Don't forget about Wake, and don't forget about QB Riley Skinner
A four-year starter, Riley Skinner's officially the old man on campus for Wake
Despite experience and unrivaled accuracy, he's rarely mentioned among elite
Skinner may not have the flashy stats, but teams underestimate him at their peril
Riley Skinner has lined up under center for the start of 37 Wake Forest games. When Skinner showed up in Winston-Salem as a freshman, Wake's latest recruits were in middle school. Still, Skinner can't quite come to grips with the fact that he's now officially the old guy on campus.
Whether he believes it or not, more than 165 players will have joined the four-year starting quarterback on the roster from the time he enrolled in 2005 to when he calls his first play this Sept. 5 against Baylor. In the world of college football, that makes Skinner a grizzled veteran.
"I guess now I'm probably the oldest I can get, a fifth-year senior on the field," Skinner said. "I've always looked up to some of these seniors for leadership. ... It's just weird to know that I'm that guy the team will look to now."
Skinner isn't the only remnant from Wake's surprise 2006 Orange Bowl team, but of the 14 remaining from that roster he's logged the most playing time. After taking snaps during the most successful three-year period in Demon Deacons' history (starting 26 of their 28 wins), he's become the team's unquestioned leader. What's more, in his final season Skinner has the chance to cap that recent success by going down as the most accurate passer in ACC history.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder enters 2009 with a .673 completion percentage (639-of-949), topping the career .670 record Virginia's Matt Schaub set. That rate puts Skinner in line with the last two Heisman Trophy winners (Sam Bradford boasts a .685 career percentage, while Tim Tebow sits at .657) while his 25 interceptions in 949 attempts are the fewest among all active players with at least 700 career passes. His 26-11 record as a starter gives him the second highest wins total (along with South Florida's Matt Grothe) among active players behind Texas' Colt McCoy (32).
Despite all that, few talk about Skinner in the same breath as the nation's top QBs. Maybe the fact that he's been around for so long, or that he plays in a conference whose offenses have become easier targets than Spencer and Heidi, has led the public to take him for granted. Whatever the explanation, there's no lack of love for Skinner within the coaching community.
"When you talk to other college coaches, regardless of the league, they all love him," Demon Deacons quarterbacks coach Tommy Elrod said. "Nationally we've had a great deal of exposure, we've played on TV, we've had some success, but he's not a flashy guy. ... He [just] doesn't have some of those flashy stats that the other guys have."
Certainly, there's nothing flashy about the 2,347 yards and 13 touchdowns Skinner threw for in '08, but flash has rarely gone hand-in-hand with the Demon Deacons during Jim Grobe's tenure. In Grobe's eight seasons as coach, the Deacs have averaged 29 points per game (though during the '06 BCS run, they scored just 19 per). He's preached a simple philosophy: Play mistake-free on offense and let the defense keep us in games. "We have relied on our defense more than you can imagine," Skinner said. "It affected our play-calls, our game decisions, everything."
But that defense lost seven starters after '08, including NFL draft picks Aaron Curry and Alphonso Smith, which means Wake will need more offensive production than the 21 points (95th nationally) and 308.3 yards (101st) it generated last season if it plans to win.
"Losing those guys is going to be tough," Skinner said. "As an offense, I think everybody is pretty excited, obviously we're going to have to score more points than we did last year. Our team's going to be looking to us to win games, not always relying on our defense. I think it's going to be fun."
This season will require a new identity from an offense that, for most of last season, sorely lacked one. Wake opened '08 in a spread to highlight Skinner, scoring 41 points in a win over Baylor and 30 while dropping Ole Miss. But after Wake scored a paltry 41 points combined in the next four games, including a shutout against Maryland, Grobe felt compelled to reign in the offense. Against Miami, he switched back to the I-formation and ran the ball 52 times. After averaging 35 pass attempts in the first six games, Skinner threw just eight passes against the Hurricanes. "We didn't really have an identity to our offense and we were trying different things," Skinner said. The tweaks continued through October, and the Deacs scored just two touchdowns that month.
By season's end, however, they'd found their balance, relying almost exclusively on the I while combining for 339 yards passing and 397 rushing in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt and the inaugural EagleBank Bowl victory over Navy.
Those final weeks could forecast what awaits in '09. Grobe has said publicly the offense will use a variety of pro-style offensive sets, including two-back, one-back and shotgun formations.
"The best thing we did toward the end of the season and going into spring was being able to incorporate everything we've done these last three years into one offensive scheme and I'm really excited," Skinner said.
The Deacs return nine offensive starters, including the entire line, which gets a boost thanks to 2007 starter Chris DeGeare's return at guard. The top three rushers from '08 also return: Brandon Pendergrass (528 yards, five TDs), Josh Adams (392 yards and four scores) and Kevin Harris (who broke out in the bowl win with a 136-yard performance). Tight end Ben Wooster (24 catches for 211 yards and three TDs) leads a group of seven returning pass catchers, but there's still the matter of replacing D.J. Boldin and Chip Brinkman, last season's top two receivers. This spring, coaches lauded redshirt Chris Givens and Terence Davis, who add depth to a group that includes Devon Brown and the Williamses, Jordan and Marshall.
But ultimately, the experienced hands at the controls makes this offense so intriguing. When Skinner took over during the '06 season opener after Ben Mauk broke his arm, the staff had to completely revamp the spread-option offense it had built around Mauk and play it close to the vest. Three years later, the coaches have been able to install a multi-faceted offense because they have a quarterback who has logged enough game minutes to deal with anything a defense can throw at him.
"We're to the point now where we're very comfortable giving him our offense and letting him run with it," Elrod said. "I had another college coach visit me in the spring and that was his first statement to me, he said 'When we were in the meeting with you, that guy just gets it. He knows your offense and he's comfortable in what he's doing.' I think when a kid gets to that point, as coaches we can trust him and as a player he feels very comfortable out there."
Ultimately, Skinner's the perfect poster boy for Wake Forest: underrated and underappreciated. The Deacs will surely finish behind Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in most preseason polls. Skinner will just as surely fail to earn many preseason accolades. But all that seems to fit player and program just fine.
"I don't think people think we're going to be real good next year, which will play to our advantage," Skinner said. "That fuels our fire because we have a little bit to prove. ... We know that we have the ability to win a lot of games. We have the personnel to do some good things."
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