Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Wake Forest
As spring practices commence around the nation, I’ll be looking at each of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in the 2012 season and addressing some key questions and some potential breakout players.
This installment features Jim Grobe’s Wake Forest, who returned to the postseason for the first time since 2008 a year ago when they played in the Music City Bowl. They take the field for the first time on March 1st, with their spring game coming on March 31st.
Next, we’ll look at Miami, as they prepare to start practice on March 3rd.
Date: November 17th
Location: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, IN)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 24, Wake Forest 17 (2011)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: First meeting
Current Streak: Notre Dame: One
Record: 6-6 (5-3 ACC)
Bowl: Music City (Lost to Mississippi State, 23-17)
Leading Passer: Tanner Price (So.) – 253-for-422, 3017 yards, 20 TD, 6 INT
Leading Rusher: Brandon Pendergrass (Sr.) – 188 rushes, 823 yards, 9 TD
Leading Receiver: Chris Givens (Jr.) – 83 catches, 1330 yards, 9 TD
Southpaw Tanner Price continued his success as a freshman with an impressive sophomore campaign, leading the Deacons to the brink of the ACC Championship Game. He engineered upsets of N.C. State and Florida State in a turnaround season for Wake Forest.
Price’s mobility adds some versatility to the offense, as he’s shown a knack to make throws on the run in his two seasons under center. He’s not a significant running threat, but can keep plays alive with his feet.
He protected the football well last season, going six of the team’s final seven games without throwing an interception. Notre Dame held Price to only 187 yards a year ago in Winston-Salem, but he did complete over 70 percent of his passes against the Irish.
Josh Harris was expected to carry most of the load last season after a breakout freshman season in 2010, but he was limited to only seven games.
Senior Brandon Pendergrass stepped into a full-time role at midseason and was at his best in the Deacons’ showdown with Clemson, rushing for 134 yards and two touchdowns in a losing effort. He struggled against Notre Dame, finishing with only 47 yards on 17 carries.
Pendergrass departs, but Harris will be back at full speed. Before a hamstring injury, he ran for 136 yards in an upset of Florida State. Rising sophomore Orville Reynolds played in five games and ran for 63 yards against Maryland and should be the main backup to Harris.
Chris Givens may have been the biggest surprise in the ACC last season, finishing in the top 10 in the nation in receiving yards. The junior decided to forgo his final season, so the Deacons’ primary deep threat must be replaced.
Sophomore Michael Campanaro was a model of consistency, averaging six catches and 69 yards per game, despite failing to score a touchdown after mid-September. He’ll be Price’s No. 1 target in 2012.
One spring goal will be finding complements to Campanaro. Junior Terence Davis had a promising start to the season, but only had 80 yards in the final seven games. Tight end Cameron Davis also departs, so the group as a whole heads into the spring rather thin.
This was a veteran unit in 2011, as four seniors allowed the skill positions to thrive. Only center Garrick Williams returns, and the Deacons face major questions in the trenches as they prepare to return to the field.
Grobe likes to redshirt as many freshmen as possible, and that should now pay off. Three projected starters have been in the program for two full years but have three years of eligibility remaining.
The biggest loss is guard Joe Looney, a second-team All-ACC performer a year ago. Price takes a lot of sacks because he can often extend plays and escape pressure, but the retooled offensive line must gel quickly. An almost certain win at Syracuse last year turned into an overtime loss after an injury knocked Price out of the game.
The Deacons play a 3-4 alignment, anchored by rising junior nose guard Nikita Whitlock. He’s not tall at 5’10”, but his strength commands two blockers. Four members of the two-deep return, and the Deacons will add two ends who redshirted a year ago.
Depth was an issue a year ago, especially against Notre Dame, as Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood wore down the defense in the second half as the Irish finished with 175 yards on the ground.
Wake Forest doesn’t bring a ton of pressure, as the Deacons only had 11 sacks a year ago. Whitlock is one of the best in the ACC, but the program has struggled to find many elite defensive linemen in recent years.
Former Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry was selected third overall in the 2009 NFL draft. There’s no Curry on the roster, but the Deacons will get all four starters and three backups back from 2011.
The Deacons linebacking corps lacks a true game-changer. There’s no Manti Te’o-type run stuffer, nor is there even a Darius Fleming-type edge rusher. Joey Ehrmann on the outside and Riley Haynes inside are the most experienced of the bunch.
Tyler Eifert had a 38-yard touchdown reception a year ago in Winston-Salem. Without a ton of athleticism in this unit, elite tight ends are always a threat for big plays against the Deacons.
Josh Bush was the best safety in the ACC a year ago. He was a ball hawk in the secondary and had a long interception return against Notre Dame. Bush, along with fellow safety Cyhl Quarles, must be replaced.
The Deacons are in good shape at cornerback, however. Merrill Noel was a freshman All-American, and helped hold Michael Floyd to only 44 yards in last season’s meeting. Rising junior A.J. Marshall also returns on the other side.
Like the rest of the Wake Forest defense, the secondary is fairly simple in its coverages. They’ll ask more of Noel and Marshall this season with two new safety starters.
Jimmy Newman is back for a fourth season with the Deacons. He missed a key field goal to waste Bush’s interception return last season against Notre Dame, but overall had a solid season with 17 field goals.
Punter Alex Wulfeck is solid, but not spectacular. He averaged just under 40 yards per kick a year ago. Rising sophomore Alexander Kinal could push Wulfeck for the starting job.
Neither return unit was much of a threat last year. Campanaro had the team’s lone return touchdown last year against Clemson. He’ll handle punt returns again, while wide receiver Lovell Jackson will be the primary kickoff returner.
On the surface, it’s easy to say Wake Forest overachieved last season by finishing with a winning record in ACC play and qualifying for a bowl game.
It’s not that simple, as Grobe has proven that maximizing his talent is pretty much the norm. Price will continue to get better as he looks to follow in Riley Skinner’s footsteps and start for four seasons with the Deacons.
The offensive line is the biggest concern for the spring. The Deacons were able to maintain an offensive balance a year ago, and again having a solid game should allow the program to avoid taking a step back after a promising 2011 season.