Opponent Preview: Wake Forest

Dave Clawson hopes to improve in year two after a historically bad season offensively in 2014. Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports

Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7, ACC Atlantic)

Scheme: Head coach Dave Clawson, like seemingly all the rest of the country, runs a variation of the spread offense. As an interesting aside, Clawson was one of the first offensive coordinators to bring the spread to the SEC during his one-year stint as the OC at Tennessee in Phil Fulmer’s final season. Clawson runs a very fun version of the spread, one that seeks balance, but will basically throw the kitchen sink at a defense with trick plays, option, screens, and anything else. However, the first season at Wake was a disaster offensively. The Deacs were historically bad, averaging a mere 39.9 yards rushing per game and finishing dead last in the country in sacks allowed and yards per play, all while scoring just 14 points per game. Clawson will keep throwing the whole playbook at opposing defenses, but chances are his offense won’t be able to execute much better.

Quarterbacks: Clawson knew he had a major rebuilding job to do at Wake and so he handed the keys to the offense to true freshman John Wolford very early in summer practices, in hopes of building for the future. Wolford (2,037 yards, 58%, 12 TD, 14 interceptions) struggled at times as would be expected, but he did show improvement over the course of the year and finished with a bang, tossing 3 touchdowns in the season finale versus Duke. In practices, Wolford has looked poised and confident, but don’t be surprised if true freshman Kendal Hinton pushes for the job. Hinton enrolled early and went through spring practice and the coaches raved about his arm strength and athleticism. Hinton is a good runner and historically Clawson has liked to use dual-threat quarterbacks. At minimum, expect to see Hinton in specific packages.

Running Backs: Last year’s top two running backs return, but that means very little considering how poor Wake was running the ball. Part of that was certainly due to the offensive line, but with two top recruits coming in, don’t be surprised if Wake turns to freshmen here. The leading returners are sophomores Isaiah Robinson and Dezmond Wortham. Robinson (166 yards, 1.8 average, 3 TD) and Wortham (240 yds, 2.9 avg) are both similar backs—bigger guys without much burst or receiving ability, at least that we’ve seen so far. Because of that, most writers who follow Wake assume highly touted recruit Rocky Reid, who was originally committed to Tennessee, will be the starter for the opener. Reid is also a bigger back at 6-0, 220, but he has more athleticism and speed than the incumbents and just seems to have a higher ceiling. Add in fellow freshman Matt Colburn, who was originally committed to Louisville and is more of a scat back, and you could at least have a decent nucleus to build around.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Wake has struggled to find a decent receiving threat in recent years, but the coaching staff feels that this unit has promise, mostly due to an influx of talent in the past two recruiting classes. For example, true freshman Tabari Hines enrolled early and impressed in the spring, so much so that he is penciled in as a starter in the slot. On the outside, the front-runners to start are redshirt freshman Cortez Lewis and senior K.J. Brent, a graduate transfer from South Carolina. Lewis is physical and has proven to have good hands. Brent never played much for the Gamecocks, but he has the size (6-4, 192) to pose match-up problems. The question is depth, especially after junior Jared Crump (32 receptions, 339 yards, TD) was recently lost to an injury. That leaves sophomore Tyree Harris, who caught 16 passes as a freshman in 2013 but redshirted last year, and junior Jonathan Williams as the only backups with any game experience. The coaching staff is banking on true freshmen Steven Claude and Chuck Wade to contribute and both have shown flashes in practice. This group is more talented than the past two years, but still inexperienced for the most part.

The Deacs have one of the ACC’s best tight ends in sophomore Cam Serigne, who led the team in receptions and receiving yards last year. Serigne (54 recs, 531 yds, 5 TD) was an afterthought as a recruit, but proved to be a capable receiver and ended up serving as Wolford’s security blanket. He should only get better as time goes on. Ditto for classmate Devin Pike (7 recs), who is actually a little bigger than Serigne, but has good athleticism. Pike got his feet wet last year and the coaching staff expects a big leap forward in year two.

Offensive Line: It would be pretty easy to argue that Wake Forest had the worst offensive line in all of FBS college football last year. At minimum, they had the worst line that any Power 5 conference team fielded. Only two starters graduated, but Clawson and his staff are really relying on young players to beat out the returning starters for this line to improve. Regardless of the starting five, this will still likely be the weakest part of the entire team.

