With questions at quarterback, Wake Forest is back to being an underdog in the ACC

Wake Forest's leading returning passer is a wide receiver. Everyone who played on the program's most successful team is gone, including the quarterback who set nearly every throwing record in the media guide.

No surprise here: The Demon Deacons are back to being underdogs, and that's perfectly fine with them.

"For us, it's always been that way," running back Josh Adams said. "Even when we won the (2006 ACC) championship, it was that way, and then we kind of managed our way down the scale."

The Demon Deacons might be at their best when nobody expects much from them. In the first year of the post-Riley Skinner era, that's just what they're facing this year.

They were picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic Division, and most of the preseason focus has been on finding a replacement for the winningest quarterback in school history and the holder of nearly every one of its passing marks.

Just how dire is the situation under center? The only player who has completed a pass in a game is wideout Marshall Williams — who hit on all three of his attempts for 52 yards, all on reverses.

Coach Jim Grobe expects the quarterback derby — which features Skylar Jones, Ted Stachitas, Brendan Cross and even freshman Tanner Price — to sort itself out during the first couple weeks of preseason camp.

It hasn't been lost on Grobe that the last time Wake Forest played a first-year quarterback, it led to the best season in school history and a most unlikely Orange Bowl berth.

"You've got an inexperienced quarterback, a little bit like what we did with Riley Skinner his first year (in 2006), all he ever took the field thinking was, 'Don't throw an interception,'" Grobe said. "We won an ACC championship with that mentality."

The team's top four receivers return to give the new QB some familiar targets, but it'll help even more if the Demon Deacons can get back to two hallmarks of their rise: rushing the football and playing solid defense.

Wake Forest didn't have a 100-yard rusher in any game last season — an almost incomprehensible feat for a program that led the ACC in rushing four times in Grobe's first five seasons.

Adams, junior Brandon Pendergrass and sophomore Tommy Bohanon will be asked to give the ground game some stability while the new quarterback — whomever it may be — gets comfortable.

The Demon Deacons' defense produced a substantial list of NFL-caliber players in recent years — from Aaron Curry and Alphonso Smith to Chip Vaughn and Stanley Arnoux — and they ultimately proved impossible to replace. Without them last year, Wake Forest forced only 15 turnovers, second-fewest in the ACC.

"Our guys understand they have to make plays to be a good defense. Hopefully, we'll go back to being the kind of defense that mixes things up and puts balls on the ground and picks off passes and does the kind of things that that group did for so long," Grobe said.

If they don't, all the close games that went their way from 2006-08 could keep slipping away. Wake Forest lost five games last year by a combined 13 points, including two in overtime.

"With A.C. and (Smith) ... they were just wanting to have that swag," linebacker Matt Woodlief said. "They had one big thing — speed — and they went out and played. This defense, that's what we're trying to get back to. That's what we want to be. This is probably the fastest defense I've seen since A.C. ... We're going to make mistakes, but we're going to pick each other up, and then we're going to hit the next player in the mouth."