Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2017 Record: 8-5 (4-4, ACC Atlantic)
2017 Review: After fielding historically bad offenses for three years, Dave Clawson’s Deacons exploded last year, finishing the season ranked in the top 5 of the ACC in all major statistical categories. The Deacs were balanced, ranking 37th in the nation in rushing and 28th in passing while finishing 21st in scoring offense (and setting a school record for points scored in a season) and 26th in yards per play. It was an amazing turnaround for a program that had finished ranked dead last in nearly all offensive categories for several years running.
Scheme: Clawson runs an up-tempo, spread offense that is built around balance and quick passes. The Deacs will throw a lot of screen passes and run the ball up the middle a bunch too. Wake uses tempo in order to try to level the playing field against opponents that are often more talented and deeper, especially along the line of scrimmage. Clawson is also not afraid to dig into his bag of tricks, often using halfback passes and other gadget plays.
Quarterbacks: John Wolford started as a true freshman in Clawson’s first year at Wake, but he always seemed to be fighting for his job. That ended last year, when Wolford finished 12th nationally in total offense and etched his name into the Wake record book. With Wolford now gone, Clawson will turn to junior Kendall Hinton, who actually beat out Wolford in 2016, but injured his knee and never won the job back. Hinton (399 yards, 57%, 4 TDs, 190 yds rushing, TD) is a better runner than Wolford and has a bigger arm, but his accuracy is an issue and he tends to get antsy in the pocket. Clawson is smart enough to play to Hinton’s strengths, but the offense may look a little different with him at the helm.
One wrench, though, is that Hinton has been suspended for the first three games of the season and that means Clawson will have to turn to sophomore Jamie Newman, who briefly played in two games last year, or true freshman Sam Hartman.
Running Backs: Expect Wake to ride senior Matt Colburn a lot in those first three games. Colburn (904 yds, 5.4 avg, 7 TDs, 11 receptions) is by no means a superstar, but he is a bruiser who is always falling forward and rarely gets tackled behind the line. He’ll rarely break off a big play, but he’ll almost always pick up four or five yards. Junior Cade Carney (232 yds, 3.7 avg, 2 TDs) is a short yardage back who actually has home run ability despite his low per carry average. The change of pace guy will be Christian Beal, a redshirt freshman scatback with great quickness.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: This is a good news, bad news situation. The bad news is Wake lost leading receiver Tabari Hines and all-conference tight end Cam Serigne, but the good news is that there are three really good receivers to build around.
The star of the group is sophomore slot receiver Greg Dortch, a nothing recruit who blew up last year before an injury sidelined him. Dortch (53 recs, 722 yds, 9 TDs) caught a lot of screens and short passes and turned them into long runs, flashing great ability after the catch. He’s small at 5-9, 170 and will have to prove he can stay healthy after missing five games last year, but he has all-conference potential. Junior Scotty Washington (45 recs, 711 yds, 3 TDs) is a big target at 6-5 who has home run ability to combine with his huge catch radius. Senior Alex Bachman (21 recs, 365 yds, 3 TDs) is no star, but he is a solid slot receiver with good hands.
The coaching staff feels very good about the depth of this unit. Redshirt freshman Sage Surratt turned lots of heads on the scout team last season and he is expected to have a breakout year. Classmate Jaquarii Roberson was a highly ranked recruit who is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Fellow redshirt frosh Waydale Jones was the highest ranked recruit of the trio, but he seems to be slowly adapting to the college game. He has natural ability, but just needs to put it all together. Junior Steven Claude has played in 24 games during his career, but has only caught two passes. He provides experience if nothing else.
Wake is starting over at tight end after Serigne’s departure and there is a wide open competition to start at the position. Junior Jake Freudenthal was the top backup last year, but was only targeted five times in the passing game and needs to prove he can be a threat as a receiver. Sophomores Brandon Chapman and Thomas Cole are bigger options, but they lack experience.
Offensive Line: Very quietly, Wake has developed one of the better offensive lines in the ACC. After being just awful in Clawson’s first three years, the line was a strength last year and should be again. The Deacs return all five starters from last year plus a backup with starting experience. Clawson has also built up the numbers here so Wake has functional depth too.
The leaders of the self-proclaimed “Beef Boys” are seniors Ryan Anderson, Justin Herron, and Phil Haynes. All three have started at least 30 games and have been all-conference selections. Junior RT Jake Benzinger and senior RG Patrick Osterhage were starters last year, although Osterhage will be pushed by junior Nathan Gilliam, who had two spot starts last year and is probably more naturally talented.
For once, Wake actually has depth here too. Sophomore tackle Taleni Suhren, sophomore guard Tyler Watson, sophomore tackle JeVionte Nash, redshirt freshman center Zach Tom, and redshirt freshman tackle Allan Rappleyea were all 3* recruits coming out of high school, which makes them more highly rated than any of the current starters. And Clawson just signed three more linemen who are higher rated than any other guys in the position segment.
2017 Review: As much as the offense improved in 2017, the defense took a big step back after DC Mike Elko was lured to Notre Dame and Clawson hired former Minnesota DC Jay Sawvel. The Deacs ranked in the bottom half of the ACC in nearly every statistical category and were an abysmal 113th in total defense and 119th in passing defense. Wake was good at creating negative plays in the running game, but they were mostly poor at everything else.
Scheme: The interesting thing about Wake’s step back on defense is that Sawvel actually runs a very similar defense schematically as Elko. He will load up the box and sell out to stop the run on first and second down in order to sit back on obvious passing downs. I would not expect a major shift as Sawvel’s style worked in his stint at Minnesota, but the pass defense needs to shore up for his scheme to work.
Defensive Line: Last year, the defensive ends were the strength. This year, it appears it will be the tackles as seniors Willie Yarbary and Zeek Rodney return to become three-year starters. Yarbary (30 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 4 sacks) is a penetrator who creates a lot of havoc. Rodney (29 tackles, 8.5 for loss) is more of the run-stuffer and block occupier. Wake has two good options on the bench in junior Elontae Bateman (22 tackles, 4.5 for loss) and sophomore Sulaiman Kamara (12 tackles, 3 for loss), a guy the coaching staff is very high on.
At defensive end, the Deacs are starting over after Duke Ejiofor, who is in an NFL camp, and Wendell Dunn graduated and took 81 career starts with them. The current leaders to start appear to be junior Carlos “Boogie” Basham and senior Chris Calhoun. Basham (24 tackles, 2 for loss) started once last year and many around the program think he will be very good. Calhoun (21 tackles, 1.5 for loss) has four spot starts to his credit and is savvy and experienced. He’s solid, if unspectacular. Many around the program expect redshirt freshmen Mike Allen and Adam Winter to see lots of playing time and sophomores Manny Walker and LaRonde Liverpool were well-regarded recruits.
Linebacker: Senior Demetrious Kemp returns to one OLB position, but Clawson has openly admitted that he is concerned about this position segment. Kemp (63 tackles, 1.5 for loss, INT) is a pretty low ceiling player, but he has a ton of experience and flashes big play ability at times. The coaches are very excited about junior Justin Strnad (51 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, 3 INTs), who stuffed the stat sheet last year largely as a backup. He’s expected to either play MLB or BUCK, which is an OLB position that has to excel against the run and pass.
It is anyone’s guess who else might see time. Sophomore Jacquez Williams (21 tackles, 2 for loss) seems likely to see playing time at one OLB spot. Junior Nate May and sophomores DJ Taylor and Jake Simpson are pushing for time at both BUCK and MLB. Many people think redshirt frosh Jeff Burley may emerge by season’s end. He was slated to play as a true freshman last year, but he was injured and ended up redshirting.
Secondary: Over the season’s final six games, opponents averaged 380 yards passing per game against Wake. With three starters back and several players with experience returning, the hope is that an extra year of playing time will help this unit improve.
Wake does have serious potential for improvement at corner, where starters Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey and top backup JaSir Taylor all return. Henderson (62 tackles, 2 INTS, 9 pass breakups), a junior, has played in 23 games in his career and is considered one of the leaders of the defense. Bassey (75 tackles, 6 for loss, 3 INTs, 16 PBUs), also a junior, was rated the second-best CB in the ACC by Pro Football Focus analytics. He’s very active and athletic. Taylor (27 tackles, 5 PBUs) played in 10 games as a true freshman last year and is expected to have a breakout season. He would start for a lot of programs. Sophomore Coby Davis (10 tackles, 2 PBUs) can play too and adds another layer of depth.
At safety, Jessie Bates is gone and was drafted in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft, but junior Cameron Glenn is back to man the FS spot again. Glenn (98 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 2 INTs, 7 PBUs) led the team in tackles last year and is a very solid player who should push for postseason honors. Who starts opposite Glenn is still murky. The frontrunner is sophomore Luke Masterson, who filled in for Bates when he was injured last year. Masterson (42 tackles, 3 PBUs) struggled mightily at times, but he also gained valuable experience. The other main candidate is senior Chuck Wade, a long-time backup and special teams ace who impressed in the spring.
Special Teams: Punter Dom Maggio returns after averaging 44.1 yards per punt, but he often outkicked his coverage and the Deacs actually ranked very low in net punting. Kicker Mike Weaver, who was very solid, has graduated and Maggio or true freshman Nick Sciba will hold down that job. Dortch and Wade are solid return men.
Schedule: If anything holds Wake back, it may be the schedule. The nonconference schedule (at Tulane, Towson, Notre Dame, Rice) should produce 3 wins, but the ACC slate is a bear. Wake must travel to FSU, Louisville, NC State, and rival Duke. BC comes to Winston Salem, but that will be during Hinton’s suspension and that will make that game much harder.
Overall: Just when Clawson was getting everything together, he loses his QB. And now his replacement will miss the first three games. Still, Wake has an experienced offensive line, depth at RB, and some nice options at receiver. I don’t think the offense will be as good as last year, but they shouldn’t fall off a cliff either. The defense remains a concern. There is depth at defensive tackle and corner, but lots of questions at end, LB, and safety. And the defense was quite poor last year even with a very experienced unit so it is hard to expect any improvement from that side of the ball. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ system projects Wake to win 6.7 games and that feels about right. Wake might lose to BC without Hinton and home games with Notre Dame and Clemson will be very hard, but Wake should win 3 nonconference games and they’ll have a puncher’s chance against almost everyone on their schedule. Because of Hinton’s suspension, I’d guess Wake goes 6-6, but it would not surprise me to see them go 7-5. What requires no guessing, though, is that Clawson has made Wake the annoying overachiever and extremely tough out that they once were under Jim Grobe.