Top 50 Countdown: No. 41 Wake Forest

Coach: Jim Grobe | Staff
In 2006: 11-3, 6-2 ACC; Lost to Louisville 24-13 in Orange Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 8. Defense: 5.
Key losses: RT Steve Vallos, WR Willie Idlette, LB Jon Abbate, S Josh Gattis, S Patrick Ghee, CB Riley Swanson.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Injuries decimated the Wake Forest offense last season. Starting quarterback Ben Mauk and running back Micah Andrews were lost for the season early in the 2006 campaign. Riley Skinner, the ACC freshman of the year, was unspectacular at quarterback but took care of the ball (five interceptions). The Demon Deacons' creative rushing attack - with backs and receivers running the ball - kept opposing defenses off balance. The offensive scheme was effective enough to lead the team to 11 wins.

WAKE FOREST TOP 10
Riley Skinner does not put up big numbers, but he takes care of the ball.

1. C Steve Justice
2. K/P Sam Swank
3. QB Riley Skinner
4. CB Alphonso Smith
5. RB Micah Andrews
6. WR Kenneth Moore
7. WR Kevin Marion
8. DE Matthew Robinson
9. LB Aaron Curry
10. OG Chris DeGeare
Best player: Center Steve Justice. Starting 25 games over the last two years, Justice has led the way for Wake Forest's rushing attack. The All-ACC first-teamer blocked for the running-back-by-committee last year and ACC Player of the Year Chris Barclay in 2005.

Most overrated: RB Micah Andrews. The Demon Deacons are hoping for big things from Andrews again. Andrews appeared to be headed for a breakout year in 2006 after filling in spectacularly in two games for Barclay in 2005. That big year never materialized. Andrews sustainied a torn ACL in the third game of the season. With Andrews healthy, Wake Forest suddenly has depth at running back, including Kevin Harris and Josh Adams. If Andrews stumbles to start the season, Wake has plenty of options to replace him.

Most underrated: WR/RB Kenneth Moore. Moore touched the ball on offense only 11 times prior to the 2006 season. With the injury to Andrews, Moore became one of the team's most valuable players. He switched from receiver to running back and finished the year with 507 rushing yards and 314 receiving yards.

Must step up: WR Kevin Marion. Most of Marion's yards in the last three seasons have come on kickoff returns, but Wake will need more from him on offense following the departures of Willie Idlette and Nate Morton. The 5-foot-10, 168-pound senior showed he could be a big-play threat last season. He had an 81-yard touchdown run against Boston College, and made four catches for 63 yards in the Orange Bowl.

Shoes to fill: OT Steve Vallos. Vallos was an All-ACC first-teamer last year. He showed his versatility by starting games at each tackle spot. Returning starter Jeff Griffin will man one of the tackle positions, while Louis Frazier could move from guard to fill the other spot.

Impact newcomer: RB Josh Adams. Jim Grobe has an affinity for redshirting freshmen, and Adams is no exception. Despite injury problems last year, the three-star Adams did not play. This year, he will push Andrews for playing time.

Position battle: Running back. Five players had 50 or more carries last year. That could continue this year despite the return of Andrews from a knee injury. Converted wide receiver Kenneth Moore was the team's leading rusher with 507 yards. Kevin Harris (391 yards) and De'Angelo Bryant (340 yards) return along with Adams.

New in 2007: The return of Andrews will be a major storyline. Wake Forest had to adjust to his absence, as well as Mauk's, last season. The Deacons won't have the advantage of sneaking up on opponents in the ACC this season.

Grade the units:
QB: B. Riley Skinner was an excellent caretaker for the offense last year, but Wake was last in the ACC in passing.
RB: A. Getting Andrews back is a plus. So is the depth at the position.
WR: C. Losing two starters hurts, but fifth-year senior Kevin Marion should be a capable replacement.
OL: B-plus. Lost all-conference tackle Steve Vallos, but three starters return - including center Steve Justice.

Breaking down the defense

Overview:The defense was the strength of Wake's run to the ACC title. Now, those key cogs are gone. Wake has to replace first-team All-ACC linebacker Jon Abbate and three starters in the secondary who combined for 12 interceptions. This year's unit could be formidable as well. Alphonso Smith returns in the secondary, and defensive end Matthew Robinson appears to be recovered from a knee injury.

Best player: CB Alphonso Smith. Smith started only three games last year with departed senior Riley Swanson and rising junior Kevin Patterson starting at corner. Smith has plenty of game experience; he started every game as a freshman in 2005. He was all over the field last year, coming up with three interceptions and 8.5 tackles for a loss. He's also a difference-maker on special teams. He has blocked three kicks the last two seasons.

