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September 18, 2008
Wake Forest builds by recruiting Florida
"Go find the ultimate Florida State fan in Tallahassee," Smith said. "If you want to have a trivia contest, I'll win. That's how big of a Florida State fan I was."
His familiarity with Wake Forest didn't extend beyond the basketball court.
"I knew about Tim Duncan," Smith said. "Chris Paul had just signed the year before, and I knew about Chris Paul. I didn't know where it was located, (but) I knew about the basketball team."
Yet Smith now finds himself competing with the school he once dreamed of attending. Smith will try to help the Demon Deacons beat Florida State a third consecutive time Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium.
He has plenty of company.
Wake Forest's roster includes 26 players from Florida, the most of any non-Florida team from a "Big Six" conference. Wake Forest's Florida contingent includes the Demon Deacons' leading passer (Riley Skinner of Jacksonville Bolles), rusher (Brandon Pendergrass of Royal Palm Beach), receiver (D.J. Boldin of Pahokee), tackler (linebacker Stanley Arnoux of Belle Glade Glades Day) and scorer (kicker/punter Sam Swank of Jacksonville Beach Fletcher).
The Demon Deacons have relied on Florida players – knowing they probably won't be able to sign anyone Florida State really wants. "We've never ever beaten them on a player in the state of Florida," Wake recruiting coordinator Ray McCartney said.
They instead have changed the face of the ACC by putting a new spin on an old adage: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em.
Two years ago, Wake thrashed Florida State 30-0 to hand the Seminoles their first shutout loss at Doak Campbell Stadium since 1973. Wake proved that game wasn't a fluke by beating the Seminoles 24-21 last season.
"They do a great job of evaluation," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "That's the thing that Coach (Jim) Grobe's staff does. They come down to Florida and get kids that we don't go after, Florida doesn't go after and Miami doesn't go after. They go up there and play great."
Indeed, Wake Forest has dozens of Florida players who didn't attract the attention of the state's major powers for one reason or another. For example, Smith played quarterback at Pahokee because he was one of the team's best athletes, and his lack of cornerback experience caused most programs to shy away from him.
Perhaps nobody reflects the Wake Forest's recruiting philosophy as much as Skinner, the Demon Deacons' best-known player. Skinner completed 77 percent of his passes for 2,300 yards while helping powerhouse Jacksonville Bolles win a Class 3A state title, but he wasn't a hot recruit.
"About a week before signing day, I wasn't heading anywhere," said Skinner, whose only Division I-A offers had come from Hawaii and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "I was debating whether to play I-AA ball at Samford or actually not play at all and just go to school as a regular student."
That's when Wake quarterbacks coach Tom Elrod stepped in.
The Demon Deacons already had secured a commitment from Bolles defensive tackle John Russell that year. Elrod was intrigued by Skinner's accuracy and eventually persuaded Grobe to offer him a scholarship.
As a redshirt freshman, Skinner replaced an injured Ben Mauk and quarterbacked Wake Forest to its first ACC title since 1970. Skinner then led the nation with a 72.4 completion percentage last season.
"It was one of those deals where Coach (Grobe) said, 'If you're willing to fall on the sword for this kid…,' " Elrod said. "It was one of those deals where you say, 'I hope he's good.' One of the best things about Coach is he leaves decisions to us if you're willing to go out on a limb."
Skinner exemplifies how Wake Forest has found success in Florida without landing four- or five-star prospects.
The Demon Deacons put a special focus on players from successful high school programs, such as Bolles and Pahokee. Fifteen of Wake Forest's 26 Florida-based players won state championships during their high school careers.
Skinner also is an Academic All-ACC selection. Grobe makes a special effort to get players who can meet Wake Forest's tough academic standards.
"We've taken a chance on some kids who maybe weren't as big as some schools wanted or as fast as some schools wanted, but we watched him on film and said, 'Hey, that guy's a heck of a football player,' '' Grobe said. "We were more concerned about seeing what we wanted to see on film rather than knowing what he ran the 40-yard dash in or how tall he was."
Of course, he could find those types of players just about anywhere in the country. Why focus on Florida?
"We've found a lot of success in Florida because there's such great kids down there," Grobe said. "You go around and find the right schools, find the right students and also find guys who are as well-coached as anyone in the country because they're basically in year-round football programs with spring practice and all those kinds of things."
Grobe always wanted to recruit in Florida. The trick was finding prospects who had any interest in playing for Wake.
McCartney still remembers the discussions he used to have with Florida high school coaches who believed they had the "perfect Wake Forest kid."
"Their idea of the 'perfect Wake Forest kid' was a really smart kid who you wanted to marry your daughter because he wouldn't hit anybody. … That's not what a typical Wake Forest kid in our program is," McCartney said. "A typical Wake Forest kid is a tough-minded kid who will play through minor injuries and will play hard for four quarters and is self-motivated and passionate for the game."
The discrepancy regarding the definition of an ideal Wake Forest kid caused Grobe's staff to ask all Florida high school coaches the same question about a particular prospect.
"When they said to us that they have a perfect Wake Forest kid, we'd say back to them, 'Is this kid going to provide us with the opportunity to beat Florida State?' '' McCartney said. "I've got to tell you, the howling, the smirks, the giggles that we got were unbelievable. Coaches weren't trying to be disrespectful. Their whole point was, 'You're Wake Forest. You're never going to beat Florida State.' ''
Now they're getting a different reception from high school coaches across the state. Of course, part of it stems from those back-to-back victories over FSU. The Demon Deacons also have profited from going back to the high schools that have a history of sending them productive players.
Wake has four players each from Bolles and Ponte Vedra Beach Nease. The Demon Deacons also have three players from Pahokee and two apiece from Naples High and Fruit Cove Bartram Trail.
"Once you're in a program that every year has kids who are pretty good football players and pretty good students, if you bring one kid out (to Wake Forest) and he has a good experience, the kids talk, the parents talk and word of mouth gets going," Grobe said. "Pretty soon they come back to Wake Forest and say, 'Hey, we know Joe's happy, so we want our son to come to Wake Forest.' As long as the kids are happy or being successful and the parents are happy, it just snowballs."
Recruiting high school teammates and friends paid off a few years ago, when Smith switched his commitment from Pittsburgh on signing day mainly because Boldin and defensive end Antonio Wilson already had agreed to make the move from Pahokee to Wake Forest.
The success of Northeast Florida products such as Skinner and Swank also has helped the Demon Deacons establish a foothold in Jacksonville, which is a seven-hour drive from Wake Forest's campus in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"The guys out there have all been successful players," said former Nease coach Craig Howard, who now holds the same position at Lake City Columbia. "The kicker from Fletcher (Swank), the quarterback from Bolles (Skinner) and all our kids from Nease have gone up there and not just sat on the bench. … They become household names in Jacksonville, and the other kids say, 'Wow. That could be me.' ''
Because most of these players come from successful high school teams, they didn't worry about Wake's lackluster football history. They simply went about building a winning tradition at their new school.
"We're not only recruiting Florida guys," Smith said. "We're recruiting Florida guys who are coming from winning high school programs, who are good guys and guys with no egos. When we're coming in, we all have the same attitude, and we all have the same purpose.''
Their common mission has helped change the impression of Wake Forest across the Sunshine State. The Demon Deacons won't be outrecruiting Florida State anytime soon, but they have outperformed the Seminoles on the field the past two years. And that should make Florida high school players more and more receptive the next time a Wake Forest coach shows up on their campus.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.