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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. 96: Wake Forest

The good news is that I rarely know what I’m talking about, and I really seem to not know what I’m talking about what it comes to Wake Forest. I’m usually a year off: I predicted the Demon Deacons to scuffle in 2008, when they surprised most — again — with an 8-5 finish; I thought the team would do well in 2009, when they disappointed in finishing below .500 despite having several talented players; and I thought Wake would do well last fall despite its youth, when it slid all the way down to 3-9, the program’s worst finish yet under Jim Grobe. Wrong so many times. I just want to make sure that’s clear before I attempt to predict Wake Forest’s 2011 season: I’ll probably be well off once again.

Conference
Atlantic Coast, Atlantic

Location
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Nickname
Demon Deacons

Returning starters
16 (7 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 71

2010 record
(3-9, 1-7)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 104

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Syracuse
  • Sept. 10
    N.C. St.
  • Sept. 17
    Gardner Webb
  • Oct. 1
    at Boston College
  • Oct. 8
    Florida St.
  • Oct. 15
    Virginia Tech
  • Oct. 22
    at Duke
  • Oct. 29
    at U.N.C.
  • Nov. 5
    Notre Dame
  • Nov. 12
    at Clemson
  • Nov. 19
    Maryland
  • Nov. 26
    Vanderbilt

Last year’s prediction

Wake Forest is always capable of exceeding expectations. In fact, it is surprising to see these Grobe-led Demon Deacons not surpass their projected finish, as the program has shown a number of times over the last half-decade. Having said that, I feel this is the right spot for this team, which must address a few issues before being considered a viable A.C.C. contender. Here’s the good news: Grobe always — well, nearly always — delivers. He’s perhaps the best coach in the country at making something out of nothing; this team is far from nothing, for lack of a better word, yet Grobe will have his hands full. I’m giving the Demon Deacons some credit — most are predicting less, I’ve noticed. I think this a borderline bowl team — perhaps six wins, though it won’t be pretty.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Three wins sandwiched nine losses: two to start the year, one to end it, misery in between. It seemed like Wake’s morale was sapped after two narrow losses to open October, which followed back-to-back losses against two of the nation’s best — Stanford and Florida State — by the combined score of 99-24. The two close setbacks, at home to Georgia Tech and Navy, came by a combined five points. From there, it was an ugly combination of an ineffective offense and a porous defense — that’s a combination for misery, as we saw in lopsided defeats to Virginia Tech, Maryland, N.C. State and Clemson. You had to take these results with a grain of salt, however, as few teams in the nation were forced to put youngsters into key roles quite like Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons will be more experienced in 2011, but youth will still rule the day: of the 57 returning lettermen, only 13 are seniors.

High point One win over F.C.S. competition, two wins over F.B.S. foes who combined for five wins. So it wasn’t the most impressive season. Still, a high-scoring win over Duke on the second Saturday of September left Wake 2-0 and with none of the offensive question marks that would define most of the remainder of the season.

Low point Hold on for cleverness: It’s fitting that a typo in the Wake Forest media supplement has the letter K, not an L, alongside a 38-3 loss to N.C. State, as the game was a clear knockout for the Wolfpack. Get it? It’s not clever, I know. You can really pick any loss, minus those to Georgia Tech and Navy. Stanford was hideous, and has the added bonus of being nationally televised. Clemson couldn’t to seem to score points on anyone but the Deacons. Maryland did whatever it wanted in a 62-14 win.

Tidbit Wake Forest set home scoring records in back-to-back weeks to open 2010. First, the Demon Deacons scored 53 points against overmanned Presbyterian on Sept. 2 to set a new BB&T Field record; the stadium was built in 1968. A week later, Wake outscored Duke, 54-48, in the second-highest scoring game in A.C.C. history. The following Sunday, Wake gave up 68 points at Stanford, a program-most since allowing 72 points against Florida State in 1995.

Former players in the N.F.L.

