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March 22, 2009
Wake Forest once again was a legitimate ACC contender last season, but the Demon Deacons may find it difficult to repeat their 2008 finish this season.
The defense has to be rebuilt, with six members of the starting back seven graduating.
There is hope for the offense. Quarterback Riley Skinner is back for his fourth season as the starter, and there are the makings of a strong rushing attack - thanks to the return of three running backs and a lot of key linemen.
Here's a look at the Demon Deacons as they prepare for spring ball.
Positions of strength
Injuries and inexperience hampered Wake Forest's offensive line last season, but a unit that once was the Demon Deacons' biggest weakness now should emerge as one of their greatest strengths. Wake returns every offensive lineman from last year's two-deep chart and also welcomes back guard Chris DeGeare, a two-year starter who was academically ineligible last season. The Deacons return three starters on the defensive line, including Boo Robinson - who posted a team-high five sacks last season. Skinner returns for a fourth season as Wake Forest's starting quarterback. Josh Adams, Kevin Harris and Brandon Pendergrass give the Deacons three running backs who have reached the 100-yard mark in a game at least once in their careers.
Help is needed
A team that leaned heavily on its defense in 2008 will have to score plenty of points this season in order to reach a bowl for the fourth consecutive season. Wake Forest must break in three new starting linebackers and has to replace Butkus Award winner Aaron Curry. Cornerback Brandon Ghee is the only returning starter in a secondary that lost ACC career interception leader Alphonso Smith to graduation. Skinner also must find a new favorite target now that D.J. Boldin has departed. Boldin led the ACC with 81 catches last year, and nobody else on the roster had more than 26 receptions.
Keep an eye on
CB Josh Bush: As a redshirt freshman last season, Bush entered the game in obvious passing situations while Smith moved to nickel back. Now that Smith is on his way to the NFL, Bush has the unenviable task of replacing one of the greatest cover corners in recent ACC history.
G/T Chris DeGeare: How much did the Deacons miss him last season? Wake Forest averaged just 3.1 yards per carry while running behind a makeshift line that lacked DeGeare, a two-year starter who was academically ineligible. DeGeare, a senior, played left guard before his departure. However, the Deacons may try him out at left tackle this spring.
RB Kevin Harris: When injuries sidelined Adams and Pendergrass for the EagleBank Bowl, Harris made his first start since 2006 and rushed for 136 yards on 24 carries. Harris, a 6-1, 225-pound senior, is bigger than Adams or Pendergrass and presents a different dimension to Wake's rushing attack. Even though all three guys are back this season, Harris' performance in the EagleBank Bowl should allow him to receive a long look this spring.
His time is now
Adams, a former ACC rookie of the year, seemed destined for stardom in 2007 after setting school records for rushing yards (953), receptions (34), touchdown runs (11) and total touchdowns (12) by a redshirt freshman. However, he was unable to build on that momentum last season. Adams rushed for only 402 yards on 122 carries. The unsettled nature of Wake's offensive line offers partial explanation for the drop in production, but Adams didn't even finish the season as the Deacons' leading rusher. That honor instead belonged to Pendergrass. Adams enters spring practice looking to regain his '07 form.
Wake Forest has capitalized on the struggles of ACC rivals the past two seasons to prove it can compete for league championships on an annual basis. The Deacons now face the challenge of maintaining their status as title contenders now that schools such as Florida State, North Carolina and N.C. State are back on the rise. Wake should benefit from a multitude of returning starters on offense, but the Deacons must fill two giant holes on defense. How big are those holes? Consider that Wake Forest has produced three first-round draft picks in school history and that Curry and Smith both could get taken in the first round of the NFL draft next month. In fact, Curry is a probable top-five overall pick. Bush likely will step in for Smith, but the Deacons don't have a clear-cut favorite to replace Curry. The list of candidates for the job includes Jonathan Jones, Riley Haynes and Hunter Haynes. Coach Jim Grobe also must decide how to reshuffle his offensive line to make room for DeGeare's return.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.