ACC Football 2013 Season Preview: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Tanner Price and the Wake Forest Offense Must Get Back on Track This Year to Get Back to a Bowl

Tanner Price and the Wake Forest Offense Must Get Back on Track This Year to Return to a Bowl

Team: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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.

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ACC Preseason Top 50 Players of 2013: #22, Nikita Whitlock

Wake Forest’s Nikita Whitlock is #22 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Wake Forest’s Nikita Whitlock is #22 in Our Countdown of the ACC’s Top 50 Players for 2013

Ten days until college football kicks off! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.

Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 22, Nikita Whitlock, NT/Wake Forest (Last Season: NR)

Whitlock has struggled to stay on the field throughout his career at Wake, so it’s never easy to quantify his importance to this defense, or how he stacks up against other ACC defenders. But that doesn’t mean he’s an enigma either. The 5’11”, 250 pound nose tackle makes up for his lack of size by getting a quick jump off the snap; shutting down runs up the middle, while also getting through to the quarterback. He had three sacks last season, which is par for the course over the first three years of his career. If they want to get back to the postseason though, Wake will need him to finally increase those numbers in 2013.

This year, Whitlock is just one veteran cog in a three-man front. He’s surrounded by experienced defenders, so you would think that spells ample opportunities for him to take advantage of one-on-one matchups between himself and the opposing center. While Whitlock is well-regarded as a run-stuffer, it’s also tough to glance over the fact that his numbers have dropped a bit since his breakout freshman season back in 2010. After 10.5 TFLs in his first season, he bumped that up to 14 in 2011… and then dropped to just 5.5 last year. You can blame it on injury if you’d like, but that overlooks the attention he’s paid by offensive linemen. As an interior linemen who runs a 4.7 40-yard dash, that’s still an incredibly tough man to stop, blitzing or not.

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ACC Football Positional Rankings 2013: Defensive Line

Senior James Gayle Leads the Hokies' Top-Ranked Defensive Line in 2013

Senior Defensive End James Gayle Leads the Hokies’ Top-Ranked Defensive Line in 2013

A little over 40 days from the start of the 2013 college football season! And it is indeed that time of year — when college football blogs like this one and so many others start churning out season preview materials. We’ll be holding off until August for the team-by-team season previews, but in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at each position on the field and evaluating ACC squads’ respective strengths and weaknesses.

This week, we’re on to the defensive lines (check out previous rankings of ACC quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers/tight ends, offensive line). For several teams that have been churning out elite defenders for years, this is simply another group of stud performers. For others, this is a sign of some serous rebuilding. The ACC has plenty of stars on the defensive line this season, but there’s also plenty of question marks too. We’ll get to both. though as you’d expect, the questions increase as we head further down the list.

Keep in mind that these are full unit rankings — not just one player — so just because one individual end or tackle is better than another, it doesn’t necessarily mean the team’s entire crop of defensive linemen is (though it certainly does help). Also note: Louisville (as has been the case since November) is included here, despite playing in the American this season. Additionally, since these are completely subjective rankings, the difference between one number to the following one is almost entirely negligible. Still, disagree with any of these picks? Share your own selections below.

ACC Positional Rankings 2013: Defensive Line

1. Virginia Tech Hokies: Looking for experience? The Hokies have plenty, as they bring back all four starters from last season and are chock full of juniors and seniors on the depth chart. As a whole, Tech’s defense recorded 35 sacks last season (16th in the FBS), most of which is attributable to this group. With another year of playing together under their belt, the unit — led by senior defensive end James Gayle — could be in for a monster season as the motor that drives Virginia Tech’s success.

2. Clemson Tigers: You might be surprised to see Clemson here, but that only means you haven’t been paying attention. The young Tigers that watched the 2012 Orange Bowl debacle are all grown up and have become a pretty frightening foursome (34 sacks last year; 20th in the FBS). Yes, they did lose Malliciah Goodman and his seven sacks, but considering who’s replacing him at defensive end (Vic Beasley), there’s very little to worry about in terms of a drop-off in production. Expect Brent Venables’ men to be even more aggressive getting after the passer this season.