15 LB Stanley Arnoux (New Orleans), OT Tyson Clabo (Atlanta), TE Desmond Clark (Chicago), LB Aaron Curry (Seattle), OG Chris DeGeare (Seattle), CB Brandon Ghee (Cincinnati), CB Eric King (Detroit), FB Ovie Mughelli (Atlanta), LB Calvin Pace (New York Jets), DT Fred Robbins (St. Louis), CB Alphonso Smith (Detroit), LB Jyles Tucker (San Diego), OT Steve Vallos (Cleveland), S Chip Vaughn (Indianapolis), LS Joe Zelenka (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

Ways to wake up
1. Face in deep bucket of ice water.
2. Hot shower.
3. Coffee.
4. Slap in face.
5. Hair of the dog.

Coaching

Jim Grobe (Virginia ’75), 62-60 over 10  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: in the six years prior to his arrival, the Bobcats won a total of nine games. 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) Grobe lost one of his original Wake Forest staffers when defensive coordinator Brad Lambert left to take over the fledging U.N.C.-Charlotte football program, poised to make its debut in 2013. While last season’s results were atypical of Lambert’s tenure, Wake’s transition from a 4-3 look to the 3-4 was the primary reason behind the statistical slide. He’ll be replaced by a pair of incumbent assistants, as expected: Brian Knorr and Tom Billings, both of whom have coordinator experience, will share the honors.

Players to watch

There’s been some competition at quarterback, but I can’t imagine anyone other than Tanner Price being the starter in 2011. Why else would Grobe have thrown him into the fire a year ago if it wasn’t to speed up his development for this fall and beyond? And don’t say that he didn’t have other options: if Ted Stachitas wasn’t good enough to unseat Price lat fall — when he made nine starts — he shouldn’t have what it takes to do so in 2011, barring a regression from the sophomore or a nice progression from the junior, though he did play well during the spring. You don’t suffer through an uneven true freshman season and not get the eventual payoff, right? Price still needs more snaps, not to mention more confidence, but he has a fine blend of ability as a passer and a runner. This probably won’t be the year the light turns on, but Wake should be patient.

Four starters return up front, and I believe I’m obligated to state the following cliché: I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Like most clichés, it’s pretty misguided. There’s never something wrong with returning the wide majority of the previous season’s contributors, especially on a group as vital as the offensive line. The lone loss is that of center Russell Nenon, probably the line’s best performer, but Wake will have four experienced seniors to help fill that void: Dennis Godfrey and Joe Looney on the left side, Michael Hoag and Doug Weaver on the right side. Nenon’s spot will be filled by junior Garrick Williams, a two-game starter in 2010. Now, there’s no escaping the fact that the line must improve; the offense as a whole might hinge on its development. But it’s a veteran group, so perhaps it’s not too far away from gelling.

One of the few bright spots on last season’s offense was the play of then-freshman running back Josh Harris, who led the team in carries (126), yards (720) and touchdowns (7). He’ll see increased touches in 2011 — he had 18 or more carries only three times last fall — now that Josh Adams has moved on. Senior Brandon Pendergrass is a nice compliment as a bruiser and will see a good amount of action.

The receivers get in on the action on the ground as well, where the Demon Deacons will miss would-be senior Devon Brown’s production. He opted to transfer after last season, when he led the team in receptions (39) while adding 134 yards rushing. Sophomore Michael Campanaro (129 yards rushing, 10 receptions) might step into Brown’s former role as a dual-threat receiver. The team’s best receiving target is junior Chris Givens (team-leading 514 yards and 4 scores), but he needs some help. Maybe Campanaro is that guy, though he’s still unproven in the passing game.

The only area on the defense hurt by graduation was the linebacker corps, which must replace a pair of leading tacklers in Hunter Haynes and Matt Woodlief. Their departure makes Kyle Wilber the clear leader of the group — he was already, probably. Wilber is one linebacker who fits the 3-4 system perfectly: it played to his strength as a pass rusher, allowing Wilber to lead the team in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (6). He’ll line up outside and earn the wide majority of attention from opposing offensive lines, so getting him so help is key. He’ll be joined outside by Joey Ehrmann, a 10-game starter last season.

It will be one Haynes to another in the middle: Hunter will be replaced by his younger brother, Riley, who made 14 tackles in a reserve role in 2010. His likely running mate inside, Scott Betros, made a few more plays (30 tackles, 3 for loss) despite making only one start; Haynes made three.

