To order your 2005 Athlon Sports annual and receive $1 off plus free shipping courtesy of SI.com, click here.
After three seasons of surprising success, coach Jim Grobe took his first major step back last year. Grobe, however, is confident the Demon Deacons' 4-7 record in 2004 was a temporary blip rather than a return to the bottom of the ACC.
Again this season, Wake will be young. It will get probably significant contributions from fewer than 10 seniors. But now the younger players have game experience, and Grobe said that could make the difference for a team that last year lost two overtime games and four others by a touchdown or less.
"I'm not really prepared to say we're young," Grobe said. "So we may be ready to turn the corner because we're a more experienced football team right now, and hopefully we can settle down a little bit and make the plays that help us win games."
Grobe's defense may finally show some improvement, but the offense is full of questions, aside from tailback Chris Barclay. Grobe and his staff spent much of the offseason retooling what had been an innovative scheme.
"When Coach Grobe first got here, he caught a lot of teams off guard with that misdirection," new quarterback Ben Mauk said. "We're still going to keep a lot of that in the offense, but put a lot of throw game in there. I think we'll open up a lot more than last year."
Mauk, a former record-setting prep passer, holds the lead in the QB race over senior Cory Randolph, with whom he rotated last year. The problem: Neither player is really grabbing the job. Both can run but were inconsistent passers, combining for five touchdowns against seven interceptions.
A better passing game would open things for Barclay, who should set school records for career yards and touchdowns.
Wake returns one receiver who caught more than 16 passes (Nate Morton, 26), and he missed the spring with a leg injury. Morton is also the only sure-handed wideout. Kevin Marion, Willie Idlette and Chris Davis have tremendous speed but haven't hung on to the ball very well.
Last season, the offensive line seemed patched together each week. Now, it looks solid, though not spectacular. Junior Steve Vallos (right tackle) was a second-team All-ACC pick, and left guard Arby Jones drew the most spring praise from Grobe.
This unit will chase the ball harder and faster than any recent Wake defense.
"Fans are going to see some guys who can fly around, especially that linebacker crowd and the secondary crowd," Grobe said.
Defensive line has been a major problem, but Matt Robinson led Wake with 10 tackles for a loss as a redshirt freshman, and Jeremy Thompson started three games at the other end as a true freshman. On the inside, starters Zach Stukes (sophomore) and Goryal Scales (senior) are solid, but there's little depth, and what's there is unproven.
Linebacker Jonathan Abbate finished fourth in the ACC in tackles per game as a redshirt freshman. Wake loses two talented seniors (Brad White, Caron Bracy), but this position will go from thin to deep with the influx of four redshirt freshmen.
The Deacons could have two of the league's better safeties in Patrick Ghee and Josh Gattis, which is good, because their cornerbacks are unproven.
Senior punter Ryan Plackemeier is a two-time All-ACC pick, but Wake finished last in the league in punt and kick returns as well as field-goal percentage. In the spring game, Wake also had some long-snapping issues. Redshirt freshman Sam Swank, who has 55-yard range, takes over at kicker.
These Deacons are faster and more aggressive than in past years, but question marks are everywhere. The offensive line should be improved, and Barclay is one of the nation's top tailbacks. But the rest of the offense is unproven, and Wake must find a quarterback who can protect the ball, yet throw it well enough to keep defenses honest.
Wake's defense might finally be on the upswing. The Deacons have one of the nation's top linebackers in Abbate and lots of young talent at end and outside linebacker. Those units must put pressure on the quarterback to protect inexperienced corners.
Wake plays four of its first five games at home and really would need to emerge from that stretch at least 4-1 to set up a chance for a winning season.