Expectations up and down at Wake Forest

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Despite the mounting success under Jim Grobe, the Wake Forest football program is still making "firsts." Last year marked the first time in school history that Wake earned three straight bowl invitations. It also marked the first time the Demon Deacons have won eight or more games in three consecutive seasons.

And yet somehow, eight wins was a disappointment in Winston-Salem.

Consider the bar raised.

"I like feeling dissatisfied after an eight-win season," said defensive tackle John Russell. "It keeps us motivated to work to something better. We knew we could have done some fantastic things, even though we did some good things. It's right there for the taking. We just need this team to come together and do it this season."

It's not going to be easy. The expectations have been tempered for Wake Forest this season in large part because of the mass exodus of some of the most talented defensive players to ever come through the program. Alphonso Smith is the all-time ACC career leader in pass interceptions (21), and Aaron Curry left his mark as the ACC career leader in pass interceptions for touchdowns by a linebacker (3). The Deacs lost their top five leading tacklers.

"I think we like to be challenged," Russell said. "Last year to a degree was a disappointment in some cases because we were this close to making it happen. Our coaches always talk about two or three plays that separate a football game from winning and losing it. You look back at the times we kind of stubbed our toe and missed a tackle, or made a bad throw, or dropped a ball, or did something stupid on defense where we weren't where we were supposed to be. That says, 'Hey, we had great players, but it takes even more than that.' It takes that sense of pushing through the adversity and coming together as a team at times when it's really tough."

Only four starters -- Russell, nose tackle Boo Robinson, defensive end Kyle Wilbur, and cornerback Brandon Ghee -- return. (All of them, though, will be worthy of All-Conference consideration.) Seven of the 10 starters who graduated from last year's team were on defense. The Deacs were picked by the media in Greensboro to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division, but still received seven first-place votes.

"We probably like that a little bit," quarterback Riley Skinner said of the low expectations. "That's when we've always been our best, being the underdog, and people have always expected lil' ole' Wake Forest is going to be a cakewalk, and that's fine with us because then we can kind of sneak up on them. ... It doesn't bother us. We've always kind of been in that role and we've been able to be pretty successful these last three years. So it doesn't bother us one bit."

Even though the Deacs are flying under the radar this fall, there are plenty of reasons they could catch their Atlantic Division opponents off-guard. The offense returns nine starters and has a loaded backfield and an improved offensive line. Plus, this is the kind of year Jim Grobe's redshirting philosophy pays off, as there are still 15 fifth-year seniors on the roster, most of which have seen some starting experience. Two of them -- Robinson and Russell -- are on the defensive line, which should be one of the team's strengths this fall.

"Now everybody is getting on us, like 'You guys better stop somebody,'" Russell said. "I think that's just a testament to the kind of guys we've had who were younger guys who stepped in last year and had to help build our confidence in our offense a little bit. Now they're in that role, they've been there, they've done that, there's talent, there's experience, and there are some guys who can really help do some things. It's just a matter of it all coming together on Saturdays."