Sunday, August 17, 2008

season preview: Wake Forest

Today wraps up the tour of the ACC. Next week will be a look at the rest of the nonconference schedule, although the writeups will be much abbreviated. These take a little while and I don't care that much about Richmond. Need to somewhere squeeze in a look at the team this blog is supposed to actually be covering. That, along with ACC predictions and the USC game preview will be the week following.

8/28: @Baylor (Th.)
9/6: Mississippi
9/20: @Florida State
9/27: Navy
10/9: Clemson (Th.)
10/18: @Maryland
10/25: @Miami
11/1: Duke
11/8: Virginia
11/15: @North Carolina State
11/22: Boston College
11/29: Vanderbilt

Skip: North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech

Projected starters:

QB: Riley Skinner (rJr.)
RB: Josh Adams (rSo.)
FB: Rich Belton (5Sr.)
WR: Chip Brinkman (5Sr.)
WR: D.J. Boldin (5Sr.)
TE: Ben Wooster (rJr.)
LT: Joe Birdsong (rJr.)
LG: Russell Nenon (rSo.)
C: Trey Bailey (rJr.)
RG: Barrett McMillin (rJr.)
RT: Jeff Griffin (rJr.)

DE: Matt Robinson (6Sr.)
NG: Boo Robinson (rJr.)
DT: John Russell (rJr.)
DE: Anthony Davis (5Sr.)
SLB: Aaron Curry (5Sr.)
MLB: Stanley Arnoux (5Sr.)
WLB: Chantz McClinic (5Sr.)
CB: Alphonso Smith (5Sr.)
SS: Chip Vaughn (5Sr.)
FS: Kevin Patterson (5Sr.)
CB: Brandon Ghee (rJr.)

K: Sam Swank (5Sr.)
P: Sam Swank (5Sr.)

Coach: Jim Grobe (8th season)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Media prediction: 2nd, Atlantic Division

All-ACC selections:
2007 1st team: WR Kenny Moore (graduated), C Steve Justice (graduated), CB Alphonso Smith
2007 2nd team: RB Josh Adams, LB Aaron Curry
2007 HM: S Chip Vaughn, K Sam Swank
2008 preseason: RB Josh Adams, LB Aaron Curry, CB Alphonso Smith, K Sam Swank

Wake Forest is the ACC’s rags-to-riches story. A long-time ACC doormat, the last coach with a winning record at the school was Doug Walker – good ol’ Peahead – and he left before the ACC was even formed. Then, out of nowhere, an ACC championship. Jim Grobe has the Deacons thinking Orange Bowl again, led by a talented and experienced defense.


WR Kenneth Moore caught more passes than anyone in the conference last year with 98, 10 more than his closest competitor. His departure leaves a giant gaping hole at wide receiver. It may not matter, because Riley Skinner is under center again in his junior season. You won’t find Skinner lighting up the yardage meter, because Wake’s offense doesn’t employ the long ball or even the medium ball very much. But Skinner tops the nation’s charts in completion percentage – when he dropped back to pass last year, the chances were nearly 3 in 4 that the ball would find its way into the hands of a Deacon receiver. This effort is helped by defenses kept honest by Josh Adams. The ACC Rookie of the Year rushed for 953 yards in 2007, good for fifth in the conference as just a freshman. Adams will be the focus point of the offense this year, and should see enough carries to get him easily over the 1,000 yard mark, barring injury. Adams also happens to be the team’s leading returning receiver, catching 34 passes last year which was good for second on the team. Skinner will also look to spread the ball around between possession receiver Chip Brinkman, TE Ben Wooster, and fifth-year senior D.J. Boldin. Boldin is the younger brother of Florida State’s Anquan, and as a freshman looked to be on track for a distinguished career until his sophomore season was derailed by academic issues and his junior season was dominated by Moore.

The offensive line also loses a first-team all-conference player (C Steve Justice), but is more than experienced enough to fill the gap. Joe Birdsong and Jeff Griffin split the right tackle position down the middle last year, with Birdsong getting more starts but having to miss three games with injury, while Griffin got more snaps – second only to Justice among offensive linemen, in fact. Birdsong shifts to left tackle this season. Barrett McMillin is another part-time starter, full-time player who gets the nod at right guard. McMillin brings the line a great deal of flexibility, having started at tackle last year as well as both guard positions. The question marks are C Trey Bailey and LG Russell Nenon, who replace, respectively, Justice and Chris DeGeare. Despite being a junior, Bailey is the least experienced of the linemen, not having seen much action backing up the top center in the league. Nenon was expected to be part of the rotation, but was forced into action as a starter when Wake learned that DeGeare is academically ineligible. If they meet the coaches’ expectations, the offensive line will have no trouble keeping the offense rolling.


The defense will probably be the Deacons’ real calling card. Nearly everyone returns from the 2007 starting lineup, including the five top tacklers. In particular, fifth-year seniors Alphonso Smith and Aaron Curry return after being named all-ACC performers in 2007, and repeating the feat for the ’08 preseason team. Smith intercepted 8 passes last year, three of which he took to the end zone. If he repeats that statistic he’ll end up as the conference’s all-time leader in that category – currently, he stands six behind the record holder, Dre’ Bly. Curry, from his linebacker spot, also housed three interceptions of his total of four. Curry may be the best linebacker in the conference, and he can do it all – stop the run, defend the pass, and blitz the quarterback. Curry’s fellow linebackers, Stanley Arnoux and Chantz McClinic, are also fifth-year seniors and by their powers combined can make a case as the best linebacking corps in the conference.

Besides Smith, Wake also returns each of their starters in the secondary. SS Chip Vaughn is the team’s leading tackler, and led the team in passes broken up with 14. The secondary is as chock-full of experience as are the linebackers; the baby in the group is redshirt junior CB Brandon Ghee, while all the rest are fifth-year seniors.

The only questions, along with the only new starters that must be broken in, are along the line. No worries about the two Robinsons. Boo Robinson was one of three players, along with Arnoux and Smith, to start all 13 games for the Deacs. Matt Robinson has been a starter ever since his freshman year, and there is no question about his motor or desire after having spent all of 2006 rehabbing from a broken, of all things, kneecap. The two new starters are John Russell at tackle and Anthony Davis at end. Davis, and especially Russell, were the top reserves last year on the line, getting plenty of snaps in all 13 games – Russell even started three of them.

Bottom line for the defense is their experience – far and away the most experienced in the ACC. There isn’t so much as a third-year junior at any starting spot, let alone anything resembling an underclassman. These guys all have three and four years’ experience already, and it’s going to make Wake Forest real hard to score on.


As if a loaded defense wasn’t enough, the top returning kicker in the league is a Deacon too. Sam Swank handles both kicking and punting duties. He missed only three field goals in 21 attempts and was perfect from 42 yards and in, with a long of 52. He’ll likely finish the year the way he started: as the all-ACC selection.


Only three of Wake Forest’s eight defensive starters are not fifth-year seniors. (Or sixth-year.) That’s the kind of experience that comes with high expectations. Clemson is the anointed this-is-their-year team in the ACC, but Wake will be feeling like that title ought to belong to them, and the October 9 game between the two teams looks right now like the deciding factor in the Atlantic Division race. Both teams will almost certainly be undefeated going in, and Wake gets to play the game at home in Winston-Salem. Regardless of whether or not they upset Clemson and make it to the Orange Bowl, Wake is well-positioned to improve on their 9-4 record of last year, and end up in a better bowl than the MCC Bowl in Charlotte.

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