ACC 2012 Season Preview: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

After a Disappointing Second Half of 2011, Wake Forest Looks to Rebound While Also Replacing Their Top Passing Target

Team: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

2011 W-L: 6-7 (5-3)

Head Coach: Jim Grobe (68-67; 12th season)

Returning Starters: 11 (4 Offense, 7 Defense)

Little was expected of Wake Forest in 2011, yet they managed to start off 4-1, including a big (customary) upset of Florida State early on. And if it weren’t for a late field goal by Clemson in November, we would have seen that Demon Deacons team play for the ACC championship. Seriously. So while the 6-7 record appears paltry and non-descript, trust us, a lot went on down in Winston-Salem last season. Despite the fact that they lost two of their three best players from last year’s team, there’s a good chance Jim Grobe’s squad still has some magic left for this season, too.

Through five games last year, the Wake offense was a delight to watch. The Tanner Price-to-Chris Givens connection was running on all cylinders, and averaging well over 30 points per game, racking up three big league wins in the process. And yet, it all seemed to fall apart after running back Josh Harris‘s injury against the Seminoles. While replacement Brandon Pendergrass was serviceable enough and continued to move the team’s ground game along, he didn’t scare defenses all that much. With defenders more focused in on the pass, Price now had less lanes to throw into, and less time to get rid of the ball. Still, he threw for 60-percent accuracy and 20 touchdown passes, along with over 3,000 yards and zero picks. In his 13 games as a starter last year, Price threw for 200 yards in nine of them, and over 250 in six. Accurate and methodical, he was the picture of poise for a team that needed a leader on the field.

This season, he’ll be without his favorite target, Givens, but in his place is capable replacement Michael Campanaro. Starting in the second receiver slot last year, Campanaro still managed to haul in 73 catches, after just 10 in his first season. All eyes will be on him to see how well he plays in the primary receiving position, however. With Price’s ability to get the ball downfield, he’ll need a wideout that can function in that type of offense. If Campanaro can’t be more than a slot guy, there may be some issues. Price’s (and Wake’s) success will also hinge heavily on the running game again. Harris has returned from injury, and the hope is for him to re-establish a rushing presence as they usually have with him in the lineup. The Deacs finished 2011 ranked 99th in rushing offense — unacceptable for any squad.

On defense, they lost a key piece of the puzzle in Josh Bush, but the group still returns seven starters. Without assistance from Bush, it will be up to sophomore corner Merrill Noel to hold things down in the secondary amidst a collection of question marks. How well will Kenny Okoro play in his senior year after his previous “average” campaign? And what will the virtual inexperience at safety work its way out early in the season. Noel, who played a pretty nice shutdown corner in his freshman season last year, will need to be able to hang with receivers even more so than before. Should they get to the safety positions, there’s no telling what happens next. He’ll want to play containment until we see how much they miss Bush back there.

The rest of the defense brings back a nice selection of juniors and seniors, with a pass-rush led by DT Nikita Whitlock. Though he’s played well against the run in the past, this team requires someone to step up and take the lead in terms of getting after the passer. Wake recorded an ACC-low 11 sacks in 13 contests last season. That won’t cut it. Nor will Whitlock’s 3.5 sacks, either. The Demon Deacons were 1-5 over their final six games, with a lot of that due to teams just outscoring them (three teams put up 31 or more). Getting after the passer and creating more opportunities for defensive backs to create turnovers needs to be a key sticking point if they want more efforts translated into victories.

For 2012, Wake appears to be a team in flux — with too many items sitting up in the air to really evaluate them properly. The offense lost a lot of pieces, and beyond Price and Campanaro, we have no idea how the O-line holds up, nor do we know how healthy Harris is in his return. On the defensive end, it’s hard to say just how well that unit can perform without a legitimate pass-rush. There are too many quality quarterbacks in the ACC for a lackluster blitz scheme to be acceptable. Whitlock and the rest of the defensive line need to show consistent pressure, and work to force more throws. They’re not hopeless — far from it. Despite their positive aspects, though (especially Price’s surely stellar play), they may finish just short of the postseason. That division’s just too good, and the ACC has improved as a whole, while Wake has failed to truly improve much at all.

Prediction: (5-7) (3-5); no postseason berth

Previously: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, NC State, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech

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