Game Program Feature: Waiting for a Moment
Sept. 13, 2010
This article was originally published in the Sept. 11 edition of Kickoff, the official gameday magazine of Wake Forest football.
By Evan Lepler
Being a running back at Wake Forest is a little bit like casting a fishing rod in a small, solitary water hole. Once the hook plops the serene surface, the waiting game begins, with perhaps only a bird's repetitive chirp providing the ambiance while the seconds and minutes pass, anxiously hoping for some action.
Senior tailback Josh Adams, a seasoned runner and an avid fisherman, understands what it takes to be successful in both ventures. Whether he is hoping for a bite or chomping at the bit, he has learned that good things will come to those who wait.
"Any [chance I get], I'll go fishing," Adams says. "A lot of people say it's boring, but patience is a virtue."
A running back needs to be patient in order to survey the field, read his blocks and produce first downs. In another way, running backs require a different brand of patience, forced to wait their individual turn to become offensive playmakers on Saturdays. And with many capable options available to take a handoff, there are times when the wait lasts longer than an unraveled reel of fishing line.
But when that fiber begins to twinge--or a new ball carrier is tapped--instantaneous readiness is the expectation. With instinct and intellect, the individual must channel the excitement into securing the prize. Whether it is pulling a flapping small-mouth bass from a peaceful pond or pushing a feisty blitzer from the weakside in front of 35,000 chirping crazies, when the opportunity arrives, the response is urgent and vital to the ultimate goal. It's a pivotal moment of life and death, for the scaled, finned creature, for the proud player eager to earn another snap, and even for the fervent fan base whose emotions fluctuate with every cloud of dust throughout four quarters.
Patience is difficult, yet necessary. A noble trait, but often with a byproduct of exasperation that can test even the most devoted teammate. In the Wake Forest backfield, reliability and camaraderie are the common threads, enabling success.
"It's definitely frustrating," Adams, the 2007 ACC Rookie of the Year, admits, just knowing that you felt like you could have helped out more, just only getting two or three plays and then you're out for two or three series. But it's part of the game, and you have to learn ways around it and do something when your time is called."
Throughout spring and summer ball, Adams has been joined by junior Brandon Pendergrass and redshirt freshman Josh Harris near the top of the running back depth chart, not to mention burly sophomore fullback Tommy Bohanon, who undoubtedly will bulldoze his way across first-down yellow lines and into end zones on a regular basis. Certainly, it is an advantage to have a variety of highly-touted options, some proven, and others much-anticipated. But how exactly will the reps be divvied up?
"They determine that," says Wake Forest running backs coach Billy Mitchell. "Every practice is a competition, and the depth chart may change day-to-day. They gotta get out there and practice, and the best guy we're going to put on the field. That's a consistent thing, not one good day. You've got to be consistently good at what you do and continue to improve on the field to prove you deserve to be there."
Track record indicates that ball-carrying duties will be shared throughout the arduous season, with different players earning the opportunity to shine from one week to the next. And with the golden arm of Riley Skinner no longer part of the playbook, the Deacons appear poised to return to the more hard-nosed, grinding running mentality that Wake Forest became known for earlier in Jim Grobe's tenure.
"Well, you take advantage of what you got," says Mitchell, who has entered his 25th consecutive season working alongside Grobe. "We were a running team, but then we had Riley Skinner, who could throw the ball pretty well, so we're not going to have him hand off all day when he can hit those guys, and he had pretty good receivers. We had to take advantage of what we had as far as talent. Now, of course, he's not here; we've got to look at it again and take advantage of the run game a little bit more."
That should mean plenty of touches for Adams, Pendergrass, Bohanon and Harris, the quartet expected to shoulder most of the load in the backfield. Adams entered the season only 104 yards shy of 2,000 of his career and sits on the verge of becoming one of the top 10 rushers in school history.
Pendergrass, meanwhile, has proven able to take the reins in Adams' absence, leading the team in rushing in 2008 when Adams battled injuries at the start of the year.
