After Jim Grobe presided over the Wake Forest football program for 13 seasons, the school made a change bringing in coach Dave Clawson after five consecutive losing seasons. What followed was ugly, an understandable bottoming out—and a three-win season that may have been one of the least impressive in any Power Five conference.
The Demon Deacons beat just Gardner-Webb and Army before pulling out a statistically improbable 6-3 victory over Virginia Tech in two overtimes, highlighting the offensive ineptitude that plagued Wake Forest all season.
But 2015 is a new year and even if the odds are long and the rebuild far from over, things are looking up for the Deacs. To get us prepared for Notre Dame’s third ever meeting with Wake Forest—and their third of the Brian Kelly era—Robert Reinhard of Blogger So Dear gets us up to speed on the state of the rebuilding efforts in Winston-Salem.
After a really nice run atop the Wake program, Jim Grobe gave way to Dave Clawson as the head coach of the Demon Deacons. Year one was ugly, perhaps understandably so. But can you give us an assessment of the hire, the work you saw in season one from Clawson and where things are trending entering 2015?
I was thrilled with the hire when it was made, and I’m still a firm believer that Dave Clawson will be successful at Wake Forest. The best members of the 2014 recruiting class committed after Clawson was hired. The 2015 recruiting class was the best in Wake Forest history, and the 2016 recruiting class has some very solid pieces. Clawson has won conference championships at each of his previous jobs. While I don’t expect him to necessarily win a conference title at Wake Forest, I do believe that he can make Wake Forest perennially bowl eligible.
2015 will probably be a difficult year for Wake fans given the youth of the team as well as the difficult schedule. So while the win total may be very similar to last year, I think fans who take an honest look at the product on the field and the caliber of recruits Wake is landing, that the program is very much headed in the right direction. I judged Clawson last season on improvement and recruiting, and I intend to have the same philosophy this year. If he does not take the team to a bowl game next season, then I will have questions. Until then, I think Wake made an outstanding hire.
There are bad offenses and then there’s the offense Wake Forest had last season. At 3.4 yards per play—the worst in the country—and just 14.8 points a game, that feels awful close to the definition of rock bottom. Quarterback John Wolford returns, and showed improvement down the stretch. The line But what’s a realistic expectation for this offense, a group that could start as many as eight underclassmen?
I think this offense will demonstrate flashes of potential, but I still believe the offensive line is too young for Wake Forest to be extremely competitive. Wolford has looked much more in control during spring practice, and freshman slot receiver Tabari Hines is a shifty playmaker. Tight end Cam Serigne, as well as Tyree Harris could be major targets for Wolford. In the backfield, I expect true freshman Rocky Reid to be the starter. He originally committed to Tennessee, and is one of the best recruits Wake Forest has ever landed.
The caveat that I mentioned earlier is the offensive line. The projected starting offensive line will have a combined 40 career starts headed into the season, and all of those come from guards Josh Harris and Dylan Intemann. Wake is expected to start redshirt freshman at left tackle, center, and right tackle, which are probably the three most important positions on the line. The line should be more physical and athletic than it was a year ago, but that youth and inexperience is very concerning for the upcoming season.
The good news is that the Wake Forest defense actually had a pretty impressive season in 2014, especially when you consider just how badly the offense struggled. Notre Dame should have one of the tougher attacks that the Demon Deacons face — how will they stack up against Notre Dame’s ground game, and how will they replace first rounder Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel?
I think Wake will match up well against Notre Dame’s rushing attack, as the front seven should be the strength of this defense. Wake Forest has one of ,if not, the best linebacker units in the ACC. The major question mark, which you alluded to, is the secondary. I believe Wake Forest will be fine at the safety position, as both Ryan Janvion and Thomas Brown are experienced.
The problem will be that the corners who were supposed to replace Johnson and Noel have been injured and unable to get practice reps in. Brad Watson will presumably be Wake’s top corner this year, but he injured his wrist and missed spring practice. Transfer Bryant Gross-Armiento was also expected to compete for a starting job, but he recovering from a torn ACL. It’s very probable that at least one of freshmen Dionte Austin and Amari Henderson will see the field this season. They are both talented, but it’s never ideal to be starting a true freshman corner, unless he’s a very elite prospect.
Can you give us a quick rundown of who else should be impressive on the Deacs defense?
The most notable person on the defense is linebacker Brandon Chubb, who could potentially be a 1st-team all-ACC player this season. Linebacker Marquel Lee also stands an excellent chance to make an all-conference team. On the defensive line, Josh Banks is Wake’s biggest playmaker.
It’s not much of a question, but I wanted to mention that I appreciate the Heisman campaign you guys started for punter Alex Kinal. Help Irish fans understand what they’ve been missing from the “Australian Assassin.”
It’s unfortunate when your punter is on pace to shatter the NCAA record for punt attempts in a career, but that’s where Alex Kinal stands headed into his senior season. In addition to punting a lot, he does have a very strong leg and can punt with accuracy using a rugby style kick. Given Wake’s poor offense, I expect that Notre Dame fans will be very familiar with Alex Kinal’s work.
After not playing each other for literally the entirety of each program, Notre Dame and Wake Forest will face off for the third time in five years. Does the game still garner the interest that it did when Notre Dame visited Winston-Salem back in 2011?
It does not for me, and I think that’s directly related to Wake’s decline since that time. Wake was winning the 2011 game 17-10 at halftime, before losing 24-17. There was a great atmosphere at that game because Wake fans thought the team had a legitimate chance to win, which they clearly did.
I went to South Bend in 2012 for the experience, but Wake lost 38-0. I expect another blowout this year, and really have no special interest in this game due to Wake’s very low probability of winning. For that reason, I have a lot more interest in Wake’s winnable games such as Wake’s game at Syracuse.
Even in July, this game looks pretty lopsided on paper. A year after winning only against Gardner-Webb, Army—and in one of the more amazing games in modern football history—Virginia Tech, what do you expect in 2015 from the Deacs?
Unfortunately, I believe that 2015 will be another rebuilding year, but it seems clear that the first four games will be very telling. If Wake Forest is going to make a bowl game (big if), then the first four games are critical. Wake’s first four games include Elon, at Syracuse, at Army, and Indiana at home. Wake Forest could go 4-0 during that stretch, but it’s far more likely that the Deacs go 2-2.
In general, I believe that Wake Forest will demonstrate potential this year, but ultimately will be too young to win many games. Last season, Wake had a few older players who were talented, namely Johnson and Merrill Noel, but not much else. There are only a handful of seniors on this year’s roster, and many underclassmen are projected to be starters. I expect the team to improve throughout the season, show flashes of potential, but ultimately not win more than 3 or 4 games.