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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 78: Wake Forest

How was last year different from all other years? In 2001, Jim Grobe’s first season at Wake Forest — yes, he’s been in Winston-Salem more than a decade — the Demon Deacons were 3-4 heading into November before winning three of their last four. A year later, Wake Forest was 4-4 before taking three of five, capped by a 38-17 bowl win over Oregon. In 2007, the Deacons stumbled out of the gate with two straight losses before righting the ship, eventually winning nine games. The only year last season might resemble, when it comes to Grobe’s bowl teams at Wake Forest, might be 2008: first 3-0, then 4-3, the Deacons ending up winning at least eight games for the third consecutive season. The program got back into bowl play last fall after a two-year absence — going a combined 8-16 from 2009-10 — but did so in an entirely new fashion: good early, terrible late.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Atlantic

Location
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Nickname
Demon Deacons

Returning starters
10 (3 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 96

2011 record
(6-7, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 58

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Liberty
  • Sept. 8
    U.N.C.
  • Sept. 15
    at F.S.U.
  • Sept. 22
    Army
  • Sept. 29
    Duke
  • Oct. 6
    at Maryland
  • Oct. 20
    at Virginia
  • Oct. 25
    Clemson
  • Nov. 3
    Boston College
  • Nov. 10
    at N.C. St.
  • Nov. 17
    at Notre Dame
  • Nov. 24
    Vanderbilt

Last year’s prediction

We know at least one A.C.C. team is going to be the conference’s whipping boy. I don’t necessarily think Wake Forest will be alone in this regard, but I do think the Demon Deacons are in for another year defined by youth, inexperience and the resulting struggles that accompany such a combination. Perhaps inexperience is the wrong word: the team is far more unproven than it is inexperienced, and still has much to prove in and out of conference play before earning the benefit of the doubt. The schedule also won’t do Wake any favors, pitting it against nine 2010 bowl teams and three teams — you guess which ones — with very real B.C.S. aspirations. It doesn’t smell like a positive season. But as noted in the opening, I’ve been wrong many times before when it comes to the Demon Deacons.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Grobe’s leash is as long as you’ll find anywhere, inside the A.C.C. and out, but it was good for the program to find a way back into bowl play after its two-year lull. Not that Grobe was in any danger whatsoever; it takes a certain breed to accept the odds in Winston-Salem, and few coaches — with history as our guide — have the sort of mentality needed to fight against the current year after year in a B.C.S. conference. Grobe? He’s the man, and even with last year’s sloppy second half the Deacons should feel good about what they achieved in 2011. That’s despite the year’s painful finish, which saw Wake go from A.C.C. contender to squeezing into postseason play. Nevertheless, the team was young, and young teams often need to slide around rock bottom before turning the corner for good. Wake Forest certainly huddled around rock bottom for much of October, November and December.

High point A 35-30 win over F.S.U. on Oct. 8. The win called back to the not-so-distant days when Wake, undermanned and overmatched, seemed to get the better of the Seminoles every fall. The win was Wake’s fourth straight after a disappointing loss to Syracuse in the season opener.

Low point Any loss over the second half of the year. U.N.C. gets the vote for pure ugliness. In terms of pure pain, however, the pick is Clemson’s 31-28 win on Nov. 12. The Deacons stormed ahead thanks to a 21-point third quarter, but lost their grasp on the lead over the game’s final 10 minutes. A win there, believe or not, would have put Wake in the Atlantic division driver’s seat.

Tidbit Wake Forest was superb over the second half of the year from 2006-8. In 2006, the Deacons capped the regular season on a 6-1 run; the Deacons won their final three a year later; and in 2008, the team closed with four wins its in last six games. It’s been a different story over the last three years. Wake is 4-14 over the second half of the regular season since 2009, going 1-5 down the stretch in both 2009 and 2010 and limping into bowl play with a 2-4 second half last fall.

