Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
It's hard to believe that the most accurate passer in ACC history was once contemplating his collegiate career at FCS Samford, or attending Georgia as "a regular student" and nixing the whole football thing altogether.
Had the Wake Forest coaching staff not made a trip to the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., to lure defensive tackle John Russell into their class of 2005, starting quarterback Riley Skinner might have gone down as one of the best quarterbacks the Samford Bulldogs have ever seen.
"The coaches were pretty hesitant to come take a look because they had already offered another quarterback, Brett Hodges," Skinner said. "... They had already given out all of their scholarships, so I think they had to go to the athletic director and ask for some more money to get one more scholarship. Luckily for me he gave it to them and I got offered a scholarship about a week before signing day."
Luckily for the Deacs they found an ACC championship-caliber quarterback nobody else seemed to notice. Skinner enters this spring with a completion percentage of .673 (639 of 949 career passes), which slightly tops the .670 mark of current career record-holder Matt Schaub of Virginia. In order for Skinner to maintain that edge -- and put the Demon Deacons back into contention to win the Atlantic Division during his final season -- the entire offense will need to be more consistent and better than it was a year ago, and the potential for that to begin this spring is there.
It all starts, though, with Skinner.
"The Orange Bowl year, and the year after that, I think some of the biggest things that made us successful were our leadership and our team chemistry we had with everybody," said Skinner, who led the Deacs to their improbable 2006 ACC title run and trip to the Orange Bowl as a redshirt freshman. "I felt we were kind of lacking that a little bit last year, and it showed in some of the close games. That's going to be big this year. ... It starts with leadership and that's going to be one thing that me, along with the rest of our seniors, really need to focus on working on."
There are only three senior quarterbacks in the ACC this season, the other two being Duke's Thaddeus Lewis and Maryland's Chris Turner. Wake's offense started strong last year, but sputtered and stuttered midseason and never completely found its rhythm or identity. The Deacs scored just two touchdowns in all of October. Four of their five losses were by a touchdown or fewer, though, and there were signs of progress in the 29-19 win over Navy in the inaugural EagleBank Bowl.
There should be more depth and experience on the offensive line this season, there will be better competition this spring at the running back position and an emphasis on the running game, and there are plenty of young receivers who will be competing to take over for D.J. Boldin. All of those components will help take some pressure off of the defense, which was relied heavily upon last season because of its numerous playmakers.
"We had a lot of confidence in them, so I think a lot of our game-time decisions had to do with the confidence we had in our defense, which may have in turn affected the way our offense played," Skinner said. "We definitely need to be more consistent on offense."
Especially if they want to extend their school-record bowl streak to four games. The expectations have been raised in Winston-Salem since the Demon Deacons won the 2006 ACC title.
Skinner, who set 10 school records for passing in his rookie year (2006), has played a lead role in the turnaround the program has made over the past three seasons. Wake's 28 wins during that span are the most wins in any three-year period in school history, and Skinner was the starter for 26 of them.
"I felt if I was given the opportunity I could work my way up and possibly play, but I for sure did not think I was going to come in and start my redshirt freshman year the first game," he said. "That was definitely not what I had planned."
Nor had he planned on beating Florida State three times in his career.
"That's something I never would have imagined," he said. " ... It was a little bit surprising, some of the stuff that's happened, now looking back on it, but it's been a lot of fun. I definitely wouldn't have traded it for anything, that's for sure."
Samford and Georgia included.