2012 W-L: 5-7 (3-5)
Head Coach: Jim Grobe (73-74; 13th season)
Returning Starters: 15 (7 Offense, 8 Defense)
Despite what’s perceived as an unprecedented level of program success under his stewardship, Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe finds himself on a bit of a hotseat this fall. The Deacs have missed the postseason in three out of their last four years, and have not won more than six since 2008. After the high-water mark of the 2006 ACC Championship, Wake has actually become a program that expects to be winning six or seven games every year. It’s not the easiest place to do that, of course, but when you set expectations (even lightly), it becomes hard for folks to shake that notion you’re falling short. Hence Grobe’s current position.
If this feels like a broken record in these ACC preivews, it sort of is: Wake Forest’s offense struggled mightily last season. Plenty of teams can’t move the ball effectively, but it does take a special kind of ineptitude to average just 18.5 points per game — nevermind the fact that they also managed to win five of those contests somehow. For what feels like the umpteenth season in a row, Wake’s offensive line simply could not stay healthy (that’s what happens when you’re undersized) and it wreaked havoc on this team’s ability to put up points. While that lack of health is certainly a concern this fall too, it could also be seen as an opportunity. With so many injuries, there’s a large number of Deacs O-linemen with extensive experience and that makes for a more polished rotation at those positions. They’ll need fresh legs given the level of pass-rushers in the conference, and also in order to keep the running game going. Averaging just 100 yards per game, last year’s rushing attack may as well have not existed and part of that falls on the line’s inability to push the pile forward. The other part of that equation are the actual backs though, and it’ll be interesting to see if Josh Harris‘s dismissal-turned-reinstatement this offseason was the type of jolt he needed to finally live up to his potential.
It’s not just on Harris and the offensive line, though. Considering how long he’s been under center at Wake Forest, there’s plenty of onus on quarterback Tanner Price as well. His accuracy and efficiency dropped like a rock as a junior, and now there’s major pressure on him to rebound in order to save his “legacy” with this program. Following in the footsteps of Riley Skinner is no picnic, but Price’s vanilla resume and lack of wins make for an easy target when looking at the mediocrity that’s befallen the Demon Deacons. He has weapons — most notably Michael Campanaro. Now he needs to figure out a way to use them. He did it before with now-St. Louis Ram Chris Givens. What makes Campanaro so different? The senior pass-catcher is one of the ACC’s most talented wideouts. Protection or not, he must find creative ways to get him the ball. The new spread-option elements of the offense could provide a new fold to his game, and actually have an immediate impact on this offense. Of course, it’s all just nice theory until we see it in practice (which we should later on tonight).
Over on defense, Wake Forest were regularly big victims of big plays and despite a talented secondary, a quick glance at least year’s schedule shows you exactly where more talented teams just had their way with them. Again, some injuries factor in (especially in the case of Merrill Noel), but size also plays a factor. No Wake defensive back is taller than 6’1″ and only two way in at more than 190 pounds. The ACC has plenty of tall, physical pas-catchers and the Deacs find themselves at a disadvantage very quickly given that inequity. Both Noel and Kevin Johnson are aiming to alleviate the problem this year by making progress as better cover corners, though safety will continue to be a weak spot for the time being, as they battle inexperience and depth issues.
Wake plays a 3-4 defense out of necessity. They simply can’t recruit the types of bigs needed for a 4-3, though if you’re “forced” to do something, it’s tough to complain about this personnel. Nikita Whitlock, Kris Redding and Zach Thompson all return to solidify the pass rush give them a better push up front than they’ve had in some time. Whitlock’s battled injury lately, but if he can stay on the field all season, he may finally reach the endless amounts of potential hinted at throughout his career. A better pass-rush also gives a huge boost to the secondary, who’d stand to benefit from shorter developing routes. This all makes it sound like this defense is a major work in progress, but in actuality, it’s all about just a few pieces coming together to make a big jump compared to last year.
I’m optimistic about Wake Forest this year, in equal parts due to their own veteran leadership and a schedule that only presents a few distinct challenges plus a lot of very winnable games. Out of all the teams in that muddled middle of the Atlantic Division, Wake and Boston College have the most experience, though I’d argue Wake has much more talent. Of course, that talent needs to stay healthy. Whether it does or not will be the ultimate deciding factor between bowl or no bowl for the Demon Deacons. And in the same breath, could be the deciding factor on Grobe’s tenure past this year as well.
Prediction: (7-5) (5-3); Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl