Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2016 Record: 7-6 (3-5, ACC Atlantic)
2016 Review/Scheme: Head coach Dave Clawson’s background is on this side of the ball, but you wouldn’t know it based on his first few seasons at Wake. In his first season, 2014, the Deacs had a historically bad offense. The next season was not much better and 2016 ended with a bowl game, but Wake still averaged just 20.4 points per game, 4.6 yards per play, and 311.5 yards per game, all among the bottom of the FBS. Clawson stripped the roster bare and has mainly been playing young guys on offense so there is hope that the offense will finally see improvement this season with an experienced depth chart and an infusion of talent.
Schematically, it is hard to say exactly what Wake is going for. Clawson was one of the earlier purveyors of the spread offense and while Wake has lined up in 3- and 4-wide sets, they have been very vanilla on offense, often happy to let their defense keep them in games. Partially due to an impending QB change, though, we may see Wake utilize more of a zone-read, spread option look this year. I still don’t think you are going to see a high-flying offense in Winston-Salem, but the playbook might open up a bit this year.
Quarterbacks: This is year three of the QB battle between senior John Wolford and junior Kendal Hinton. In 2015, Wolford won the starting job, but was injured and Hinton looked promising, albeit erratic in his stead. In 2016, Wolford and Hinton alternated under center until Hinton was lost for the year during the third game of the season. This season, we have another QB battle brewing. Wolford (1774 yds, 56%, 9 TDs, 10 INTs, 521 yds rushing, 4 avg, 6 TDs) has been starting since he was a freshman and has been poised and steady, although not always very productive. Hinton (174 yds, 58%, INT, 125 yds, 5 avg, 2 TDs) has shown flashes each of the past two years, although he is also still somewhat raw as a passer. Last year, Wolford was the passer and Hinton was the runner when they split time at QB, but early indications are that Clawson may turn to Hinton full-time. Wolford is a better athlete than people give him credit for, but Hinton’s athleticism and arm strength may be too much to keep on the bench for a team looking for a shot of big play ability. My guess is that Hinton will start due to his upside, with Clawson knowing he can turn to Wolford if necessary.
Running Backs: Wake’s rushing attack was awful in 2014 (479 yards for the season!!!!) and 2015, but the Deacs made progress last year, averaging 145.8 yards per game (although just 3.6 yards per carry). Part of the uptick in production was due to increased talent at this position segment. Hope is that Wake will take another step forward running the ball as all the major contributors from last year are back.
Battling to start are sophomore Cade Carney and junior Matt Colburn. Carney (589 yds, 3.8 avg, 6 TDs, 12 receptions) was impressive as a true freshman last year, leading the team in carries and rushing touchdowns. He is a bruiser who moves the pile forward, but also has better athleticism and quickness than people give him credit for. Colburn (626 yds, 4.1 avg, 2 TDs, 13 recs) is more of a slasher who has big play potential.
Added depth comes from redshirt frosh Arkeem Byrd and true freshman Christian Beal. The coaches have raved about the speed and toughness of Byrd and he seems destined to see his share of carries. Beal might redshirt, but Clawson has said he can’t have too many tailbacks and the early enrollee has earned positive reviews for his ability to learn quickly.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Perhaps no unit has seen more of an infusion of talent since Clawson’s arrival than the wide receiver corps. The cupboard was bare when Clawson arrived, but he has built up a unit that has experience, depth, and some players with explosiveness.
Wake returns three guys with starting experience in junior Cortez Lewis, junior Chuck Wade, and junior Tabari Hines and that trio will likely be the starting group come week one. Lewis (32 recs, 415 yds) has started since his freshman season and is a guy who makes tough catches. Lewis hurt his shoulder in the spring (his second injury to that shoulder) and it remains to be seen if he can stay healthy. If not, the coaches have a lot of faith in sophomore Scotty Washington, a big (6-5, 220) target who caught 5 of his 10 passes when pressed into action in the bowl game. Wade (24 recs, 245 yds, TD) can play in the slot or on the outside and it appears he is going to start this season at the latter. Wade is a classic possession receiver in that he doesn’t have great speed, but he just gets open and catches the ball. Hines (38 recs, 447 yds, 3 TDs) has been the most dynamic offensive player for the Deacs the past two years. He isn’t the biggest guy at 5-10, 175, but he is shifty and an ideal slot receiver.
Clawson has built up good depth here too and the coaches have faith in junior Alex Bachman (23 recs, 248 yds) and sophomore Steven Claude on the outside and redshirt frosh Greg Dortch in the slot. Dortch is a guy that will likely have a breakout year for the Deacs after torching the defense from the scout team last year. Clawson thought Dortch wasn’t mature enough to play last year, but the shifty receiver has received a lot of hype from those who view Wake practices. Also, keep an eye out for true freshman Sage Surratt, a bigger (6-3, 200) guy who has made a lot of plays in camp and has drawn praise from the coaches.
In addition to having solid depth at receiver, Wake has arguably the best one-two punch at tight end in the conference in seniors Cam Serigne and Devin Pike. Serigne (30 recs, 426 yds, 3 TDs) was a nothing recruit who has started since he set foot on campus and has improved every year. He’ll once again push for postseason honors. Pike only caught two passes last year, but he does his damage as a blocker and is one of the conference’s best blocking tight ends. The Deacs have two talented redshirt freshmen waiting in the wings, but I doubt they’ll see the field unless injuries occur.
Offensive Line: One of the things holding this offense back has been the offensive line. Traditionally, Wake has not gotten great line play, even when Jim Grobe had things rolling, because they just can’t recruit the size needed to push people off the ball. That being said, Clawson has slowly rebuilt the depth chart and you can see the difference in size and overall talent from Grobe’s final years. Whether that finally converts to on-field results (Wake averaged just 3.6 yards per rush and gave up 39 sacks) remains to be seen.
Wake lost two starters from last year’s unit, but eight players who have logged at least one start return so experience will not be an issue. As of now, the projected starting five is: junior LT Justin Herron, sophomore LG Nathan Gilliam, junior C Patrick Osterhage, junior RG Phil Haynes, and junior RT Ryan Anderson. Herron, Haynes, and Anderson are the most experienced, having all started at least 17 games. Gilliam was the highest ranked recruit of the starters and logged one start last year. Osterhage also started once last year, but he is a former walk-on who probably has the shortest leash. He’ll be pushed by senior A’Lique Terry, a former 3* recruit who has 9 career starts but has dealt with injuries and inconsistency.
On paper, Wake has some depth to play around with seeing as how redshirt freshmen Taleni Suhren, JeVionte Nash, and Tyler Watson were all high 3* recruits and sophomore Jake Benzinger started one game last year.
2016 Review/Scheme: Wake went bowling because of this unit. While this unit was eventually worn down a couple times because the offense did not help them (prime examples were against Louisville and Clemson), overall the Deacs won games because of this unit. The Wake defense allowed 370.5 yards per game and 5.3 yards per play, made 41 sacks, and forced 27 turnovers. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that opponents rushed for just 3.8 yards per carry, converted just 34% of third down attempts, and just 60% of red zone trips into touchdowns. Considering the talent differential they often faced, this unit was very, very good. In bad news for Deacon fans, in the offseason Clawson lost the leader of this unit when coordinator Mike Elko left to take the same job at Notre Dame. Rather than promoting from within, Clawson hired Jay Sawvel, who had been the DC at Minnesota.
The hiring of Sawvel sees an interesting philosophical shift for the Wake defense. While Elko played a bend but don’t break style that forced opponents to go on long drives, Elko’s defenses at Minnesota were predicated on attacking and were willing to sacrifice big plays in the name of aggressiveness. Minnesota’s defense was very good last year so chances are Sawvel will do fine at Wake, but it will be interesting to see how quickly his personnel takes to the scheme. One thing that is not changing is the formation as both Elko and Sawvel utilize the 4-2-5 that has become all the rage in college football.
Defensive Line: Very quietly, Wake fielded one of the ACC’s best defensive lines last year. The Deacons look quite deep at defensive end, but are largely starting over at tackle.
Of the five players who saw action last year at end, three are back, including both starters. Wake has a solid starting duo in seniors Duke Ejiofor and Wendell Dunn. Ejiofor (50 tackles, 17 for loss, 10.5 sacks) led all linemen in tackles and led the team in sacks. He is equally adept at stopping the run or rushing the passer and has an NFL future. Dunn (32 tackles, 6 for loss, 2.5 sacks) does not make a lot of splash plays, but he is solid. The coaches like the depth they have with junior Chris Calhoun (12 tackles, sack) and sophomore Paris Black. True freshman Mike Allen was a high 3* recruit who has impressed the coaches since he arrived on campus. Despite the loaded depth chart in front of him, Allen will see the field some.
The situation isn’t as bright at tackle, where only junior Willie Yarbary returns from the rotation last year. Yarbary (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is a disruptive force who should see his stats go up as a starter. Senior Zeek Rodney returns after taking a leave of absence last year. Rodney was a starter in 2015 and he should plug right in again as a run-stuffer. Sophomore Elontae Bateman and redshirt freshman Sulaiman Kamara are expected to be the top backups. Bateman appeared in 4 games last year and the coaches like his potential. Kamara is the highest rated recruit of any of the d-linemen and has a high ceiling, but is obviously inexperienced at this level.
Linebackers: The definite bad news is that Wake must replace Marquel Lee, a beast at LB who led the team in tackles and tackles for loss and is currently expected to start as a rookie for the Oakland Raiders. The potentially good news is that Wake returns seniors Jaboree Williams and Grant Dawson, who provide experience and leadership to this unit. Whether they can provide the production is the question.
Williams (36 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 2 sacks) was a starter at “Buck” LB last year. He is probably the safest bet of this corps given his experience, size, and athleticism. Dawson (35 tackles, 2.5 for loss) is a former walk-on who is limited athletically, but has a high football IQ and has played a lot as a backup. He is expected to take over Lee’s spot at MLB. Sophomores Justin Strnad (19 tackles) and Nate Mays are the top backups.
Although Wake will play a 4-2-5, their “Flex” position is much more of a LB than, say, FSU’s Star position. Thomas Brown, who finished third in tackles and tackles for loss, manned the spot last year, but has moved on. Junior Demetrius Kemp and redshirt freshman Jacquez Williams are battling for the spot. Kemp (31 tackles, 4 for loss) was the top backup last year and is expected to seamlessly transition to a starting role. Williams is a bit undersized, but the coaches think he has a high ceiling.
Secondary: The secondary wasn’t elite by any stretch last year, but they were very solid and there are concerns after three starters graduated and Dionte Austin, a backup last year who was expected to start at CB, was lost for the season due to an injury. Now, Wake has two known quantities at safety, but a whole lot of questions beyond that.
Despite graduating safeties Ryan Janvion and Josh Okonye, the starting safety spots have been locked down since spring ball. Sophomore SS Jessie Bates and junior FS Cam Glenn quickly put a stranglehold on the starting jobs for this year. Bates (100 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 5 INTs, 4 pass breakups) was a starter part of the year last season and was a revelation as a freshman. He made some mistakes, but showed a lot of promise too. Glenn (35 tackles, INT) was the top backup at FS last year and should be fine as a starter given his size, experience, and athleticism. Depth is shaky, though, after sophomore Traveon Redd (11 tackles) injured his elbow and will miss a long stretch of time, if not the year. That leaves junior Thomas Dillon, a former CB who missed last year due to injury, redshirt freshman Luke Masterson, and true freshman Tyriq Hardimon as the top options off the bench.
The situation at cornerback is much more dire than safety. Sophomores Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson are the presumed starters as of now. Bassey (19 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 3 PBU) isn’t a big guy at 5-10, 180, but he has moxie and quickness. Henderson (20 tackles, 9 PBU) is a solid cover guy who was picked on some last year and performed admirably. Despite Bassey and Henderson gaining experience last year, Cedric Jiles, a grad transfer from Mississippi State, was expected to walk in and win one of the CB jobs, but he has been hampered by injuries and is currently a backup. When healthy, Jiles is probably the best corner on the roster and will probably push Bassey or Henderson aside. JaSir Taylor, a true freshman, has shot up the depth chart and is expected to see action immediately.
Special Teams: Wake returns both specialists and that should be helpful for a team that may struggle on offense. Kicker Mike Weaver (21 of 27 FGs) doesn’t have a big leg, but is reliable from inside 40 yards. Punter Dom Maggio (42 avg) was decent as a freshman, helping Wake allow just 3.2 yards per punt return. Wake’s own return units, though, were pretty poor and need to improve.
Schedule: The nonconference schedule (Presbyterian, Utah State, at Appalachian State, at Notre Dame) gives Wake a decent chance of notching three victories. The ACC slate is decidedly mixed. Wake gets FSU and Louisville at home, two teams they fought tooth and nail on the road, and ends the year with two straight home games against NC State and Duke. Winnable road contests against Boston College and Syracuse are offset by back-to-back road games with Clemson and Georgia Tech.
Overall: Considering how far Wake had fallen and how many young guys Clawson was playing, Wake Forest was probably a year ahead of schedule last year when they went bowling. Wake beat Duke and Indiana on the road and won their bowl matchup with Temple, but outside of that, the Deacs really didn’t beat anyone with a pulse and lost to Army and Boston College. On paper, this year’s team might be better on offense, but could take a step back on defense and that is with a potentially tougher schedule. Hinton at QB might make the offense more dynamic, but he still needs to improve as a passer to avoid teams stacking the box. The offensive line is deeper than it has been, but it still isn’t the most talented group ever and will likely struggle with some of the formidable defensive lines the ACC has this year. The loss of Elko likely cannot be overstated as he was one of the hottest DCs in the country and while Sawvel looks like a solid hire, he is changing the philosophy of the defense. Will the new secondary be able to hold up? After all, guys like Henderson and Bassey were recruited to play corner in a more zone-heavy, bend but don’t break defense; not a man to man, left on an island style. I also have to think that Wake takes a step back defensively due to the lack of depth at DT and the loss of a guy like Lee at LB. Wake is likely on the fringe of going bowling again and I could see them win anywhere from 4 to 7 games. If I had to guess, I’d pick 5-7, but it also wouldn’t shock me if they squeezed out an extra win or two. If nothing else, Clawson has once again made Wake Forest the tough out they were in Grobe’s heyday.