In 2009, Bohanon arrived in January and became the first true freshman fullback to play under Grobe. Touted as the strongest member of the entire Deacon football team, Bohanon provides the battering ram aspect that the Deacs have not seen since current Atlanta Falcon-Ovie Mughelli wore the gold and black.
The youngest of the bunch is Harris, a 19-year old speedster from the Lone Star State, who brings an intriguing variable of youthful explosiveness to an already talented corporation of backs. In terms of moving from point A to point B, even his teammates say that the rookie is the quickest.
"Josh Harris is the straight-ahead fastest of the three of us," says Pendergrass. "He has good instincts, and he's not afraid. He'll stick his nose in there."
While Harris will battle with his more experienced teammates for tailback reps, very little question remains as to who is Wake's top fullback. Ever since Bohanon decided to abandon the second semester of his senior year in high school to begin college in January of 2009, the 6'2", 245-pound anvil has taken stranglehold on his position with a weight-room work ethic that few of his teammates can comprehend.
"He's a freak when it comes to football and lifting," says Adams. "He's all screaming, yelling and lifting all the weights."
In four of the five individual weight-lifting categories listed in the strength & conditioning section of the Wake Forest media guide, Bohanon holds the top mark. He has maxed out at 462 on the bench press, 418 on the hang-clean, 396 on the power-clean and 462 on the front-squat. Observing him in his element always leaves teammates in disbelief.
"I'll be right next to him in the weight room and I'll just be like, `man what are you doing? That shouldn't be humanly possible!'" says Pendergrass. "Because I know if I'm doing a lot of weight and he's doing two times more, something's not right. He's an animal. That's the only way to describe him. We'll get in the weight room and we'll be power-cleaning, and he'll be going up pushing 400 pounds on just a normal power-clean workout."
Barring injury, Bohanon should have the chance to start for four years in a row, a unique privilege in any era of college football. By skipping out on high school early, he helped to better ready himself for the challenge ahead.
"I was kind of done with high school," says Bohanon. "I got done with my senior season and there really wasn't anything more for me to do. I still got to go to Prom. I still got to walk the stage and everything. I still got to do everything I wanted to do in high school, and still be in college."
When did the idea of the accelerated collegiate experience first pop into his head?
"I had read about other people doing it during my sophomore and junior year," Bohanon explains. "And right then, I was like, well, if I have the chance to do that, I want to do it. So I took a lot of classes online over the summer to get ready. It was a good chance for me to get here [to Wake Forest] and get acquainted with all the things like college and football together, without actually having the season in that first semester that I was there."
Prior to arriving, the coaches had told him that, because of a lack of depth at the fullback position, he would have a chance to play as a rookie. Before long, he was in the good graces of the staff, earning playing time in all 12 games as a true freshman.
While his muscle and power is unquestioned, his improved quickness has allowed the coaches to implement him in a variety of sets, increasing his versatility.
"Tommy, although he's a fullback, he's athletic enough and fast enough that he can be the one back on the field and play tailback too," says Mitchell. "With his strength and his speed, he's a durable back in that we can use him in multiple positions. We like that about him."
If competing for carries with each other was not enough, receivers have typically also brought their legs into the equation through an assortment of bubble screens, end-arounds and reverses. Plus, the new entourage of quarterbacks appears to bring a running dimension that the Deacs rarely possessed in the Skinner era. Overall, the skill position talent groupings are deeper and quicker, forcing everyone to raise their game via daily competition that should work to truly bring out the best in the offensive unit.
Together, the common goal is victory. As long as everybody remains patient on Saturdays, the respective touches will find the deserving legs like a lure grabbing a fish.
"They enjoy the competition," says Mitchell. "That's the thing about the guys, they care about each other. If Brandon sees Josh having trouble with something, he'll jump in and help him, and likewise. They're trying to help each other because they know it's a team thing. We succeed as a team based upon what they do individually. And so, they want that individual to do as good as they can."