Sunday, August 26, 2012

season preview: Wake Forest Demon Deacons


9/1: Liberty
9/8: North Carolina
9/15: @ Florida State
9/22: Army
9/29: Duke
10/6: @ Maryland
10/13: @ Virginia
10/20: BYE
10/25: Clemson (Thu.)
11/3: Boston College
11/10: @ NC State
11/17: @ Notre Dame
11/24: Vanderbilt

Skip: Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech

Projected starters:

QB: Tanner Price (Jr.)
RB: Josh Harris (rJr.)
FB: Tommy Bohanan (Sr.)
WR: Michael Campanaro (rJr.)
WR: Terence Davis (5Sr.)
TE: Spencer Bishop (rJr.)
LT: Ramon Booi (5Sr.)
LG: Antonio Ford (rSo.)
C: Garrick Williams (5Sr.)
RG: Frank Souza (rJr.)
RT: Colin Summers (rSo.)

DE: Zach Thompson (rJr.)
NT: Nikita Whitlock (rJr.)
DE: Kris Redding (rJr.)
OLB: Joey Ehrmann (5Sr.)
ILB: Scott Betros (5Sr.)
ILB: Riley Haynes (5Sr.)
OLB: Zachary Allen (rSo.)
CB: Merrill Noel (rSo.)
CB: Kenny Okoro (5Sr.)
SS: Duran Lowe (rJr.)
FS: Daniel Mack (rJr.)

K: Jimmy Newman (Sr.)
P: Alexander Kinal (rFr.)

(Italics indicate new starter.)

Coach: Jim Grobe (12th season)

Media prediction: 4th place, Atlantic Division


2011 1st team: WR Chris Givens, S Josh Bush
2011 2nd team: G Joe Looney, DT Nikita Whitlock
2011 HM: CB Merrill Noel
2012 preseason: DT Nikita Whitlock

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Last year, the Deacons surpassed a lot of expectations by getting to a bowl game after a two-year postseason absence.  They lost it, though, cementing their third straight losing season.  Jim Grobe is the program's best coach since the 1940's, but he's got precious little margin for error this season if he wants to avoid the longest losing-season streak in his tenure at Wake Forest.


Quarterback Tanner Price was a big part of the reason for Wake's better-than-expected season last year.  Price made a big development leap from his freshman year, and in 2011 was unspectacular but ruthlessly efficient.  In 422 pass attempts he was intercepted just six times, against 20 touchdown throws and a 60% completion rate.

Price lost his favorite target to the NFL, though.  Michael Campanaro will be the new #1 receiver for the Deacons, and he's an excellent player and more than capable of the job.  But he'll need some help the way he himself opened the door for Chris Givens last year.  The only other remotely experienced receive on the roster is senior Terence Davis, who only caught 20 passes last year - but five for touchdowns.  Wake also has zero tight ends who've ever caught a pass in a game.

The running backs are a big question mark with big potential.  Josh Harris has a penchant for busting off really, really big games, such as his 250-yarder against VT two years ago, or a 136-yard effort against Florida State last year.  In between, though, he goes MIA and fails to be a factor.  Harris is the top back this year, and Wake must get consistency out of him and more of those big games if they're going to pull off any upsets.  Orville Reynolds has a chance to be a nice change-of-pace back, and he'll get plenty of carries to ensure the Deacons aren't relying too heavily on Harris.

But then we get to the offensive line - the biggest headache by far for Grobe and his staff.  Garrick Williams provides the only measure of stability and predictability on this line, starting at center for the second year.  Beyond that - well, the starter predictions above are the biggest crapshoot of the year.  Wake has seen successive possible starters either leave the team or blow out an ACL as the offseason and fall camp have progressed, and the result is a wildly unpredictable mess.  Some of these guys (Ramon Booi, Frank Souza) are converted D-linemen, others are massively inexperienced.  Colin Summers is the only one with experience in the regular rotation, and that was at right guard.  Where he'll actually play is still a bit of a mystery.  Bottom line: I stand by none of those predictions, and will accept no blame if Wake ends the year with five players not even listed there.  This line is a mess.

Even with the consistency and talent that Price brings under center, this offense has too many question marks.  The offensive line will probably shuffle and shuffle again over the course of the season, and Wake fans are anxiously hoping Harris can finally break out of his shell and be the back they want him to be, rather than the one he is most of the time.  The possibilities for this group range from respectable to frighteningly bad.


Nikita Whitlock is an enigma: a 3-4 nose guard who weighs 260 pounds and yet is good enough to earn preseason all-ACC honors.  He's a disruptive player who led the team in TFL and sacks last year.  He's a bright spot on the line.  The rest of the line, though, is also woefully undersized, not as talented as Whitlock, and therefore woefully underproductive.  Zach Thompson played a full season as a DE starter last year and only earned half a sack.  Al Groh would look at this way undersized 3-4 line and go "UR DOIN IT WRONG" and he'd have a point: Wake has not been good at run defense since switching to the 3-4, and gets no pressure on opposing quarterbacks with only 11 sacks last year.

At ILB, Wake actually uses a three-man rotation and splits the snaps fairly evenly.  Scott Betros and Riley Haynes are nominally the starters, and both are fifth-year seniors with a load of experience.  Justin Jackson is the other member of the unit, and he's equally productive as the other two.  The stats of all three take a slight hit from the nature of the rotation, but all three are steady, solid players, though none will stand out either.  On the outside, Joey Ehrmann is just as steady as the inside backers, although you'd like to see some flashier stats from your OLBs in a 3-4.  Zach Allen played pretty well as a backup OLB in 2011 and is ready for the starting job.  Overall, you've got a Wake Forest linebacking unit that perfectly mirrors the image of the team: they get the job done, but they don't make headlines.

Sophomore cornerback Merrill Noel was the ACC DROY last season, and had a total of 21 passes defensed, so there are high hopes for his play this year.  Kenny Okoro won honors as a freshman, too, but since has struggled with his consistency.  Now a senior, Wake's expectations are that he and Noel will form one of the better cornerback tandems in the league.  At safety, though, the Deacs will be hard-pressed to replicate the success they had last year - the two departed starters were the team's tackle leader and INT leader.  Both Daniel Mack and Duran Lowe earned a fair amount of playing time last season, though, and so should at least be ready for the new responsibility.


Jimmy Newman should be a good, reliable option for the Deacons this season, as long as he overcomes the shanks he picked up at the tail end of last season.  Expect Alexander Kinal to take over punting duties sooner or later, as his leg is much stronger than that of previous starter Alex Wulfeck.


Ultimately, I guess I won't be surprised if Jim Grobe once again squeezes water from a rock and gets this team into a bowl game.  But I'll be less surprised if he can't.  The defense is adequate, but probably not good enough to stop a really good, focused offense.  The question is whether the scary-looking offensive line will ever open up any room for the offense to work.  Opposing defensive lines will be licking their chops at the chance to wreak some havoc.  And beyond that there's no guarantee that the running backs will strike fear into anyone, or that Tanner Price will have enough weapons at his disposal to be effective.  Wake will have to pull off at least one upset, and avoid being upset by anyone else, in order to get to the postseason again.

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