by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It might be the most-watched injury since Joe Namath’s knees.

(We exaggerate slightly, but play along with us for a moment).

Indeed, all eyes this fall in the ACC are going to be on Wake Forest RB Josh Harris’ hamstring issues. Well, at least the eyes in Winston-Salem are going to be on Harris. After carrying the ball just ten times over the last eight games a year ago, Harris’ return to a healthy status is key to a renaissance of the infantry diversion that so long has been a staple of Jim Grobe’s Demon Deacon teams, but one that became a secondary threat a year ago as Wake became a bit too pass-happy for the veteran coach’s taste.

Early reports from Winston-Salem are positive, however, as Harris (right, vs. BC last October) enjoyed an injury-free spring and claims to be back to 100% as fall camp approaches. “It’s great to finally be back at full speed,” said the redshirt junior Harris after spring work.

Harris, of course, represents the most-unique dimension on a Wake offense that missed his contributions greatly last fall; after hinting at bigger things to come when gaining 674 YR as a RS frosh in 2010, Harris appeared on his way to bigger numbers last fall before being slowed by the hamstring problems. His absence was felt down the stretch when the Deacs lost their last three games and barely qualified for a bowl invitation.

Still, even though that trip to the Liberty Bowl resulted in a 23-17 loss to Mississippi State, and lowered the 2011 record to 6-7, the fact that Wake returned to the postseason was a reaffirmation that the program remains in good hands as long as the respected Grobe is patrolling the sidelines.

There were whispers along Tobacco Road that Grobe might be past his sell-by date following back-to-back bowl-less seasons in 2009 & 2010, with a collapse to 3-9 and a complete defensive meltdown in the latter. But the fact the Deacs were in the thick of the ACC Atlantic race last fall, and could have easily won their half of the league had they been able to reverse a bitter 31-28 late-season loss at Clemson, suggests that Grobe has hardly lost his magic touch.

Of course, it still seems like something of a dream that Wake was good enough to win the ACC in 2006 and advance into the BCS Orange Bowl, an unthinkable gridiron development for most of the school's history, which began in the little hamlet of Wake Forest near Raleigh-Durham before the campus, backed by regional tobacco money, moved to more-comfy digs in Winston-Salem in the mid '50s. Grobe’s surge included a school-record three straight bowl invitations between 2006-08, heady stuff for a program that had never once managed as much as back-to-back bowl visits. In fact, prior to 2006, the Deacs had managed just seven postseason invitations in their gridiron history.

In retrospect, a confluence of factors contributed to Wake’s emergence as an ACC force in the middle of the last decade, the most important being Grobe’s presence as well as a conference power vacuum created by downturns at Florida State and Miami (the latter having joined the league amid much fanfare in 2004). Grobe also hit a few homeruns on the recruiting trail, with sorts such as NFL-bound LB Aaron Curry and CB Alphonso Smith emerging to lead a defense that had rarely been able to slow competent attacks previously. The Wake stop unit hit its high-water mark when allowing only 15 ppg in the Orange Bowl year of 2006.

For the most part, however, Wake has been one of college football’s poorer relations, having won only 36% of its games the past 60 years. Bowl trips were infrequent; the Deacs once went 31 years (1948-79) without a postseason invitation. Even when Wake would make a rare emergence, as it did in 1970 when stealing the ACC crown, there was no bowl reward. (The Deacs, only 6-5 overall that season, were bypassed in favor of nearby North Carolina for a Peach Bowl invitation in an era in which there were no guaranteed bowl destinations for ACC teams). Head coach Cal Stoll followed up that 1970 surprise with another 6-5 mark in 1971, which was enough to get the attention of Big Ten Minnesota, as Golden Gopher AD Paul Giel hired Stoll to replace the legendary Murray Warmath.

Grobe’s allegiance to Wake, confirmed by the fact he reportedly spurned interest from the likes of Nebraska and Notre Dame in recent years, is welcome news to the Deac faithful who recall how Stoll and later John Mackovic (who led the 1979 team to the Independence Bowl before being hired away by Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys) made quick exits from Winston-Salem once the opportunities arose. But for the 60-year-old Grobe, Winston-Salem seems to be his final coaching destination, which is just fine with Wake supporters.

On the field, Harris’ hamstring problems were an important development last fall, as his limitations and eventual absence changed the focus of a Deac offense that had rarely been unable to move the football on the ground during the Grobe era, which commenced in 2001. But Grobe’s longtime o.c. Steed Lobotzke has been forced to recalculate the Deac offensive equation a couple of times lately; after adding more option looks into the offensive package upon the graduation of 4-year starting QB Ryan Skinner following the 2009 campaign, Lobotzke's scaled-back approach sacrificed much of the aerial dimension, which slumped to a 114th-ranking nationally in pass offense, mostly under true frosh QB Tanner Price, in 2010.

A more-mature sophomore Price (left, vs. North Carolina last October) allowed Lobotzke to open up the offense again a year ago, with an expanded playbook that encouraged more downfield passing after Price mostly dinked away in 2010. But while the passing numbers shot upwards (239 ypg, ranking 39th in the country) last fall, the rushing game took a back seat, especially after Harris began having his hamstring problems.

Come hell or high water, don’t expect the Grobe/Lobotzke offense to rank anywhere near 99th in the country (as it did a year ago when gaining a mere 114.6 ypg) in national rushing stats this fall.

Still, the Deacs could have a pretty good 1-2 punch on the attack end this fall with a healthy Harris and now-jr. QB Price, a southpaw who has emerged as a worthy successor to the aforementioned Riley Skinner and indeed appears to be another prototype Grobe/Wake QB. The heady Price took a big leap on the learning curve last fall when passing for 3107 yards and 20 TDs.