The youth movement seems to have taken hold at the tackle spots, where redshirt freshmen Phil Haynes and Justin Herron have emerged as the probable starters. Upperclassmen are the leaders to start inside, with senior Dylan Intemann and junior Josh Harris penciled in at the guard spots. Intemann has started 28 games at RT and could move outside if needed, but the coaches think he is best served staying inside if possible. Redshirt frosh Ryan Anderson was the likely starter at C, but he now will be serving a five-game suspension to start the year so sophomore A’Lique Terry, who started seven games last year, will likely hold down the pivot until Anderson comes back to push for the job. As of now, the only backups who have instilled much confidence during practices are junior guard Tyler Hayworth (8 career starts) and redshirt frosh Patrick Osterhage, who will also play on the interior. Depth at the tackle spots is dicey, especially after junior Will Smith transferred to Liberty.


Scheme: Wake plays a 4-3 that is somewhat odd—they are essentially a bend but don’t break defense, but at the same time they attack on typical running downs to try to create negative plays. Despite having a mediocre offense, the recipe worked last season as the Deacs gave up 5.2 yards per play (the national average was 5.8). Expect to see the same this year: lots of zone coverage to prevent big pass plays, but a willingness to attack on 1st and 2nd down to try to create 3rd and long.

Defensive Line: The line has potential since almost everyone that contributed last year is back. The problem is the one guy who is gone, DE Zachary Allen, was far and away Wake’s best pass rusher and finished 4th on the team in tackles. That production will be hard to replace, but the Deacons do have depth and some talent here.

The Deacs return three players who got significant playing time at end last year, but one needs to step up as a pass rusher and Clawson also thinks they need to hold up better at the point of attack. Sophomores Wendell Dunn and Duke Ejiofor both proved good against the run, but they are the likely candidates to be the top pass rushers as well. Dunn (43 tackles, 7.5 for loss) was especially good versus the run, but recorded just 0.5 sack and that needs to go way up. Ejiofor (12 tackles, 2 sacks) showed flashes last year and needs to keep improving. He had two sacks in the spring game and could be the key to getting to the QB. Senior Tylor Harris (25 tackles, 3.5 for loss) is built like a tackle at 6-4, 305, but he will help out at end more often than not. Part of the reason for Harris playing end is that depth is very young, with one sophomore, two redshirt freshmen, and two true freshmen as the other candidates for playing time.

There are less unknowns at tackle, where Wake returns every key contributor from last year. The guy to build around is junior Josh Banks, who is proving to be a playmaker. Banks (36 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 4 sacks) isn’t the biggest guy at 275 pounds, but he plays with good leverage and has great instincts. He should push for all-conference honors. The Deacs have a nice one-two punch at NT with junior Shelldon Lewinson and sophomore Zeek Rodney. Lewinson (21 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 sacks) is built like former Wake standout Nikita Whitlock at just 6-2, 260, but he held up pretty well on the inside. Rodney brings more size to the table, but less playmaking ability. If Harris does not slide back inside, redshirt freshman Willie Yarbary will be the other top option off the bench.

Linebackers: Somewhat quietly, Wake Forest has been churning out very quality linebackers and this year is no different, with all three starters back and all three players are quite good. The leader is senior Brandon Chubb, who many expect to be a high NFL Draft pick despite being just a two-star recruit out of high school. Chubb (109 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 3 sacks, 3 pass breakups) has everything you would want out of a LB—size, smarts, athleticism. He should be one of the best in the country. Classmate Hunter Williams is a great story. A former walk-on, Williams (60 tackles, 7 for loss) is now a team captain and is a good player who rarely makes mistakes. The best athlete of the group is probably junior Marquel Lee, who really burst on the scene last year. Lee (101 tackles, 12 for loss, 4 sacks) led the team in tackles for loss and is a good blitzer. He has the best combo of size and athletic skills on the roster. This is one of the few units where Wake has really good depth too, with sophomores Grant Dawson (15 tackles) and Jaboree Williams (13 tackles) and redshirt frosh Zack Wary all good options on the bench. Junior Teddy Matthews was a top reserve in 2013, but barely played last year. If he gets things together, that just gives the Deacs more bodies here.

