Scheme: Wake Forest has stuck with the same recipe for Coach Jim Grobe’s entire tenure at Wake—running out of passing formations with lots of motion and misdirection. Wake uses more of a spread look now than they did when Grobe first arrived, but the game plan is to run the ball, eat up clock, and stay in the game. Wake usually has not put up big stats on offense, but last year they hit bottom, finishing 91st in scoring offense and 108th in total offense. That was largely due to an inept passing offense that finished 114th in the country at just 143 yards per game and 109th in passing efficiency. If Wake can get the passing game going, they have a chance to move the ball on the ground thanks to a good RB and 4 returning starters on the line.
Quarterbacks: Everyone knew that the graduation of Riley Skinner would hit the program hard, but no one probably thought it would be as bad as it was. Through injury and necessity, Wake used four different QBs last year and two other players threw passes on trick plays. Needless to say, it was not an ideal situation.
The coaching staff hopes that the lumps sophomore Tanner Price took on the job last year will pay off this season. Price (1,349 yards, 57%, 7 TDs, 8 interceptions, 160 yards rushing, 4 TDs) started 9 games and appeared in two others as Wake looked toward the future. Price certainly had some bad games, but displayed good accuracy, mobility, toughness, and poise. There was competition from junior Ted Stachitas in the spring, but it seems likely Price will keep the job. Stachitas (131 yds, 52%, 1 int., 171 yds rushing, 2 TDs) played in 5 games, starting 3, and is a slightly better athlete than Price. He had a strong spring, but it seems unlikely he unseats Price. After all, why throw Price into the fire if he isn’t going to be the long-term guy? Wake has a third QB, sophomore Brendan Cross, who saw 4 games of action last year, but he isn’t a threat to start.
Running Backs: Wake Forest will always be a running team first under Grobe and they had a string of very solid runners in Grobe’s first few years on campus. However, the position had not produced up to expectations in recent years, but the coaching staff is confident that sophomore Josh Harris has the ability to be the guy that has been lacking recently. Harris (720 yds, 5.7 average, 7 TDs, 8 receptions) came from off the radar to lead the team in rushing and exploded for 241 yards against Virginia Tech. Harris can run between the tackles, but also has the speed to hit the home run. He should contend for All-ACC honors for years to come.
The coaching staff has said they like the depth behind Harris with senior Brandon Pendergrass and redshirt freshman Nick Knott. Pendergrass (115 yds, 4.8 avg, 2 TDs) is experienced and tough, but his production has gone down every year since his freshman season, partly due to injuries, so it is hard to say how much of an impact he can have spelling Harris. Knott provides a change of pace, bringing excellent speed and decent hands to the fold. He could be a 3rd down back.
Wake is one of the seemingly few teams that still uses a traditional fullback and has a good one in junior Tommy Bohanon. Bohanon (77 yds, 4.5 avg, 11 receptions) is an excellent blocker who can also be a bruising north-south runner. He is one of the strongest players on the team.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Wake has never fielded an elite WR corps under Grobe, but last year’s unit was a particular disappointment. It wasn’t their entire fault, but the unit as a whole lacked consistency and did not do a great job getting open. Leading receiver Devin Brown transferred and Marshall Williams, who finished 3rd in receptions, graduated, but the coaches hope strong spring showings from a few guys carry over to the season.
The go-to guy will be junior Chris Givens, a bona fide playmaker who led the team in receiving yards, yards per catch, and touchdowns while finishing 2nd in receptions. Givens (35 recs, 514 yds, 4 TDs, 63 yds rushing, 2 TDs) has good hands and is shifty in the open field. If he can get some support, he can do some damage. The most likely guy to support him is sophomore Michael Campanaro. Campanaro (10 recs, 107 yds, 123 yds rushing, 1 TD) had a somewhat disappointing freshman season, making more of an impact as a runner than receiver but the coaches have high hopes for him after a strong spring. Not the biggest guy (5-10, 190), Campanaro has great speed and is tough. He won’t be handed the starting job, though, as junior Lovell Jackson is nipping at his heels after a solid spring himself. Jackson has great athleticism, but has had trouble staying uninjured. The coaches hope that former QB Danny Dembry can help out too. Dembry (8 recs, 106 yds, 1 TD) has good size and speed and brings leadership to the table as well.
Quietly, Wake has a nice one-two punch at tight end in seniors Andrew Parker and Cameron Ford. Parker (6 recs) isn’t utilized as a receiver much, but has good hands and might see his role expanded this year. Ford (11 recs, 120 yds) is bigger and a better blocker than Parker, but is also a good receiver too.