3. Florida State Seminoles: FSU replaces every starter from last year’s potent pass-rush, but all is not lost in Tallahassee. Last year’s deep group received plenty of reps as the line was ravaged by injury, so this still ends up being a pretty veteran defensive line. Tackles Timmy Jernigan and Demonte McAllister will anchor them from the tackle positions, but they’ll also rely on Mario Edwards to take a leap as a sophomore and become the threat he was projected to be as a recruit.

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ACC 2013 Spring Football Preview: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

is Jim Grobe on the Hot Seat in 2013? This Spring May Help Decide His Fate

is Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe on the Hot Seat in 2013? This Spring May Help Decide His Fate

As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.

Team:  Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Spring Practice Start Date: March 19

Spring Game Date: April 20

After what can only be described as a frustrating 2012, Wake looks to right the ship for next season, starting here in the spring. But with 16 starters returning, along with head coach Jim Grobe and both coordinators, will anything change? While Grobe’s reign has involved consistency and apparent stability, he’s also come under some fire for the last few years of mediocrity. So will things be radically adjusted this spring, or is Grobe going to hope this veteran group can simply right the ship on their own? His job may depend on the answer.

As mentioned during the 2012 Wake Forest season recap, last season sure felt like 1-11, despite the fact that the Deacs went 5-7. And that was no more apparent than on offense. Wake finished 120th in total offense, 116th in scoring and only managed 21 points or more once from the beginning of October through the rest of the season. Despite all that, offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke is indeed back for his 10th season at the position, hoping that the offensive line can stay healthy and consistent in front of senior quarterback Tanner Price. After a strong start to his career, Price’s accuracy and confidence appear to have fizzled amidst increased pressure and uncertainty on the line, along with a variety of unreliable targets. Michael Campanaro‘s efforts last year were impressive, sure, but he’ll need to take a leap starting this spring if he hopes to develop into one of the conference’ elite targets. Price will also be in dire need of both another dependable receiver and a legitimate rushing attack if the offense hopes to reverse last year’s fortunes. Even with extended time in this system over the last three years, Josh Harris still hasn’t taken the lead at halfback, and it’s now or never for him as he enters his senior year. The one-dimensional attack was a key part of last year’s struggles, and he’ll be called upon to do more to help Price out this year.

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2012 ACC Football Season Recap: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Wake Forest Struggled in Every Aspect of the Game in 2012, Making 2013 a Long Road Back

Wake Forest Struggled in Every Aspect of the Game in 2012, Making 2013 a Long Road Back

Team: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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

Postseason: N/A

Top Offensive Performer: Michael Campanaro, WR

Top Defensive Performer: Kevin Johnson, CB

It’s difficult to figure out what Wake Forest’s 2012 season actually was. Apologists cite numerous injuries along with off-the-field issues. Those more critical may even go after coach Jim Grobe’s diminishing returns over the past few seasons. But regardless of who/what is at fault — and all of the above (and more) are — there’s no denying there was just something decidedly listless about the Demon Deacons this year.

After September 29, Wake scored more than 20 points in a game just twice, and on the season, it happened just six times (and only one of those times did they top 28). To call the group “anemic” would actually be a compliment, as evidenced by their 18.5 points per game (116th in the country) and just 301 yards per game (120th). And really no player — maybe outside of receiver Michael Campanaro — is outside of criticism here. QB Tanner Price, who many thought was ready for a breakout season, regressed mightily to the tune of just 2,300 passing yards and 12 scores. The offensive line, which failed to block for him last year (allowed 34 sacks), didn’t really improve all that much this season (allowed 25), but it was his Price’s (in)accuracy that truly killed him. Five different times, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, and even his most impressive effort (a 28-27 victory over North Carolina) featured zero passing scores (though he ran in two touchdowns). But was it because he felt too much pressure to carry the team? The Deacs averaged just 100 yards per game on the ground, with starter Josh Harris stacking up an immensely underwhelming campaign on his own, along with the rest of the backfield. And it only got worse as the season wore on. Wake couldn’t even amass 200 rushing yards over its final three games, even when one of those efforts amounted to 124 yards. One dimensional offenses can work, but that dimension needs to be effective. For this team in 2012, the offense can only be described as “no-dimensional.”