Secondary: The secondary was quite good last year and rarely gave up big plays, but that was mostly because of cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel, both of whom were multi-year starters. Unfortunately for Wake, both of them are gone (Johnson was a 1st round pick, in fact) and there are major concerns about the CB position, especially after presumed starter Brad Watson injured his wrist in spring practice and missed a chunk of time. Watson (17 tackles, 4 PBU) will be back and almost assuredly will be a starter, if for no other reason than he has game experience. Unfortunately for Wake, sophomore Bryant Gross-Armiento, who was expected to push for a starting job, tore his ACL in May and his return is much more questionable. That leaves sophomore Josh Okonye, true freshman Dionte Austin, and graduate transfer Devin Gaulden as the likely candidates to contribute opposite Watson. Okonye (14 tackles, 1.5 for loss) showed some flashes last year and has nice size, but obviously is taking on a much bigger workload this season. Austin was Wake’s top DB recruit and will surely be given every chance to play. Gaulden was a late summer arrival from Wisconsin who started several games as a nickel back last year for the Badgers. If nothing else, he provides experienced depth.

The situation is better at safety, at least in terms of the starters. Junior Ryan Janvion is back at SS after leading the team in tackles last year. Janvion (115 tackles, 7 for loss, 6 PBU) plays pretty close to the line of scrimmage, but isn’t a bad pass defender either. Junior Thomas Brown returns after sharing the WHIP position (essentially a FS/LB hybrid) with the now-departed Anthony Wooding. Brown (54 tackles, 6 for loss, 2 sacks) is a big guy at 6-3, 220 who is much better in run support at this time. He’s going to be suspended for the season opener, which puts a greater onus on redshirt freshmen Cameron Glen and Demetrius Kemp to get up to speed. Those two are expected to be the top backups, but Wake added an insurance policy in the form of graduate transfer Zach Dancel, who mostly played special teams at Maryland.

Special Teams: The Deacons had one of the ACC’s best special teams units and should be good again this year. Senior punter Alex Kinal is one of the best in the country, averaging 43.6 yards per punt last year. Sophomore kicker Mike Weaver (15 of 19 FG) was solid. Weaver or Kinal will have to add kicking off to their duties, though, after sophomore kickoff specialist Adam Centers was lost for the year to an injury. The return units were not terrible, but were pretty average and could stand improvement.

Schedule: The schedule opens favorably, as the Deacs host Elon and then have eight days to get ready for a road trip to Syracuse. A game at Army follows and is infinitely winnable. But then it gets dicey. The home schedule (Indiana, FSU, NC State, Louisville, Duke) looks tough and the road slate (BC, UNC, Notre Dame, Clemson) isn’t much easier. Most people assume Wake is going to struggle again this year, but if they want to improve in the wins column, they must start off 4-0 or 3-1.

Overall: There is no sugar-coating it—on paper, this is far and away the worst team in the ACC and perhaps the worst in a Power 5 conference. But give Clawson credit because he has a vision, he is sticking to it, and his two recruiting classes are bringing in ACC-caliber talent. The problem is that he doesn’t have a lot of upperclassmen that are worth much, especially on offense, and so underclassmen are being forced into starting jobs or are being relied upon as key reserves. That is hard to do even if you are bringing in a slew of 5-star recruits and while Clawson has improved the recruiting, Wake is still Wake and so these are 2- and 3-star kids he is working with. Essentially, most of these recruits would be better served sitting for a year or two, putting on weight, and then hitting the field. (Which is exactly the formula Jim Grobe used when Wake was flying high in the early to mid-2000s. He rarely played freshmen and the starting lineup was littered with juniors and seniors). Instead, Wake has to throw them to the wolves quickly. That is a recipe for losing. A lot. But it is also a recipe that could lead to dividends in 2016 and 2017. What all of that means for 2015 is that Wake is probably going to be pretty bad on offense again, they will probably be pretty good on defense, but the offense will drag them down and the Deacs are likely looking at another 3 or 4 win season.


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