GREENSBORO — During spring practice, Wake Forest center Russell Nenon bent over the football, looked between his legs at the quarterbacks awaiting his snap and did a double-take.
They all wore a strange number.
"I don't see No. 11," said Nenon, describing the jersey number worn by four-year starter Riley Skinner. "I see 13, I see 15. I'm like, 'Hmm, OK.' Riley was a [heck] of a quarterback. ... But I'm excited to see what Ted [Stachitas], Skylar [Jones] and Brendan [Cross] can do."
Taking snaps this fall, one of them must follow Skinner, who became the face of the Demon Deacons' program after amassing 9,762 passing yards and emerging as the school's all-time career passing leader. With arrow-straight accuracy, Skinner lifted the Deacs to some of the program's greatest heights, including a trip to the FedEx Orange Bowl game during the 2006 season, and victories in the 2007 Meineke Car Care Bowl and 2008 EagleBank Bowl games.
The Deacs must replace a quarterback who on paper appears irreplaceable. In the process, they will most likely change their offense.
But before they determine the identity of the offense, Wake coach Jim Grobe and his staff must decide on the identity of the quarterback.
Heading into training camp, the Deacs expect a fierce competition between Jones, Stachitas and Cross. They also have incoming freshman Tanner Price.
Grobe spoke about the team's predicament earlier this week at the ACC's season kickoff. He said he hopes to select a new quarterback a week to 10 days before the Deacs open the season at home against Presbyterian on Sept. 2.
"I wish I knew who the guy was," said Grobe, who begrudgingly entertained the idea of playing two quarterbacks.
Jones, a junior, holds the advantage after his performance in spring football, Stachitas, a redshirt sophomore, and Cross, a redshirt freshman, missed time with injuries. But come the opening of camp on Aug. 5, Grobe said the competition is wide open.
"What we try to be is fair," he said. "That means you treat them no different than any other positions. All of our other position groups have to earn their jobs and I don't think the quarterback should be any different."
The arrival of Skinner in 2005 forced Grobe to change from a run-first philosophy to pass-first. He could not overlook the throwing ability of the Jacksonville, Fla., native.
Wake offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke threw out the old playbook and inserted plays that matched Skinner's skills. Faced with Skinner's graduation, the Deacs are forced to once again start anew. Grobe said they will use the spread with an option package, something shaped to the running talents of back Josh Adams and the mobile quarterbacks on the roster.
So he must evaluate which quarterback may be most effective, looking ahead to a rough schedule with Duke scheduled for Sept. 11, then at Stanford Sept. 18 and at Florida State Sept. 25.
Grobe described Jones, at 6 feet 1 and 190 pounds, as the most athletic among the quarterbacks. He also owns the strongest arm, though lacks touch. If he were to earn the job, the Deacs would maintain a run-based offense.
Stachitas, at 6-1 and 205, possesses speed and throws passes with soft feel. What he has in touch, he lacks in strength. If he were to earn the job, the Deacs would split the offense 50-50 between run and pass.
Cross, at 6-2 and 200, is the truest passer in the Skinner tradition among the group. He runs a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash. If he were to earn the job, the Deacs would pass 60 percent of the time.
How much the Deacs use the option will depend on how well the QB runs with the ball, though time will tell how much they pass.
"We can't make the next guy do what Riley did," Grobe said. "We'll keep the good throws in the offense, but we're going to add more runs for an offense that really can't rely on being a drop-back team."
With Stachitas and Cross recovered from injuries, no Wake quarterback seems to hold an edge. "Each player wants snaps," Adams said. "You can tell."
For Stachitas, there's some sense of déjà vu after replacing Tim Tebow at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. As a junior, he succeeded one of the nation's top recruits.
Stachitas shrugged off outside expectations in taking the field behind Tebow. "I didn't care at all if I did as well as Tim Tebow," he said. "I loved playing football. I did whatever I could to help our team win."
It would be natural for Grobe to side with Jones, a veteran who studied with Skinner and has a feel for how the staff operates. Instead, however, he wants to make the best decision for the team.
Grobe dreads making an emotional choice.
"You've got to have a lot of focus on what matters and that's production," he said. "And not fall in love with a guy because he's a nice kid or has a good smile or twinkle in his eye. He's got to be a guy that's moving the chains."
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