Price was more apt to look downfield a year ago when homerun WR Chris Givens (16 yards per catch on 83 receptions, with 9 TDs in 2011) was still in the fold. Givens, however, declared early for the NFL Draft and was selected by the St. Louis Rams last April at Radio City Music Hall. But the Deacs still have some established receiving targets in the mix, including jr. Michael Campanaro (right, vs. Maryland last November), a bit small (only 5'10) but a reliable underneath threat who caught 73 passes last year. He’s expected to be 100% by fall camp after missing spring work due to a broken finger.

And if ACC scouts are to be believed, redshirt frosh wideout Sherman Ragland III, who was a human highlight reel for the scout team last fall and has plenty of deep speed, indicated by his stature as a top sprinter for Wake’s indoor track team after being a state champ in the hurdles during his high school career, should ease concerns surrounding Givens’ early departure. At 6'2 and 195 lbs., he’s also the sort of rangy target Price will appreciate, and the type of threat who could come in handy when Lobotzke calls for his pet “orbit sweeps” that his best Wake offenses have used to keep opposing defenses off balance.

With a healthy Harris (5.1 ypc in his career) and fleet soph Orville Reynolds ready to carry the infantry burden, Grobe and Lobotzke now need to make sure their offensive line is up to the task. Which remains a bit of a question mark entering fall camp after the loss of four starters from last fall’s forward wall. The projected lineup features only one returning starter, sr. C Garrick Williams, and four sophs manning the other positions. “We’re not where we need to be,” lamented Grobe about his OL after the spring game. ACC insiders say the experimenting will continue into fall camp, where former DT Frank Souza could emerge at a G spot after switching platoons in the spring.

Look for Lobotzke to also begin utilizing 245-lb. sr. FB Tommy Bohannon (left), an obliterating blocker, as an occasional in-motion H-back, taking advantage of his better-than-average pass-catching skills.

Another key development this fall will be for the strike force to continue to operate in a mostly mistake-free mode. The Deacs coughed up the pigskin only 12 times last season (ranking tied for third nationally) and lost only four fumbles, tying Alabama for the nation’s best mark in that category.

And, just in case the offense bogs down in the red zone this fall, Grobe is at least confident of salvaging three points from those excursions thanks to accurate sr. PK Jimmy Newman, who connected on 17 of 22 field-goal tries a year ago.

Grobe and his longtime d.c. Brian Knorr (a former Air Force QB who has worked with Grobe for many years in the past and indeed succeeded him as Ohio Bobcats HC in 2001) also expect better things from their defense that revived somewhat a year ago, cutting more than a TD off of its per-game scoring allowance from 2010 (down to 27.8 ppg from 36 ppg the year before). Although goosing a pass rush that recorded only 11 sacks a year remains a top concern, Knorr’s switch to 3-4 alignments seemed to pay immediate dividends last fall, and seven starters are back in the fold.

There are some depth concerns on the DL, but that area could also become a strength after fire-hydrant sized, 5'11, 260-lb. jr. NT Nikita Whitlock (right, chasing Florida State QB EJ Manuel) emerged as an impossible one-on-one matchup for opposing offensive lineman last fall. Now, however, some of Whitlock’s comrades must take advantage of his presence which ties up multiple blockers. ACC scouts report DEs Zach Thompson and Kris Redding have quick bursts and are long on pass-rush potential, and 250-lb. Josh Banks has moved from a DT to a DE spot where his skills might be better utilized, but they’ll all have to step up their production in the fall to effectively complement Whitlock.

Hoping to get more push from the defensive edge, Knorr has also juggled his LB corps, moving jr. Justin Jackson from the inside to the outside for this fall, where he figures to combine with another returning starter, sr. Joey Ehrmann, as potential big-play bookends from their OLB spots. All of the starting LBs return from 2011, including hard-hitting sr. MLB Riley Haynes.

The secondary uncovered perhaps its new Alphonso Smith last fall in RS soph CB Merrill Noel (left, vs. BC last October), who broke up a school-record 19 passes in his debut as a RS frosh. Along with fellow soph Kevin Johnson, ACC insiders report that the Deacs have a high ceiling with their cornerback combo. But the pressure will be on new junior safeties Duran Lowe and Daniel Mack to replace the graduated Josh Bush and Cyhl Quarles, who also served as emotional leaders for last year’s platoon.

Like last season, the Deac schedule appears back-loaded once more, with Clemson, NC State, a visit to Notre Dame in the second leg of their home-and-home series (which was motivated by the connection between Wake school prexy Nathan Hatch and the days he served as provost at South Bend under former ND school president Monk Malloy), and rejuvenated Vanderbilt all part of a demanding stretch drive in the last five games. Extended pointspread trends suggest to be wary of laying too many points with the Deacs (just 5-19 vs. the line their last 24 laying 7 or more), although Grobe covered his only opportunity as a TD-plus favorite, vs. a disheveled Maryland, a year ago.

Summary...Wake supporters are hardly a jaded bunch and unlikely to demand a return to the BCS (at least while it still exists) for the Deacs, whose miracle emergence a few years ago remains a sweet memory, and not a future benchmark, in Winston-Salem. Wake backers are instead content with a competitive product that makes bowl games more often than not, and by those standards, Grobe ought to please them again this fall, especially with an offense that should benefit greatly if star RB Josh Harris can stay healthy, plus another year of maturity from savvy jr. QB Tanner Price. We do, however, have some questions about both the offensive and defensive lines, which probably prevents Wake from battling Clemson or Florida State for ACC Atlantic honors. Grobe is usually good for a surprise or two (ask the Seminoles, who lost at BB&T Field last season), and the Deacs look a good bet to get back to another minor bowl. But depth issues and a very tough season-ending stretch of games probably limits the upside and likely makes 2012 look much like 2011 in Winston-Salem.


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