Wake Forest Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 at Boston College
Sept. 8 Nebraska
Sept. 15 Army
Sept. 22 Maryland
Oct. 6 at Duke
Oct. 11 Florida State
Oct. 20 at Navy
Oct. 27 North Carolina
Nov. 3 at Virginia
Nov. 10 at Clemson
Nov. 17 N.C. State
Nov. 24 at Vanderbilt
Most overrated: CB Brandon Ghee. A three-star prospect in 2005, Ghee hasn't seen the field for Wake Forest after redshirting as a freshman and sitting out of last year because of academic reasons. The brother of Patrick Ghee, who started at safety last year for Wake, is listed as second-string on the depth chart.

Most underrated: LB Aaron Curry. In the shadow of Jon Abbate, Curry built on a solid freshman year in 2005. Curry finished with 83 tackles and 8.5 tackles for a loss in 2006.

Must step up: DE Matthew Robinson. It's tough to tell a player returning from a major injury he must step up, but Wake Forest could use Robinson's production on the defensive line. He started as a freshman and a sophomore, collecting 10.5 tackles for a loss in 2005 before suffering a broken kneecap that knocked him out of the 2006 season. A healthy Robinson will go a long way toward the defense repeating its performance from last year.

Shoes to fill: LB Jon Abbate. The trouble with missing Abbate is that there wasn't a good reason to lose him. After leading Wake Forest in tackles for three seasons, he left early for the NFL Draft. He's still waiting for his name to be called. Abbate's backup, Eric Berry, is expected to take over this season.

Impact newcomer: DB Alex Frye. A three-star prospect in the class of 2006, the redshirt freshman Frye could compete for playing time in a secondary that lost three starters.

Position battle: Middle linebacker. Eric Berry, a little heavier than coaches would like at 6-foot-1 and 288 pounds, is the leading candidate for the position. If he can't capture it, it could fall to redshirt freshmen Hunter Haynes or Matthew Woodlief.

New in 2007: Forcing turnovers at key moments was a major factor in Wake Forest's ACC Championship. The secondary loses three starters that combined for 12 interceptions last season. Alphonso Smith is ready to step into one of those spots, and the return of Robinson at defensive end should help the line.

Grade the units:
DL: B. The health of Robinson will be a boost to a unit that already returns starting end Jeremy Thompson and tackle Zachary Stukes.
LB: C-plus. The loss of Abbate hurts, but productive outside linebackers Aaron Curry and Stanley Arnoux return.
DB: C. Despite losing All-ACC safety Josh Gattis and two other starters, this could still be a strength thanks to Alphonso Smith.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: The special teams unit is led by Sam Swank, who handled every punt, field goal, extra point and kickoff last year. He averaged 41.2 yards per punt and made 23 of 31 field-goal attempts. The return game, though, was unspectacular with Willie Idlette returning punts and Kevin Marion returning kickoffs. Cornerback Alphonso Smith, though, has three blocked kicks in the last two seasons.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
Wake Forest took advantage of a down year in the ACC to take the conference title. The league looks to be on the upswing once again. The Demon Deacons won't take anyone by surprise in 2007, but they shouldn't fall back to a four-win season either. Seven wins or eight wins is possible. Its small alumni base, though, could send the Deacons to San Francisco for the Emerald Bowl or Boise for the MPC Computers Bowl.
Best player: Swank. A first-team All-ACC kicker and honorable mention punter, the junior could make a case for team MVP. He had five field goals of more than 50 yards, including three against N.C. State.

Grade the units:
K: A. Swank is the ACC's top kicker.
P: B-plus. Not as strong a punter as kicker, Swank still averaged 41.2 yards per punt.
KR: C. Kevin Marion returns on a unit that ranked ninth in the ACC in kickoff returns.
PR: C. Primary returnman Willie Idlette is gone, but Kenneth Moore could go back to that role.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Jim Grobe earned national coach of the year honors from several outlets following an 11-3 season and ACC Championship. Even more impressive, he did so after losing his starting quarterback and running back early in the season. His unorthodox offense and his habit of redshirting most of his freshman paid off for a team filled with fifth-year seniors. The program got a major boost when Grobe resisted overtures from other, more established programs during the offseason. He signed a 10-year contract that is designed to keep him at Wake Forest until 2016.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: A. Few in college football do more with less.
Offense: A. Staff led by coordinator Steed Lobotzke overcame injuries to key players last year to keep offense afloat.
Defense: A. Dean Hood is among the top defensive coordinators in the conference. Wake always had a knack for causing timely turnovers.
Special teams: B. Swank makes the job much easier for kicking coach Billy Mitchell.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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