WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Figuring out where Wake Forest’s program stands these days is a matter of perspective.
The Demon Deacons took a step forward last year after doubling their win total and claiming their first bowl berth since 2008. But for the third straight year, they still managed to lose more than they won.
While last year’s 6-7 finish sure looks better than the 3-9 debacle of 2009, it’s not good enough for those within the program.
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“We’re continuing to make strides, and that’s our goal each year, to improve off the season before,” quarterback Tanner Price said. “We had a losing record last year, despite the fact that we made it to a bowl game. We still had a losing record. So as a team, we want to consistently win seven-plus games and have a winning season. Our goal is to make it to the ACC championship game, and in order to do that, we’re going to have to win a lot of football games.”
Wake Forest, which lost to Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl last December, was picked to finish near the middle of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s pack, fourth in the Atlantic Division behind probable preseason Top 25 teams Florida State and Clemson and instate rival North Carolina State.
It will be quite a challenge for the Demon Deacons to leapfrog those schools and contend for their first ACC title game appearance since 2006 — or even to push toward another bowl game. They have a league-low 13 listed starters returning, including just three on offense.
Wake Forest must rebuild virtually its entire offensive line, find some stability and durability in the backfield and figure out a way to replace one of the most productive receivers in school history after Chris Givens left early for the NFL.
Price, a third-year starter, joins redshirt junior receiver Michael Campanaro and center Garrick Williams as the only listed starters back on an offense that ranked in the bottom half of the ACC last season, averaging 367 total yards and 26 points.
Running back Josh Harris started five games last year and gained 136 yards against Florida State before a hamstring injury limited him the rest of the way. Coach Jim Grobe hopes he and promising sophomore Orville Reynolds can develop into a one-two punch and revive a ground game that led the ACC in rushing four times in Grobe’s first five seasons.
“We’ve just got to keep (Harris) healthy, and the durability’s been the problem,” Grobe said. “I’m not putting any blame out there. It just is what it is. He’s had a bad hamstring and hasn’t been a guy that’s been an every-play guy and an every-game guy, and hopefully he can become that, because he’s got a lot of talent.
“The fastest kid on our football team right now’s Orville Reynolds, so having (him) and Josh Harris, who’s one of the faster kids on the team, back there, lets you know we’ve got a breakaway threat every time you hand the ball off.”
The Demon Deacons’ defense should be solid, with seven starters back. None are more important than nose guard Nikita Whitlock, the man in the middle up front for their 3-4 alignment. Grobe says the defense “has got a good feel to it” and thinks that unit could be as exciting as it was during the school’s glory days form 2006-08 with future NFL players Aaron Curry, Alphonso Smith and Stanley Arneaux.
“We’re not as experienced (as then). We’re really young, but we’ve got a bunch of guys that have good foot speed, that can run to the football,” Grobe said. “And it starts with Nikita Whitlock. He’s pretty special up front.”
The philosophy is simpler to explain than it is to execute. The Demon Deacons need Whitlock to beat blocks, get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, force them to throw under duress and hope a skilled secondary can take advantage of mistakes.
Cornerback Bud Noel, the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year in 2011, led the nation with 19 passes deflected but came away from his freshman season wanting more.
“It wasn’t a big year. Not at all,” Noel said. “Because I led the nation in pass breakups. I know they’re supposed to have been caught balls. So it wasn’t a good year.”