Nearly every significant piece returns in a secondary that took a major step back in 2010. As with the offensive line, expect an improvement. But how much better a showing will we see? The improvement really hinges on two factors: one, the front seven’s ability to get pressure on the quarterback, which they did on only a pedestrian level last fall; and two, whether the secondary can remain injury-free. How about a third factor: whether Josh Bush, a converted cornerback, can control the middle of the field at free safety. And a fourth: if sophomore cornerback Kevin Johnson is ready to be a full-time starter. The other two pieces are solid, with corner Kenny Okoro carrying 16 career starts and senior strong safety Cyhl Quarles (71 tackles, 1 interception) the secondary’s best player.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line Playing nose guard is a nasty endeavor, and a lineman needs — how should I put this — a certain amount of girth to be the type of run-stopping, blocker-gathering figure a 3-4 defense needs to run at full capacity. Nikita Whitlock is not that guy: the spirit’s willing but the flesh is weak, and Whitlock needs to move outside to end where his lack of size — 260 on the roster, but that’s with a weight belt on — would not be such an impediment. It was thought that junior Ramon Booi, who carries  about 300 pounds on his 6’6 frame, would have taken Whitlock’s place last fall. He didn’t, playing in only eight games thanks to durability issues. It’s not a stretch to say that Booi’s development is the key to Wake’s success on defense: it wouldn’t only give the team a real interior lineman but would increase depth both on the nose and at end. Could Whitlock unseat Zach Thompson, Kevin Smith or Tristan Dorty at end if he was moved outside? Without question: Whitlock has shown an ability to get into the backfield despite his size, which would actually be a positive at end, not an impediment. But it all starts with a lineman like Booi; if he doesn’t take over at nose guard, this defense will continue to be pushed around inside and out of A.C.C. play.

Game(s) to watch

It would be nice to get off to a good start, so a win at Syracuse to start the year, with an F.C.S. foe following, would be great for Wake’s spirits. The schedule looks intimidating outside of that date with Gardner Webb.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. In terms of the schedule overall, only one other F.B.S. opponent, Vanderbilt, enters 2011 with similar question marks; Wake could be the underdog in each of the remaining games, barring an unexpected one-year leap forward. We won’t know about that type of progression until this team steps on the field. For now, there are concerns about the quarterback position, where Price might be better but is still green; the offensive line and the secondary has returning talent but needs to come together; and the defensive line, particularly on the nose, needs to be retooled. 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.

Dream season As has occurred so many times in the past, Wake Forest exceeds all expectations — yes, including mine — in finishing 8-4, 7-1 in the A.C.C.

Nightmare season Youth continues to be served. For the second straight year, a 3-9 finish.

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.

Word Count

Through 25 teams 65,410.

Up Next

Who is No. 95? More than 40 F.C.S. football programs have larger seating capacity at their home stadiums than does tomorrow’s program.

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Comments

  1. Jer says:

    Has to be Idaho

  2. Alex Payne says:

    Idaho.

  3. George says:

    This is about the right spot for Idaho but Wyoming, Washington State and many other teams would qualify as having stadiums with less capacity than tne Big Ten Sec, Big 12 and most of the Pac10 teams andthere are plenty of other teams with large seating capacities. Might as well throw a dart.I think Washington State will be “ranked” higher but it shouldn’t be. This is a bad team ana terrible program-how that Coach survived to “live another year” is amazing.

  4. Eksynyt says:

    WSU has to be coming up soon but I think Idaho is next.

  5. M Meyer says:

    It’s pretty clear that Iowa State is next. I refuse to believe that any school has a smaller stadium than Jack Tryce. Facts be damned.

  6. Burnt Orange says:

    The Kibbie Dome – home of the Idaho Vandals.

  7. M Meyer says:

    People say that the Kibbie Dome has fewer seats than Jack Tryce. I say they are mistaken. The apparent seating disparity is an optical illusion.

  8. jjtiller says:

    My streak is over now :(

  9. jjtiller says:

    by the way, Chris DeGeare is a Vikings OLineman

  10. Xenocide23 says:

    Washington State will be very much improved this year. Granted, they will still be bad but I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed to finish 4-8 or even 5-7 next year with at least 2 pac 12 wins. Doubt they go bowling though.

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