Coming off a tough year in 2010, there was not much was expected from Wake Forest in 2011. However, head coach Jim Grobe led his team to a surprisingly successful season last fall. While the Demon Deacons did endure the program's third consecutive losing season (6-7, 5-3 ACC), they notched a few notable wins and earned a spot in the Music City Bowl against SEC foe Mississippi State.
Wake Forest got off to a fast start last fall with wins over N.C. State and No. 23 Florida State, highlighting a 3-0 start in league play and a 4-1 start overall. The three consecutive wins to open ACC play marked the best start in program history. Unfortunately, Wake Forest could only muster two wins over its final seven games, which included a 49-24 loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The Demon Deacons played tough in the bowl game, but fell 23-17 to the Bulldogs.
Wake Forest returns numerous key players from last year's squad, including quarterback Tanner Price, running back Josh Harris, flanker Michael Campanaro, freshman All-American and cornerback Merill Noell, as well as All-ACC defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock. It is unknown if Harris, who suffered a concussion in the 20-17 victory over Liberty last weekend, will play on Saturday. Overall, four starters return on offense along with seven on defense to what some pundits believe is the most talented Demon Deacon team since the ACC title squad in 2006.
"It was hard for us against Liberty this past weekend. We weren't real sure what we were going to see from Turner [Gill] and his coaching staff. We've got some of the same issues [with North Carolina]. [They give you] a different look defensively than we're used to, and offensively they give you the up-tempo stuff which is real difficult since it forces your defenders to try and line up a play in a hurry. They've got one of the more talented teams in the country." – Grobe
"First off, Jim does a great job with his team and they're always very well prepared. I've known that for a long time and always have heard great things about Jim. I came in behind him when he was at the Air Force Academy and left to go to Ohio. Never really got a chance to be around him, but I know his teams are very well prepared. He's got a lot of guys that either played at the Academy or were there coaching before that are on his staff so his kids are going to play hard. They're going to be very sound. They're going to move quite a bit upfront defensively." – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora
Matchups to Watch
Wake Forest's Nikita Whitlock vs. UNC's Offensive Line
A school with under 4,500 undergrads is not supposed to consistently produce NFL-caliber talent. However, Wake Forest is an exception. Since Grobe's arrival in 2001, the Demon Deacons have produced 20 NFL draft picks, including four in the most recent draft. Grobe appears to have another elite talent this season in nose guard Nikita Whitlock.
At 5-foot-11 and 260 pounds, Whitlock is not physically imposing. However, what the redshirt junior lacks in size he makes up for in speed and effort. Last fall, Whitlock recorded 64 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks on his way to second-team All-ACC and sophomore All-American accolades. He is second amongst active ACC players in career tackles for loss with 24.5. This year, the Wylie, Tex. native was named preseason All-ACC.
"If he didn't play as hard as he plays, maybe it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but I'm telling you it looks like he's playing three or four different spots." UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said on Tuesday. "He's just so active. He's obviously good at what he does in their system. They let him have a lot of range to spin and change gaps and move and he's quick. He's extremely quick. He's obviously very powerful, so for a big tall guy he can get underneath your pads and he can also beat you with quickness."
Considering North Carolina's starting offensive line is, on average, slightly over 6-foot-5 and 306 pounds, the quicker and smaller Whitlock and the 3-4 defense of Wake Forest could pose problems. However, the Tar Heel offensive line lightened up in order to get faster in the offseason. Five different offensive linemen lost at least 10 pounds, including starting guard Travis Bond, who shed almost 50 pounds. The weight loss was necessary in order to keep up with Fedora's high-paced offense and it could serve them well against Whitlock on Saturday.
The North Carolina offensive line is arguably the team's strongest unit and one of the best in the conference. Whitlock is on the Lombardi Award watch list and is considered an elite nose guard. Saturday is a rare early season opportunity to watch a matchup between opposing players considered to be among the best in the game at their positions.
Wake Forest's Offensive Line vs. UNC's Defensive Line
With so much returning talent, some wonder why Wake Forest struggled to defeat FCS opponent Liberty last weekend. While the answer is not one specific position or play, the offensive line can certainly be looked at as an area of concern for the Demon Deacons.
New offensive line coach Jonathon Himebauch is faced with the task of improving an offensive line that ranked 100th out of 120 FBS teams in sacks allowed per game (2.69) last season. This was not a product of inexperience as four starters from the 2011 offensive lineman are now gone. Senior center Garrick Williams is the lone returning starter and will work alongside two sophomores and two juniors this fall.
With four players making their first career starts at offensive line against Liberty, the Demon Deacons only surrendered one sack. However, the inexperienced line was unable to help generate much on the ground as Liberty limited Wake Forest to just 98 rushing yards on 38 carries, good for a 2.6 yards-per-carry average.
While North Carolina's defensive line is relatively young, they do provide the Wake Forest offensive line with a much tougher task this week. In particular, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams will look to wreck havoc on Saturday. Williams dominated the Elon offensive line last week on his way to recording two sacks and a tipped ball that led to a North Carolina interception. It could be even tougher for the Wake Forest line this week if Harris is unable to go at running back.
"If they had the No. 1 line in the nation, I would take the same approach," Williams said. "They've got coaches and players on scholarship. They're going to make corrections."