC rookie of the year. Abbate had 30 tackles more than any teammate in 2004, yet Grobe said the four redshirt freshmen made sure he was "not always first to get to the football" this spring.
Grobe said that redshirt freshman defensive ends Anthony Davis and Brandon Drumgoole are tall and athletic and capable of pushing for playing time. The same goes for first-year cornerbacks Alphonso Smith, Kevin Patterson and Kerry Major.
"They've raised the level of intensity to where some older guys are looking over their shoulders now," Grobe said. "It's been fun. They've displayed a sense of enthusiasm in practice flying around and knocking people down that as a coach you love. And it's only spring."
The fact that it was only spring helped the competition between Cory Randolph and Ben Mauk at quarterback. Grobe will not name a starter until August, and the coach feels both have spent less time worrying about head-to-head competition and more time getting better.
Randolph started the first eight games last season, Mauk the last three. Both were hurt by injuries and problems along the line and at fullback, and neither could carry an offense that had been so effective with its unique style during Grobe's first three seasons.
"Both are playing better than ever before," Grobe said. "I don't know how it's going to sort out, and they know I don't care who the starter is. They're just having fun and playing."
Injuries had little impact on spring practice. Two of the players who were slowed physically, running back Chris Barclay (concussion) and punter Ryan Plackemeier (hamstring), are Wake's returning first-team All-ACC players.
Barclay was the only ACC player to run for more than 1,000 yards in 2004, and his string of consecutive 1,000-yard seasons gives the rising senior a chance to enter elite company this fall. Just three players in ACC history N.C. State's Ted Brown (1976-79), North Carolina's Amos Lawrence (1977-80) and Florida State's Warrick Dunn (1994-96) have produced at least three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Barclay also needs slightly more than 900 yards to break James McDougald's school rushing record for a career. Plackemeier has led the ACC in punting for two straight seasons, including 43.9 yards per attempt last year.
Fullback Damon McWhite should return from a torn knee ligament by the fall. Grobe switched redshirt freshman Richard Belton from linebacker to fullback for the spring, and the experiment worked. A high school running back, Belton remains a running threat at 245 pounds, can block and possesses perhaps the best hands on the team.
"I think we've really stolen one there," Grobe said. "We had such a need at fullback. Hopefully, when Damon heals, we'll have two really good fullbacks to use."
Good fullbacks will allow Grobe to play more two-back sets. The Deacons may even huddle some this season, so Grobe and offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke can better disguise the personnel on the field.
Nothing can disguise the tough schedule. But Grobe likes the fact that non-conference foes Vanderbilt, Nebraska and East Carolina will be out of the way before ACC competition begins, at home against Maryland on Sept. 24. The coach also likes the fact that four of Wake's first five games will be at friendly Groves Stadium.
"Later in the season," he said, "it's easier to go on the road."
Quality depth helps, too.
Spring 2005 Overview
On the surface, Jim Grobe is just another football coach, someone who loses about as much as he wins. He went 22-25 in his first four campaigns at Wake Forest, and he's 55-58-1
in 10 seasons (including six at Ohio) overall. To the casual observer, he's probably the personification of the .500 coach, the average guy. Educated fans know better, of course, and they appreciate Grobe for what he is the perfect fit for Wake football. The Demon Deacons don't overwhelm opponents with talent, but their unique schemes and tough, smart play have made them competitive against almost anyone. Thanks in part to poor recruiting at the end of the Jim Caldwell era, the Deacs fell to 4-7 in 2004. Now even the fifth-year seniors on this year's team were recruited mostly by Grobe's staff. That should mean a step back in the right direction.
Probable 2005 Starters
redshirted ^ six/more 2004 starts
injured/missed spring drills
Coming On Strong
At linebacker and safety, Wake has a nice combination of budding stars (Abbate, Gattis), reliable veterans (Easley, Ghee) and promising youngsters (many). Meanwhile, the team's second season in the more traditional 4-3-4 defense (rather than the previous 3-3-5) should mean fewer growing pains and mental mistakes. Rock-solid returning starters: LB Jonathan Abbate, RB Chris Barclay, FS Josh Gattis, P Ryan Plackemeier, OL Steve Vallos. Also looking good: LB Stanley Arnoux, FB Richard Belton, LB Aaron Curry, WR Kevin Marion, QB Ben Mauk, WR Kenneth Moore, PK Sam Swank, CB Riley Swanson, LB Antonio Wilson.
Cause For Concern?
Football remains a game most often won and lost in the trenches, and the Demon Deacons finished spring drills with lots of questions especially in terms of depth on the offensive and defensive lines. Also: delicate Randolph-Mauk QB chemistry, unproven pass rush, untested cornerbacks, overall depth.
On The Sidelines
The following players missed all or most of spring drills: LB James Adams (knee), FB Damon McWhite (knee), WR Nate Morton.
The following scholarship athletes left the program in the last 12 months with eligibility remaining: RB Cornelius Birgs (chose to graduate), CB Devin Blake, DT Jeromy Jones (transfer/Georgia), DT Aaron McKenzie, LB Chris Owen (chose to graduate), OL Kreg Rotthoff (medical), WR Cassiel Smith (chose to graduate), DT Cori Stukes (chose to graduate), PK Matt Wisnosky (knee/may return).