Wake Forest hopes balanced offense leads to wins
Jim Grobe knows Wake Forest has to be more balanced this year.
The Demon Deacons flung the ball all over the field last year — and lost big. A decade earlier, they ran it almost exclusively — and lost big.
The best seasons in the program's recent history — the three-year bowl run from 2006-08 — came when they were capable of doing both things reasonably well, so it's no surprise Grobe wants to get back to that.
"We're not only looking for good players, but dependable guys, durable guys," Grobe said. "And in this offense right now, we plan on throwing the football a bunch but we're trying to balance it out with more runs."
The offense's struggles last season handcuffed the Demon Deacons on both sides of the ball.
Beleaguered by injuries all along the offensive line and at receiver, Wake Forest ranked 10th or worse in the ACC in all four major offensive stat categories, and finished last in the league and 114th nationally with an average of 18.5 points — its lowest average scoring output since Jim Caldwell's final team averaged 16.5 points during a 2-9 finish.
All those three-and-outs for the offense took their toll on a defense that couldn't stay off the field for very long and finally gave way down the stretch. The Demon Deacons allowed at least 37 points and at least 432 total yards in four of their final five games, going 1-4 during that stretch.
That can't happen again if they're to finish above .500 for the first time since 2008 — when the current redshirt seniors were seniors in high school.
Here are five things to watch during Wake Forest's upcoming season:
1. 'CAMP' CAN'T DO IT ALL: There has to be more to Wake Forest's offense this season than just throwing it to WR Michael Campanaro. He led the team last year with 79 catches for 763 yards, was its third-leading rusher and gained 871 all-purpose yards — or, nearly 19 percent of the team's total — despite missing 2½ games with a broken hand. In the games he missed, QB Tanner Price — a career 58 percent passer — hit just 35 percent of his throws. "What we learned last year is, we probably got into too much of a comfort zone with Mike Campanaro," Grobe said. "We got to the point where almost every play we called was, 'Go to Mike.'"
2. PRICE MUST BE RIGHT: Grobe says the Demon Deacons might unshackle his senior QB — Price was a 1,000-yard rusher in high school — and let him run the ball more often because "I don't think we've maxed out Tanner's ability." They've been loath to turn Price loose ever since he suffered a concussion against Florida State early in his freshman season, preferring to keep him upright in the pocket and let him throw — sometimes with mixed results. He set a school record with 422 pass attempts in 2011 and followed that up with 410 last year, but can't afford to throw it that often this year.
3. WHAT HAPPENS AT RB? The biggest question of the preseason was answered when the NCAA approved a waiver to restore the eligibility of Josh Harris, the team's leading rusher in two of his three seasons, for his senior year. He missed roughly a week of practice while waiting for an answer from the NCAA, and the team was preparing to be without him for the opener against Presbyterian. Now that he's back, he'll be a big part of the run-more-often plan, especially if he can get back to the form that helped him run for 1,760 career yards rushing — including a team-best 608 last year.
4. IS THE 'D' BACK IN DEMON DEACONS? This might be Wake Forest's most talented defense since future NFL players Aaron Curry, Alphonso Smith and Stanley Arnoux helped lead the Demon Deacons to three straight bowls from 2006-08. Eight starters are back on defense, led by NG Nikita Whitlock — the key in the middle of the 3-4 defensive alignment — and big-play CB Merrill Noel. Those stat rankings were unkind to the Demon Deacons, but Grobe says some of the blame goes to the offense because "there were probably some times when the defense had just sat down and you heard, 'Defense, get ready again,' because we had thrown three incomplete passes."
5. UNDER PRESSURE: No current Wake Forest player has been part of a team that finished with a winning record, and Grobe has more losing seasons (seven) than winning ones (five) at the school. The Demon Deacons' four straight losing seasons is their longest streak since they had six in a row from 1993-96 under Caldwell. A fifth would make that run to the Orange Bowl in 2006 feel like a lifetime ago. And anything less than a 4-0 start against a manageable early-season schedule that begins with Presbyterian, Boston College, Louisiana-Monroe and Army would make a turnaround significantly tougher to pull off.
Predicted finish in conference: Sixth in ACC Atlantic Division.