Wake Forest opens spring practice today after a disappointing 5-7 season marked by injuries and off-the-field issues. I had a chance to catch up with coach Jim Grobe to review what happened last season and take a quick preview of how spring ball looks for his team. Here is a little of what he had to say.
After the season ended, there were some players who described the negativity that surrounded the team toward the end of the year. What do you make of their frustrations?
JG: I’ve never been on a team that didn’t have a winning record that didn’t have negativity. If anybody’s happy that you’re not winning then you’ve got the wrong guys on your football team. It’s overblown that a football team that doesn’t win has negativity because I think disappointment is maybe a better word than negativity. This is a team last year, I told our athletic director, Ron Wellman, that was a bowl-caliber team. A couple things affected that. We had more injuries than I’ve ever had in my coaching career. Not an excuse, but a fact. And we had some behavior problems that hurt our chances of winning a game, so we just were one of those teams that was real, real close. We won five games, played three top-10 teams. It’s a broken record here about how tough our schedule is. I felt like last year was an underachieving year for us and I was as disappointed as the rest of our players were.
You return a lot of guys off that team so how do you feel they will be able to channel the disappointment of last season as you get ready for the spring?
JG: Every team, every coach, every player wants to feel like every year you’re capable of making a run at a championship. Last year, I really felt like we had the talent to be a bowl team and I was very disappointed that didn’t work out, but I also told our athletic director I thought this year was a year we would have an opportunity to maybe have an opportunity to play for an ACC championship again. Those pieces are still in place. The biggest problem we have, aside from playing other good teams, is we had so many injuries last year, so we’ve had so many offseason surgeries. A big key for us is can we get all these guys healthy and back on the field and not just get them back on the field, but get them playing at a high level? That’s going to be huge for us. Getting a guy like Steven Chase, our left tackle, to recover from his knee surgery and come back full speed. Get Antonio Ford back from serious surgery to repair a broken leg. Those are things that will be really important to us. A lot of our guys have missed winter workouts with surgeries. Some of our guys will miss spring practice with surgeries. If you look at our depth chart, we feel good about our starting 22 if all the guys we have penciled in are healthy.
We know about some of the offensive guys who are going to be limited during spring. How about some of the defensive guys who were hurt last year. Will they be back for spring?
JG: Two of the guys we counted on that were mentioned preseason last year for All-ACC honors stayed hurt most of the year -- Merrill Noel stayed banged up most of the year and had shoulder surgery in the offseason. I don’t think they’ll let him go for spring practice. He’s healing nicely and should be fine for the fall. With Nikita Whitlock, he got hurt in the North Carolina game and came back and had good games but stayed banged-up most of the year. I think getting him healthy is going to be really important. He’s pretty healthy right now. He broke his hand during winter workouts, but we’ll pull him out of the cast, so I think he’s going to be in spring practice. That will be important. Zach Thompson, he’s back full speed and ready to go, so for the most part we’re going to be fairly healthy. Zach Allen is not going to be in spring practice; he had shoulder surgery after Christmas. We will have a chance to plug some young guys in that need more work than Zach does. Defensively, we’re probably a little bit like the offense. We have a chance with the talent we’ve got coming back to improve defensively, I don’t think there’s any question.
When you have guys you are counting on who aren’t going to be out there, how do you view the spring?
JG: One of the issues we have to deal with is that there are probably 15 or 20 guys on our football team that we know hands down are good enough to play and win in this league. Now they’ve got to do it. We just know they can, we know they’re capable of it. Several of those are injured guys that we probably don’t need to beat them to death in spring practice, but we probably do need to work out the young guys more than the old guys. We redshirted a lot of our kids last year. There were five or six true freshmen we kept on the shelf that we should have played. Down at the end of the year we were just a terrible football team because we had all these freshmen redshirting, we had so many injuries, we just couldn’t go back and pull a shirt off all these freshmen. But some of them we felt were very capable of going out and helping us win games. Those are the kids we have to push this spring, we’ve got to get a lot of reps for a bunch of young players. The key for us is developing these young guys as quickly as possible to try and find out where our depth is going to come from next fall. That’s what caught us last year. The depth really got us late last season. When we needed a win late, we couldn’t come up with one.
Who are some of those freshmen you’re looking at?
JG: Josh Banks is a defensive end; he’s put on some weight and looked really good this spring. Depth up front is important for us, so he’s a guy we have to look at pretty hard. Kevis Jones is an outside linebacker, and Stevie Donatell is a guy that we have to look at, two young outside linebackers that I think are guys we have to look pretty hard at. Ryan Janvion, a safety, we thought could have been on the field last year. Dominique Gibson is another safety, he had some knee surgery early in the year last year and that precipitated a redshirt year for him, but he’s another safety we probably need to take a good look at. On the offensive side, we’ve got a couple young offensive linemen we weren’t able to get on the field, a guy like Ty Hayworth is a kid we need to take a look at. Probably at running back, we had Josh Harris who had a pretty healthy year last year. He pulled a hamstring running indoor track. I don’t know if he’s going to be able to go for us. We have to find some of those young running backs that might be able to help us in the spring. As you go through our lineup, there’s so many of these kids that we kept on the shelf last year that may have to jump up and be good players for us this spring.