Coach:Jim Grobe (54-44 in eight seasons; 87-77-1 overall in 14 seasons). | Staff In 2008: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in ACC (tied for third in ACC Atlantic). Beat Navy in the EagleBank Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 9. Defense: 4. Special teams: 0. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 39th. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 64th in 2009, 58th in '08, 89th in '07, 75th in '06.
THE SCHEME: Wake Forest typically spreads things out more than most ACC teams, but the Demon Deacons plan to use the I-formation more this season in an attempt to capitalize on the experience of their line.
STAR POWER: Any casual ACC fan knows the story of senior QB Riley Skinner's improbable rise. Skinner barely received any attention from Division I programs before receiving a late offer from Wake Forest. He replaced an injured Ben Mauk early in his redshirt freshman season and went on to lead the Demon Deacons to an ACC title. Skinner is entering his fourth year as a starter and is attempting to lead the Deacons to a fourth consecutive bowl bid. Skinner's numbers aren't overwhelming, and he hasn't necessarily shown dramatic improvement over the course of his career, but he's a proven winner who has helped Wake experience the type of success it hadn't enjoyed in decades.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Wake's lack of proven receivers should create instant opportunities for redshirt freshmen Terence Davis and Chris Givens. Davis has won plenty of praise from coach Jim Grobe, while the speedy Givens enjoyed an exceptional spring. In the Demon Deacons' final spring scrimmage, Givens ran for 89 yards and a touchdown on two carries and caught three passes for 39 yards, making him the Black team's leading rusher and receiver.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Fifth-year senior RB Kevin Harris is hoping to build on the momentum he established by rushing for 136 yards in the EagleBank Bowl. Harris had carried the ball just nine times all season before the bowl, but his big performance against Navy should ensure he gets the ball in his hands more often this season. He could even win the starting job over Josh Adams and Brandon Pendergrass, who combined for 930 yards on 272 carries last season.
STRONGEST AREA: The line hindered Wake Forest's rushing attack last season, but it should emerge as the Deacons' biggest strength this season. The Deacons return all five starters on the line and also welcome back T Chris DeGeare, a former starter at guard who sat out the 2008 season for academic reasons. Skinner gives Wake one of the nation's most experienced quarterbacks. Although the Deacons don't have a star running back, they have plenty of talented and experienced options.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Wake Forest lacks a go-to receiver following the departure of D.J. Boldin, who caught 81 passes as a senior last fall. Boldin had more than three times as many catches as anyone else on the roster. Marshall Williams is the only wide receiver who caught at least 20 passes last season who returns.
THE SCHEME: Wake will continue to run a 4-3 defense this season.
STAR POWER: The departures of Butkus Award winner Aaron Curry and ACC career interception leader Alphonso Smith removed most of the star power from this defense, but the Deacons still have at least a couple of All-ACC contenders on this side of the ball. Fifth-year senior NT Boo Robinson recorded 47 tackles – six for loss – and five sacks last season, and he should emerge as one of the ACC's top interior linemen. Although he was overshadowed by Smith and former safety Chip Vaughn in the secondary last season, CB Brandon Ghee is a solid player in his own right. Ghee suffered a knee injury during spring practice, but he should be ready for the start of the season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: CB Kenny Okoro performed well enough in practice last fall that coaches were tempted to play him, but the presence of Smith and Ghee kept him on the sidelines. Okoro, a redshirt freshman, earned rave reviews this spring and should have a featured role in the secondary this season, even if he doesn't open the season in the starting lineup. He has the size and speed to make a major impact.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: LB Matt Woodlief has been an exceptional special teams performer throughout his career, but he struggled to earn playing time on defense because Wake had so many experienced linebackers. That's no longer the case. Wake must break in three new starting linebackers, and the hard-hitting Woodlief almost certainly will be the guy manning the middle when the Deacons open the season.
STRONGEST AREA: There aren't many obvious strengths on a defense that features so many new starters, but the Deacons do look solid in the middle of the line. The return of Robinson and John Russell give the Deacons perhaps the finest pair of tackles in the ACC.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The lack of any returning starters in the linebacking corps make that position the most obvious weakness, but the situation at safety provides even more cause for concern. The Deacons likely will open the season with sophomore Cyhl Quarles at strong safety and junior Alex Frye at free safety. Quarles lacks experience, while Frye has struggled in pass coverage.
Wake suffered a major loss with the departure of K/P Sam Swank, but the Deacons had to play half the schedule without him when he got hurt last season. Shane Popham filled both roles in Swank's absence, but he wasn't particularly effective. Popham went 7-for-12 on field-goal attempts – 2-for-6 from at least 30 yards – and averaged just 39.2 yards per punt. The Deacons would like to have two guys split the kicking and punting duties this season so that one injury doesn't hurt the special-teams unit as much as it did last season. Don't be surprised if true freshman Jimmy Newman wins the kicking job at some point in the season. Frye was so-so as a kick returner last season, and the Demon Deacons need to find a new punt returner. The punt-coverage unit was exceptional last season, and the kick-coverage team was solid.
Why are we ranking the Deacons in our top 50 after they suffered so many graduation losses? Here's your reason: Grobe has proved time and time again that he can remain competitive in the ACC even when his teams have less talent than their conference foes. We're betting that he continues to work magic this season. Wake arguably underachieved a bit last season while dealing with plenty of changes on its staff after Eastern Kentucky hired former offensive coordinator Dean Hood as its coach. That shouldn't be a problem this season because the staff returns intact.
Wake opens the season with three non-conference games in a row at home, but the Demon Deacons can't count on heading into their ACC schedule unbeaten. Baylor and Stanford open the season with bowl aspirations that might not be fulfilled unless they beat Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons play five of their first six games at home before going on the road for four of their final six contests. The good news is that Wake avoids two-time defending ACC champion Virginia Tech unless they meet in the conference championship game. Wake must watch out for its Oct. 24 non-conference trip to Navy, which is sandwiched between a trip to Clemson and a home game with Miami. Navy won at Wake Forest last season before losing a rematch in the EagleBank Bowl.
Last season, Wake Forest relied on its defense to make up for its offensive deficiencies. This season, the Deacons are going to need their offense to carry more of the load while their defense gains experience. It's tough to imagine Wake improving on its 8-5 finish after losing Curry and Smith to the NFL. The Deacons won't come close to matching that record unless their offense gets a whole lot better. The good news is that the offense indeed should improve quite a bit. The line should be significantly better, the Deacons know what to expect from Skinner and a running game that mustered just 3.1 yards per carry should upgrade that average this season. The question is how much the defense will slip without Curry and Smith. Wake often has won close games recently because of its coaching and superiority on special teams. Grobe's presence means Wake still has the advantage on the sidelines most Saturdays, but the Deacons can't count on winning games with a late field goal now that Swank has departed.