Redshirt freshman QB Riley Skinner has helped spearhead Wake Forest's surprising march through the ACC
AN OLD JOKE among college football coaches goes like this: What's the best time to start a freshman quarterback? Answer: When he's a senior. Luckily for Wake Forest, Riley Skinner has never heard it. Last Saturday night the precocious redshirt freshman completed 15 of 23 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown as the 22nd-ranked Demon Deacons upset No. 16 Boston College 21--14. The days of Cake Forest are over. The win was Skinner's seventh in eight starts, and it lifted the Deacons into a tie with Maryland for first place in the ACC's Atlantic Division. With three games to play—against Florida State, Virginia Tech and the Terps—Wake (8--1) is in position to win its first conference title since 1970. "It's time to dream a little bit," says coach Jim Grobe.
Skinner's emergence in relief of injured junior Ben Mauk, who broke his right arm and dislocated his shoulder in the opener against Syracuse, has been the biggest revelation for a team picked to finish last in the Atlantic. The conference leader in passing efficiency (145.7) and completion percentage (68.6), Skinner has steadied a patchwork offense that has also lost its top two tailbacks to injury. Most important, he has thrown just three interceptions in 140 attempts.
The Deacons nearly missed out on Skinner when he was coming out of the Bolles School in Jacksonville. As a senior, he led the Bulldogs to the 2004 state 3A championship, completing 77% of his passes and throwing for 31 touchdowns. But recruiters from South Carolina and other big-time programs told Skinner that, at 6'1", he was too small to play quarterback. As signing day approached in February 2005, his only offer was from I-AA Samford. Enter Grobe, who had traveled to Bolles in January to visit another recruit. Already having a stable of quarterbacks, he was taken by surprise when Bulldogs coach Corky Rogers took him aside to talk about Skinner for more than an hour. Tight ends and fullbacks coach Tom Elrod, who'd lobbied Grobe on Skinner's behalf in December, kept up the pressure back in Winston-Salem. "He better be a good player," Grobe told Elrod, "because you're going to have to fall on your sword for him." Skinner was the last commitment in Wake's 2005 recruiting class.
This year he played his way onto the Demon Deacons' two-deep during preseason practice. When Mauk went down in the third quarter against Syracuse, Grobe turned to Skinner. In wins over Duke, UConn and Ole Miss, his command of the offense was limited. "We just called the plays and lived with it," says quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen. But Skinner began to read defenses better, enabling him to make adjustments and call audibles. In Wake's 27--17 loss to 15th-ranked Clemson on Oct. 7, he picked apart a tough Tigers defense, completing 18 of 23 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown. "He's right 90 percent of the time now," says Mullen. "And it's scary how accurate he is. You don't coach that."
Skinner certainly benefits from playing on a team loaded with redshirt juniors and seniors. He's not yet as capable as he needs to be; the option, normally a staple of the Deacons' attack, has basically been scrapped until 2007 because Grobe wants to keep his quarterback away from "all that ride and decide stuff." Last Saturday, BC ran up 430 yards of total offense to Wake's 280, marking the fifth time in seven games that the Deacons had won despite being outgained. "We just need him to take care of the football," says Grobe of Skinner. "He doesn't have to be the difference for us."
Maybe not, but the fact is that Wake has tied a school record with eight wins, something that seemed unimaginable when Mauk went down. In that regard, Skinner has made all the difference.
Wake Forest is tied with Maryland atop the ACC Atlantic Division and looking to win its first conference title since 1970. Now comes the hard part. In addition to facing No. 20 Virginia Tech, 18th-ranked Wake must play a pair of longtime nemeses and could go up against No. 19 Georgia Tech, the Coastal Division leader, in the conference championship game.