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Way-Too-Early 2013 ACC Football Power Rankings

An Early Look at 2013 Shows Clemson to Be at the Head of the Class in the ACC

An Early Look at 2013 Shows Clemson to Be at the Head of the Class in the ACC

When we last left our teams, there appeared to be hope on the horizon. Though the 2012 season was a difficult one, the bowls showed some real glimmers of great things to come, as the ACC racked up its first winning postseason record in seven years. Beyond some long-awaited hope for greater success, 2013 also brings some change to these rankings. Syracuse and Pittsburgh will now actually be participating in the conference, after two seasons appearing in the power rankings despite not doing so. And Louisville, our newest pals set to join in 2014, will also be joining the party — meaning 15 teams will be listed for the remainder of this calendar year (and slightly beyond into bowl season 2014). Cheer up! It’s less than 230 days ’till kickoff.

1. Clemson Tigers (Last Year: 2): Tajh Boyd‘s back, and the defense is improving steadily. So even without DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Ellington, this team will still be fine in 2013. In year two under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, expect an even more aggressive front-seven as the coach works on improving linebacker play in particular. That secondary will still get burned, but be certain they’ve also learned some lessons from last year, too.

2. Louisville Cardinals (LY: NR): After the show Teddy Bridgewater put on during the Sugar Bowl this year, the Cardinals are an extremely hot commodity, and are likely to start strong in their final season of Big East football. It’ll be interesting to see how coach Charlie Strong and his team respond to having a target on their backs from week one, when they’ll likely be handed a top-10 ranking to start the year.

3. Florida State Seminoles (LY: 1): They’re losing a lot on the defensive side of the football, along with QB and senior leader, EJ Manuel. But like those old, Bobby Bowden-coached teams of teams of the 90s, this ‘Noles squad has already reloaded. The offense may take a few to warm up, but the defense will still be very much their strength heading into next season.

4. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (LY: 5): After sitting out two straight years of postseason berths, the ‘Canes are really hoping they’re given a break from the NCAA in terms of leniency. With a ton of young talent eager to get a shot at a conference title, and arguably the best QB/RB tandem in the ACC in Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson, Miami could very well be out for blood come opening kickoff this fall.

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Wake Forest Football: Demon Deacons Continue to Struggle Without Key Playmakers

Key Injuries to Players Such as Michael Campanaro Have Prevented Wake Forest From Living Up to Its Potential

I’d embed the video if it were possible, but over on ESPN’s ACC blog, Heather Dinich posted a quick piece on Wake Forest‘s issues as a result of key players missing time. Most notably, she cites the absences of Merrill Noel, Michael Campanaro and Nikita Whitlock as the primary concerns, while also noting that QB Tanner Price (their other big playmaker) has managed to play in every game. There’s also the matter of off-the-field issues, which left the team short-handed in its matchup with Maryland nearly two weeks ago. Heather believes this team can make it to the postseason with everyone healthy, but are we already too far gone for that?

I actually believe that may be the case, and it’s the reason why I left Wake out of the blog’s most recent postseason projections, too. Coming into the season, I felt that the Deacs would record sure losses in the following games: Florida State, Clemson, NC State, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt. Thus far, they’re 0-1 in those games, so with four “sure losses” still to go, they already have three on the board. Obviously I can’t predict the future, but the odds aren’t great to get to six wins. It also assumes they win both of their other two games (Virginia and Boston College) when Price has literally no one to throw to. The junior QB’s passing numbers are down across the board since Campanaro’s injury versus Duke, so until he gets back, the offense will likely continue to struggle.

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