Offensive Line: Four starters and a few experienced backups return, but this is the proverbial “Is that a good thing or bad thing?” The running game was decent, to the tune of 158.5 yards per game, but Wake is used to averaging closer to 200 yards per game on the ground. The unit was just okay in run blocking and was pretty poor in pass blocking, allowing over 2 sacks per game.
The guard spots appear to be strengths with senior LG Joe Looney and senior RG Michael Hoag. Looney is probably the best of the bunch and is entering his third year as a starter. Physical with good feet and upper body strength, Looney is also a vocal leader. Hoag is athletic and smart, but needs to work on his fundamentals a bit more and was inconsistent in run blocking. The one new starter is at center, where junior Garrick Williams will be tasked with taking over for all-conference pick Russell Nenon. Williams started once at C and once at LG last year and is solid, if unspectacular. Depth is bolstered by the return of junior Gabe Irby, who got one start last year. Irby is physical, but is just average in the footwork and fundamentals departments and probably won’t push hard for a starting berth.
Both starters and a key backup return to man the tackle spots. Doug Weaver and Dennis Godfrey, both seniors, will man the RT and LT spots, respectively. Weaver, who will protect Price’s blindside, is coming off his first season as a starter and was just average. Godfrey is built more like a guard at 6-3, 350 and needs to keep an eye on his conditioning. Sophomore Steven Chase was expected to push for a starting job last year, but was not able to beat out Weaver or Godfrey and was a reserve. He’ll likely fill that role again. He looks the part with his size, long arms, and light feet, but he hasn’t put it all together just yet.
Scheme: Just like the offense, there was a youth movement on defense last year and it showed. The Deacons, who had fielded very solid defenses for several years, plummeted to 98th in pass efficiency defense, 99th in rushing defense, 101st in total defense, and 110th in scoring defense. Basically, Wake was bad at everything.
Nine starters do return, but Wake is transitioning to a 3-4 defense and under new coordinators. Former DC Brad Lambert left to take the head job at UNC-Charlotte and Brian Knorr, who coached under Grobe at Ohio, and Tim Billings were promoted to co-coordinator duties. Knorr, particularly, has a history with 3-4 defenses and the Deacons hope the shift (they used some 3-4 looks last year) allows them to hide the lack of depth along the line and get more playmakers on the field at LB.
Defensive Line: Part of the reason for the switch to the 3-4 is that Wake will no longer have to recruit so many players to fill out the two-deep along the line. Wake was having trouble in recent years getting guys big enough to man the DT and DE spots. They are still a bit undersized, but not as drastically as when they ran a 4-3. Stopping the run remains a concern, especially after Wake gave up a whopping 4.7 yards per carry last year.
One guy who is undersized, but was extremely productive, is sophomore NG Nikita Whitlock. Whitlock (44 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 3 sacks) is not the prototype at just 5-11, 260, but he proved to be disruptive due to his quickness and excellent leverage. He can still be prone to being engulfed due to his size, but he is pretty solid given his physical limitations. When the Deacs need girth, they can turn to junior Ramon Booi. Booi has the size at 6-6, 300, and was one of Wake’s biggest recruiting coups of recent years, although he has not produced as of yet. At minimum, he provides a big body. Wake can also trot out sophomore Frank Souza (10 tackles, 3 starts), a 6-4, 280-pounder who proved active and tough in his playing time.
The coaching staff feels pretty good about utilizing three different players at the DE spots. The star of the group will likely be senior Tristan Dorty. After briefly toying with the idea of moving him to LB, the coaches decided to keep Dorty (44 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks) at end. Despite his modest stats, Dorty is one of the team’s better pure pass rushers and plays with good fundamentals. The battle to start opposite him will be between sophomore Zach Thompson and junior Kevin Smith. Thompson (19 tackles, 1 for loss) started the final 5 games last year and is better against the run. Smith (31 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks) is more of a speed rusher at 6-4, 230, and started 5 games as well. Look for the duo to share the job depending upon the situation.
Linebackers: The flipside of needing fewer bodies along the line with the move to the 3-4 is that Wake needs more guys at LB. The coaching staff moved a few players from DE back to LB, but perhaps more worrisome than overall depth is who is going to replace departed ILBs Hunter Haynes and Matt Woodlief, who finished 1st and 4th in tackles?
The good news is that Wake seems pretty set at OLB. Senior Kyle Wilber is one of those few who moved back from DE and he appears to be a good fit. Wilber (65 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) has good size (6-5, 240) and lateral quickness and should be excellent when rushing the passer. The other outside spot will likely go to junior Joey Ehrmann. Ehrmann (42 tackles, 4 for loss, 1 sack, 1 int.) started 9 times last year and has good range. He is still filling out and might be a bit suspect against the run.