Tidbit (bowl games edition) Wake Forest has reached bowl play 10 times, and each time played in a different bowl. The list: Gator Bowl in 1946, Dixie Bowl in 1949, Tangerine Bowl in 1979, Independence Bowl in 1992, Aloha Classic in 1999, Seattle Bowl in 2002, Orange Bowl following the 2006 season, Meineke Car Care Bowl in 2007, EagleBank Bowl in 2008 and Music City Bowl in 2011. The program is 6-4 all-time in bowl games and 3-2 under Grobe.

Tidbit (A.C.C. draft edition) As Dan Collins of the Winston-Salem Journal pointed out in early May, Wake Forest has had 13 players selected in the N.F.L. Draft over the last five years – with four players taken during this past April’s festivities. That total ties the Demon Deacons with Georgia Tech for sixth-most in the A.C.C. over this span, ahead of N.C. State (11), Virginia (10), Maryland (10), Boston College (8) and Duke (skunked). Leading the way for the A.C.C. is Miami (22), followed by Clemson (21), North Carolina (20), Virginia Tech (20) and Florida State (14). The Seminoles might have 14 players selected over the next two years.

Former players in the N.F.L.

14 S Josh Bush (New York Jets), OT Tyson Clabo (Atlanta), LB Aaron Curry (Oakland), OG Chris DeGeare (Minnesota), CB Brandon Ghee (Cincinnati), WR Chris Givens (St. Louis), OG Joe Looney (San Francisco), LB Calvin Pace (New York Jets), S Cyhl Quarles (Baltimore), CB Alphonso Smith (Detroit), LB Jyles Tucker (Carolina), C Steve Vallos (Philadelphia), DE Kyle Wilber (Dallas), LS Joe Zelenka (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

N.B.A. players under 5’9
1. Muggsy Bogues.
2. Spud Webb.
3. Earl Boykins.
4. Greg Grant.
5. Charlie Criss.

Coaching

Jim Grobe (Virginia ’75), 68-67 over 11 seasons. He is the first Wake Forest coach in more than 50 years to have a career mark over .500, joining Peahead Walker, who went 77-55-6 from 1937-50. Prior to taking the job, Grobe spent six years at Ohio University, compiling a 33-33-1 record from 1995-2000. While that record might not knock your socks off, consider this: the Bobcats won a total of nine games over the six years prior to his arrival. After going 2-8-1 in 1995, Grobe never again slipped below five wins, including an 8-3 finish in 1997 and a 7-4 mark in his final season. His job with the Demon Deacons has been equally commendable, if not more so. Wake has finished over .500 five times, including a memorable run to the A.C.C. title in 2006 and a combined 28 victories from 2006-8. The 2006 squad, picked to finish last in the conference in the preseason media poll, made an F.B.S.-best seven-game improvement over its 4-7 season in 2005. The 11-3 finish marked the program’s first season with double-digit victories and its second A.C.C. championship (1970), earning the Demon Deacons a B.C.S. trip to the Orange Bowl. What most fans will recall from 2006, beyond the A.C.C. title, was a 30-0 whitewashing of Florida State in Tallahassee, the Deacons’ first road win in the series since 1959. For the season, Grobe was named both the A.C.C. and national coach of the year. Wake followed that up with a 9-4 finish in 2007, giving the program — when combined with eight wins in 2008 — 28 victories from 2006-8; the next most successful three-year period outside the Grobe era was a 19-win stretch from 1944-46.

Tidbit (coaching edition) It’s always rare for Grobe to make any staffing moves, and even rarer to see him make changes of his own volition, not because an assistant has left Winston-Salem to take another position. Former secondary coach Steve Russ fits into the latter scenario; he left to take the same position at his alma mater, Air Force, and was replaced by former Colorado State assistant Tim Duffie. However, Grobe opted not to retain two longtime assistants in co-defensive coordinator Tim Billings and special teams coordinator Keith Henry – Henry was one of Grobe’s original hires nearly a dozen years ago.

Grobe will replace the two dismissed former coaches while shuffling duties among his returning staff members. New offensive line coach Jonathan Himebauch – who’s walking into a minefield with this year’s line – will take some work off of coordinator Steed Lobotzke’s plate; he handled both duties last fall. New outside linebackers coach Derrick Jackson, formerly of Rice, will help Brian Knorr, who now handles the defensive coordinator spot alone.

