Before the football season began, Wake Forest's cozy football stadium got an imposing addition. Deacon Tower houses luxury suites, club seating and boxes for the university's president and the media.
The seven-story brick tower might be the perfect metaphor for Wake Forest's rising expectations.
Long known for basketball and golf more than football, tiny Wake (4,412 undergraduates) entered the 2006 season with an all-time Atlantic Coast Conference winning percentage of .287. But the No. 21 Demon Deacons (4-1, 2-0 ACC), who visit Maryland on Saturday, captured the 2006 ACC championship and followed it last season by going 9-4.
Jim Grobe's success has left the eighth-year coach contemplating this truism of college football - it might be difficult to construct a team, but it's just as challenging in its own way to keep it on top.
"Certainly taking a down program and building it to where it's competitive and respected as a good program is really, really tough," Grobe said yesterday. "We're trying to stay there right now. I will tell you that it seems there's a little more pressure on trying to maintain a good program."
Interest in the team has swelled since the Deacons beat nationally ranked Boston College at home in 2006 to go 8-1. Three weeks later, Groves Stadium (now BB&T; Field), with a capacity of 31,500, was so full against Virginia Tech that the school acknowledged that some fans resorted to counterfeit tickets and some former students used old IDs to get in. Athletic director Ron Wellman issued an open apology to the campus community for the confusion.
Wake's success has come courtesy of an efficient offense led by quarterback Riley Skinner and an opportunistic defense that has consistently been among the nation's leaders in turnover margin.
More than most schools, Grobe has made ample use of redshirts. He has practically redshirted entire classes, allowing players to mature and grow stronger.
"I feel like they've been at Wake as long as I've been at Maryland," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, in his eighth season, quipped yesterday when asked about Wake redshirts. In scouting Wake, Friedgen said he found eight redshirt seniors starting on defense.
Maryland coaches sound a little envious that Grobe has managed to stockpile so much talent. Grobe even has a sixth-year defensive end - Matt Robinson - who missed 2006 with a broken kneecap after sitting out his freshman year after shoulder surgery.
"You've got veteran players who have been around that are tough, big and strong," Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin said. "They've been in the system for awhile, so they understand it."
How can Wake redshirt so many players?
For one thing, Wake wasn't a football powerhouse until a few years ago. Grobe had the luxury of time. His Wake teams were 26-32 before 2006.
"He went to a place like Wake Forest, where at the time he went there the expectations weren't maybe what they are now," Franklin said. "He could afford to wait and build a program because they weren't going to cut him in three years."
Terps defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said he expects Maryland to redshirt more in future seasons when it has the depth. Injuries have forced young players into action this season.
"Probably in the future we'd like to do that," Cosh said of more redshirting. Cosh's defense uses a number of players - including Jeremy Navarre, Dave Philistin, Jeff Allen and Kenny Tate - who didn't redshirt.
Said Grobe: "We've found that younger players seem to be up and down throughout the season. Younger players tend to not deal with injuries well. Older players kind of realize that their clock's running out so they take it a little more seriously."
There was a time, Maryland wide receiver Danny Oquendo said, when it seemed as if Wake Forest "had flipped a switch" to suddenly become an elite team. Oquendo's enduring Wake memory is of cornerback Alphonso Smith returning an interception 100 yards in a 31-24 overtime win over Maryland last season.
After Wake's recent run of success, "they're not going to creep up on anybody," Oquendo said.
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