More suspect are the inside jobs. At the end of spring ball, there were 4 players battling for the two spots. The favorites appear to be juniors Riley Haynes and Scott Betros. Haynes (14 tackles), Hunter’s younger brother, started 3 times at WLB last year, but wasn’t very productive and isn’t all that big. Still, he is fundamentally sound and knows his job so he’ll likely win a spot. Betros (30 tackles, 2.5 for loss) has good size (6-1, 240) and instincts and was productive when he played last year. The other two guys battling for the jobs are senior Gelo Orange and sophomore Mike Olson. Orange (22 tackles, 2.5 for loss) is a veteran with 7 career starts and can help out at ILB, OLB, or even DE. He’s most likely a backup wherever he ends up. The coaches are very excited about Olson (43 tackles, 2.5 sacks), who has good size (6-3, 230) and was productive when he was in.
Secondary: Three starters return, as do several backups who gained experience last year, but Wake was awful against the pass so this unit needs to grow up in a hurry. With a mixture of youth and experience, and showing a tiny bit of improvement late last year, the coaches hope this unit steps up their game.
Despite the loss of FS Alex Frye to graduation, the Deacs feel pretty good about their duo at safety. Senior Cyhl Quarles (71 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 1 int.) is a seasoned veteran who has great size and speed. He is still average, at best, in coverage, but is solid in run support. Taking over for Frye at FS will be either senior Josh Bush or sophomore Daniel Mack. Bush (33 tackles, 2 for loss, 4 passes broken up) started 8 games at CB last year but gave up too many big plays, hence his move to FS. The coaches think he can be a good center fielder. Mack (45 tackles, 2 ints., 3 PBU) started 7 games as a freshman and is the more physical option.
If the Deacons are to cut down on the 29 TD passes they allowed last year, better play from the corners will be vital. This group gave up too many big plays last year. The veteran of the group now that Bush has moved will be junior Kenny Okoro. Okoro (39 tackles, 2 ints., 5 PBU) started 8 times last year and has played a lot so far in his career, but he is prone to lapses. Still, he’ll likely be counted on as the team’s #1 corner by the staff.
The future #1 is probably sophomore Kevin Johnson. Johnson (31 tackles, 2 PBU) started the final 5 games last year as a freshman and was certainly inconsistent, but he has the raw athleticism and speed to be a good one. Classmate A.J. Marshall is likely to be the nickel back after also getting his feet wet as a freshman. Marshall (22 tackles, 1 for loss) earned 3 starts, but seemed overwhelmed at times and would best be served if he could continue to learn as a backup. Redshirt freshman Merrill Noel, a one-time FSU verbal commitment, had a solid spring and very well may emerge in August with a starting job. Not the biggest guy, Noel has good speed and instincts.
Special Teams: The special teams were a mixed bag last year and appear to be again. Junior kicker Jimmy Newman is solid. He hit on 12 of 13 attempts last year, with a long of 48 yards, and boasts a powerful leg. The only concern is that Newman sat out spring ball with a hip injury. Obviously kickers need their hips, so that injury is cause for watching. Doubly so because Newman may also punt. Wake averaged a paltry 37.1 yards per punt last year and the coaches hope either Newman or sophomore Alex Wulfeck can improve upon that.
The return and coverage units appear to be a mix too. Kickoff returns seem set in the hands of Campanaro, who averaged 24.2 yards per attempt and nearly broke one the distance several times. The kick coverage unit was pretty good, but the punt coverage could stand to improve after Wake finished 118th in net punting last year.
Schedule: After going 3-9, nothing is easy but Wake’s schedule has very few breathers with a trip to Syracuse and a home date with Notre Dame on the non-conference slate. The ACC slate features home dates with NC State, FSU, VA Tech, and Maryland and road trips to BC, Duke, UNC, and Clemson. In all, Wake faces 9 teams that went bowling last year.
Overall: It is always hard to tab Wake because of the great coaching job Grobe has done. At 62-60, Grobe is just the 2nd coach in Wake’s history to be over .500 and he won 33 games in 6 years at Ohio after the Bobcats had won just 9 games in 6 years before he arrived. Long story short, Grobe can coach and to assume his teams will be bad is never easy. That being, I am going to assume that Wake will once again be one of the ACC’s whipping boys. There is still a lot of youth and unproven players on the two-deep and Wake still appears to be a poor passing team on offense and susceptible to the run and big play on defense. The schedule also doesn’t seem very conducive as only dates with Gardner-Webb, Duke, and Vanderbilt appear to be games that Wake has a decent shot. This may be another building year as all these sophomores become juniors and seniors and perhaps Wake becomes relevant again in 2012 and beyond. I can’t imagine anything better than 5-7 or 4-8.