Players to watch

Things are looking sunny under center for Wake Forest. Overwhelmed as a freshman starter in 2010, now-junior quarterback Tanner Price came of age early last season, hitting his stride in September and never looking back; when the dust settled, Price had put together one of the finest passing seasons in school history. He improved in every manner possible, from the less tangible — confidence, leadership, reading defenses — to the more concrete: Price was more accurate, better in his decision-making and more potent down the field, turning a once troublesome position into one of unquestioned strength heading into September.

On the year, Price threw for 3,017 yards and 20 touchdowns against 6 interceptions — two fewer picks in 181 more passes than in his freshman season — while completing 60.0 percent of his attempts. While he stumbled over the season’s final two games, Price was extremely consistent during A.C.C. play, barring a dreadful performance in a one-sided loss to North Carolina. The question of what he can do for an encore is simple: Price will simply continue to improve, taking on an even larger role in Wake’s offense. A better question: Who will he throw to?

Chris Givens parlayed a monster 2011 season — tops in A.C.C. in receptions and receiving yards — into an early leap into the N.F.L. Draft. With Givens and Danny Dembry gone, look for junior Michael Campanaro (73 catches for 833 yards) to step into an enormous role in Wake’s passing game. On one hand, it’s not as if he wasn’t already one of Price’s favorite targets; however, Campanaro will need to produce at an all-conference level without Givens drawing the lion’s share of attention from opposing defensive backs.

The good news? Campanaro is more than talented enough to fill Givens’ shoes. The troubling news? I’m not sure if Wake has another receiver capable of stepping into Campanaro’s role as a complimentary option for Price to work with in the passing game.

Senior Terence Davis (20 for 269), now two years removed from knee surgery, is one receiver who could step into a larger role in 2012. Unfortunately, outside of Campanaro and Davis, the Demon Deacons don’t have any experience at the position. Grobe is high on junior Quan Rucker and sophomores Brandon Terry and Matt James, two underclassmen that held miniscule spots in the passing game last fall, as well as redshirt freshman Sherman Ragland III. The latter is one of four redshirt freshmen who could factor into the mix, joining P.J. Howard, Airyn Willis and Brad Idzik. Two things that are clear: Campanaro and Davis will lead the way and several yet-untested receivers are going to play significant snaps.

Redshirt freshmen abound not just at receiver but also along the offensive line, as mentioned below. In fact, Wake played only one true freshman anywhere last fall: running back Orville Reynolds (109 yards). And Reynolds was only used after junior back Josh Harris suffered a season-hampering injury in early October, crippling his effectiveness over the season’s final two months. Reynolds played in five games, complimenting senior Brandon Pendergrass; with Pendergrass gone, Wake needs Reynolds to shoulder a larger workload — but more than anything, this offense needs Harris to stay healthy.

And when healthy, Harris is easily one of the top backs in the A.C.C.: he rushed for 720 yards as a freshman, highlighted by a 241-yard performance against Virginia Tech, and was well on pace for a 1,000-yard season through last season’s opening month. Simply put, Harris just needs to remain on the field — Wake needs his production to help balance out the passing game. If he’s at 100 percent, Harris is an all-conference contender.

Due to a lack of size – like Oregon State, for example, Wake Forest emphasis speed over bulk – it’s likely that this defense will again struggle getting consistent stops against the run. This is nothing new: Wake’s run defense has been impotent in each of the last three years, which followed a two-year run when the front seven ranked among the most stingy in college football. One reason why you should see an upturn from this year’s defense is the returning experience: five starters from last season’s front seven are back in the fold.

Another good sign: Wake has strong depth at inside linebacker. Four players made at least three starts at the two inside spots last fall, with seniors Scott Betros (59 tackles) and Riley Haynes (52 tackles) starting the year’s first 10 games before ceding way to juniors Justin Jackson (59 tackles, 6.5 for loss) and Mike Olson (57 tackles, 6.0 for loss). While all four are going to play, Knorr would be wise to go with Haynes and Betros; while each needs to play with greater consistency, the run defense didn’t entirely run off the rails until the final three games of the year – when Jackson and Olson moved into the lineup. Coincidence? Maybe, but I wouldn’t think so.

The most likely scenario has Jackson moving outside to replace Kyle Wilbur. I think he’ll do well in this role, which will allow Jackson to pin his ears back. But he’ll need to get stronger, as while Jackson might be space a bit more often he’ll also need to stand tall at the point of attack. There’s a very interesting position battle taking place at the second outside linebacker spot, where Wake returns an incumbent starter in senior Joey Ehrmann (54 tackles, 3.0 for loss). That Wake is unsure where to turn has less to do with Ehrmann and more to do with the strong play during the spring from sophomore Zach Allen (24 tackles), who needs to be on the field in some capacity.

Despite losing end Tristan Dorty, a steady, multiple-year starter, this defensive line will be improved. In the middle, of course, stands nose guard Nikita Whitlock (64 tackles, 14.0 for loss, 3.5 sacks), the half-bowling ball, half-cannonball, all-conference junior who continues to confound interior linemen inside and out of the A.C.C. with his ability to create pressure in the backfield. Allow Whitlock to define this defense as a whole: more attacking and aggressive than simply mauling – meaning a defender who simply occupies space – Whitlock’s goal is to impact plays before they develop, not stop plays in mid-stride. Make sense?

He’s joined up front by end Zach Thompson (40 tackles), a returning starter, while junior Kris Redding’s strong spring gave him Dorty’s former starting spot. It’s not a bad threesome, especially if Redding can carry his spring play over to September. I do think the front seven will be better, though it depends on three factors: one, whether Jackson can play outside; two, if Redding can continue to excel as a starter; and three, if Betros and Haynes can end their careers on a high note.

Depth at cornerback allowed Grobe to move A.J. Marshall (33 tackles) over to safety, where Wake needs to replace a pair of very productive starters in Cyhl Quarles and Josh Bush. While it seemed as if the move was made simply to test Marshall’s abilities at a new spot, he played well enough during the spring – making two picks during the spring game – to likely make it a permanent move. With him now in the fold, the Demon Deacons can create a top group of Marshall and juniors Duran Lowe and Daniel Mack. If he keeps it up, Marshall will join Mack in the starting lineup.

That’s a good sign for this defense; Marshall can help solidify a major question mark in the secondary. On the other hand, Wake should feel secure in a cornerback pairing of sophomore Merrill Noel (66 tackles, 2 interceptions) and junior Kenny Okoro (38 tackles). Noel is a major player, one who should garner all-A.C.C. accolades in 2012 and beyond, but Okoro can get picked on at times – which could lead Wake to try out other options like Kevin Johnson and Jason Green. Another big-picture take: Wake’s secondary is going to hit a speed bump at safety, but the pass defense could take a step forward if a player like Marshall takes to his new role.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Wake Forest is nearly starting from scratch. The Demon Deacons will break in a new starter at left tackle, left guard, right guard and right tackle, having lost those four starters and two backups who moved into the starting lineup in 2011 for a combined four games. The lone returning starter, senior Garrick Williams, will anchor the front from his spot at center; Wake will be brand new elsewhere, however, and how the line gels during fall camp will determine whether this offense can score enough points to muster another bowl run.

The line wasn’t in a good place as Wake left spring ball. Only three positions are set: left guard, center and right tackle. Williams is at center, as noted. After playing in 11 games at right guard in 2011, sophomore Colin Summers will step into Doug Weaver’s role at right tackle. Though he did battle injuries during the spring, the coaching staff is high on sophomore Antonio Ford’s ability to handle the load at left guard, replacing Joe Looney. Three positions are set, but the two spots still unfilled, left tackle and right guard, loom very large — and don’t even ask about depth.

Would-be sophomore Steven Chase, once the projected replacement for Dennis Godfrey, was dismissed from the program in March. Wake then auditioned sophomore Dylan Heartsill on the blind side, but his chronic back issues resurfaced in April, causing him to miss the last three weeks of spring ball. Unless Heartsill makes a full recovery — and he’s not scheduled to undergo surgery, which is good news — Wake will turn to one of two juniors, Devin Bolling and Frank Souza; the latter was moved over to offense after playing nose guard as a freshman and sophomore. Redshirt freshman Dylan Intemann and sophomore Daniel Blitch are the top options at right guard. It’s not a good situation.

Game(s) to watch

Wake gets several winnable games at home, including two, Duke and Boston College, during A.C.C. play. That pair, along with Liberty and Army, should allow Wake Forest to be very much a bowl contender in early November. Whether the Demon Deacons do reach the postseason depends greatly on how they fare in swing games against U.N.C. — an early-season game, which is good for Wake — Maryland and Vanderbilt. The SEC was unkind to this team last fall, but the Deacons did have their way with the Commodores from 2007-10. Road play isn’t kind to Wake: Florida State, the Terrapins, Virginia, N.C. State and Notre Dame.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Strong at some spots, average at others, troublingly weak at the rest. That’s Wake Forest – at the most basic view possible, to be fair. It’s obvious that the Demon Deacons have enough talented and experienced pieces to make another run towards the postseason: Price is an all-A.C.C. quarterback, Whitlock an anchor in the middle, Campanaro a solid and dependable receiving target and Noel a potential stopper at cornerback. But beyond that – and you can see this even behind Campanaro at receiver – the Demon Deacons are lacking the requisite pieces needed to be viewed as an A.C.C. contender. I can’t ignore the idea that this offensive line is going to be a constant nuisance all season. The running game will sputter if Harris can’t shoulder the load. While I think the entire defense will improve, any progression is contingent on Wake finding consistent safety play and steady production at inside linebacker. That’s not a given. So where does this team stand heading into meat of the summer? Oftentimes – with several examples at our disposal – Grobe’s teams do exceed expectations; in 2012, exceeding expectations would entail making a run towards an Atlantic title, perhaps winning eight games during the regular season. With the major issues up front and with Grobe relying on two handfuls of redshirt freshmen and sophomores on both sides of the ball, it doesn’t seem likely that Wake does more than repeat last year’s regular season record. I’m more confident in saying that the Demon Deacons will fall just short of that goal, finishing 5-7, 3-5 in conference play.

Dream season The Demon Deacons start strong, winning five of six to open the year, and despite a slight lull in November win nine games in the regular season for the first time since 2006.

Nightmare season All issues on offense stem from abysmal line play, which keeps the running game from finding any rhythm and fails to do an adequate job keeping Price clean. With the offense failing to score points, the defense is put in a position where it needs to win games; that’s not good news for Wake Forest, which suffers a second nine-loss season in three years.

In case you were wondering

Where do Wake Forest fans congregate? You can find in-depth football and basketball recruiting coverage at Deacons Illustrated and Deacon Sports. For a blog’s take, take a trip to Blogger So Dear and My Take on Wake, the latter a blog from the Winston-Salem Journal’s Dan Collins.

Wake Forest’s all-name nominee NG Godspower Offor.

Word Count

Through 47 teams 168,055.

Up Next

Who is No. 77? In 2004, the head coach at tomorrow’s program served on the same staff as his current defensive coordinator, one fellow active F.B.S. head coach, another former head coach on the F.B.S. level and a current position coach in the N.F.L.

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Comments

  1. Vic says:

    I’m going with Miami

    Al Golden was the DC at Virginia with D’Onofrio his currect DC being the Special Teams Coach, with current Virginia Coach Mike London being the Defensive Line Coach on that staff, the former Head Coach being Al Groh and the NFL position Coach is John Garrett for the Cowboys who was the WR Coach at UVA.

  2. Monty says:

    With the submission of “Godspower Offor”, I’m ready to just call the All-Name competition right here.

  3. TexaninNYC says:

    @Monty

    Barkevious Mingo won’t let it go that easily.

  4. jim says:

    Campanaro will be considered one of the top Slot guys in the country at the end of this season!

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