In an odd quirk of Notre Dame’s partnership with the ACC, Wake Forest shows up on the schedule two years in a row. Some remember last year’s 48-37 victory as the moment the Irish defense started to weaken in November, but it would be more accurate to say the defense lost its focus that afternoon thanks to a 48-23 fourth-quarter lead.
Notre Dame cruised that day thanks to its running game. While that was true most of the season, it was not usually to the tune of 380 yards and an 8.3 yards per carry average. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush added 280 passing yards with a touchdown, completing 15-of-30 passes before turning the offense over to backup Ian Book, who went 8-for-8 on his way to 50 more aerial yards and another score.
That blowout was extremely atypical of the Demon Deacons’ season. The only other team to trounce Wake Forest was Clemson, who casually led 28-0 in the fourth quarter before giving up two garbage time touchdowns in a similar fashion as the Irish did a few weeks later.
Georgia Tech also beat the Deacons by two possessions, but that 38-24 loss included a 70-yard Yellow Jacket touchdown run in the final minutes.
Not to diminish those three losses — the Tech loss especially must have felt like a missed opportunity — but the season was otherwise very much a success for Wake Forest. In an 8-5 campaign, the other two losses came by seven to Florida State and by eight to Duke as the Blue Devils scrapped for bowl eligibility.
The Deacons won a bowl game for the second straight year, topping Texas A&M in a shootout truly worthy of the Belk Bowl. The 55-52 absurdity included 1,260 yards of total offense. Perhaps both most inexplicable and most predictable, the bookmakers predicted Wake Forest to win by three. Vegas knows, Vegas always knows.
WHAT WAKE FOREST LOST
For a program on the rise, this is not usually a long entry, but here it should be. For that matter, it would not usually include a four-year starter at quarterback, but the Deacons are indeed now without John Wolford, second-team All-ACC last year thanks to 3,192 passing yards with a 63.9 percent completion rate and 29 touchdowns against only six interceptions.
The critics of Notre Dame’s casual close against Wake Forest generally overlooked how accomplished and savvy Wolford was. He also added 683 yards and 10 scores rushing. Few quarterbacks in the country were more productive.
Wolford relied on tight end Cam Serigne, first-team All-ACC thanks to 44 catches for 556 yards and nine touchdowns, and he learned to go to receiver Tabari Hines (53, 683, 7). Serigne is now working with the Carolina Panthers while Hines took a graduate transfer to Oregon.
Defensively, the Deacons will now have to learn to live without their Nos. 2 and 3 tacklers, linebackers Grant Dawson (90 with 10.5 for loss) and Jaboree Williams (85, 14), as well as the next on that list, safety Jessie Bates (79, six). Bates missed three games due to injury, but was arguably the second-best defender on the team, hence his second round drafting by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Wake Forest’s best defensive player was second-team All-ACC defensive end Duke Ejiofor (43 tackles with 16.5 for loss including 6.5 sacks). Throughout last season, the Irish faced a number of top-tier ends such as Ejiofor (along with Georgia’s Roquan Smith and North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb). Holding Ejiofor to only two tackles undoubtedly played a role in the Notre Dame offensive line winning the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in the country.
Ejiofor’s counterpart Wendell Dunn (46 tackles, seven for loss with three sacks) left a void of his own having exhausted his eligibility.
WHAT WAKE FOREST SUSPENDED
Junior Kendall Hinton (pictured above) actually beat out Wolford for the starting quarterback gig in 2016 when an injury ended his season after just one game. Wolford soon developed such that Hinton saw only spot action last year, namely in that loss to Clemson when Wolford was out injured.
Hinton looked to be the presumed starter this past spring, ahead of sophomore Jamie Newman and early-enrolled freshman Sam Hartman. A dual-threat quarterback, Hinton rushed for 190 yards and a touchdown last year. He seemed ready to add wrinkles to head coach Dave Clawson’s schemes.
In June, though, Clawson suspended Hinton for this season’s first three games due to a violation of team rules. The Deacons play the Irish in week four, so it initially appeared Hinton would be back behind center.
That is until this preseason, as he has reportedly spent most practices working at receiver in such a way that it looks to be a long-term position change.
WHAT WAKE FOREST GAINED
The No. 31 quarterback in the country, per rivals.com, Not only did Hartman set himself up for success with his early enrollment, but his overall timing also could not have been better. Wolford is the only quarterback Clawson has relied upon during his Wake Forest tenure. The vacuum at quarterback may be overblown — hard to say no one is around when both Hinton and Newman certainly are — but it may feel that way to those around the program and Wolford the last four seasons.
Clawson’s rise up the coaching ranks has been an old-fashioned, prototypical one. From Fordham to Richmond to Bowling Green to Wake Forest, this now equals his time at Bowling Green for the longest stretch. At each stop, Clawson has gradually added wins each season until a worthwhile promotion arrived.
With the Deacons, that progression began with back-to-back 3-9 seasons before yielding two bowl-winning years (7-6, 8-5).
If 2018 goes well for Wake Forest, do not be surprised to hear Clawson’s name mentioned when openings begin popping up in November. There is no obvious alma mater or hometown university for him to consider, having gone to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and originally hailing from Youngstown, N.Y.
In a continuing effort to realize everything in football ties back to Lane Kiffin, it can be noted Kiffin cut short Clawson’s only other Power Five coaching experience when Kiffin took the head coaching gig at Tennessee. Clawson had spent the 2008 season as offensive coordinator with the Volunteers in a year assistant coaching between head gigs at FCS-level Richmond and Bowling Green.
In other words, there is also no school where Clawson spent years as an assistant to consider as an obvious destination for him if he opts to move upward from Winston-Salem.
When then-sophomore receiver Greg Dortch dove for the end zone to score his second touchdown in a 42-32 victory over Louisville last season, he made the Irish defense’s job much easier a week later. Though Dortch went on to score twice more that day, finishing with 10 catches for 167 yards and the most receiving touchdowns in a game in Deacons history, it was the landing on a pylon that prompted abdominal surgery.
In just six starts in eight games, Dortch caught 53 passes for 722 yards and nine touchdowns. Whoever starts at quarterback for Wake Forest, Dortch will be his favorite target.
Aside from that, the passing game will have much to prove, but likely with time on each snap to prove it. The offensive line gave up only 20 sacks last season while paving the way for 188.9 rushing yards per game. That entire line returns this season, including first-team All-ACC center Ryan Andersen, third-team All-ACC left tackle Justin Herron and third-team All-ACC left guard Phil Haynes.
Then-junior running back Matt Colburn ran for 904 yards and seven touchdowns with an average of 5.4 yards per carry behind that line last year. He should have little trouble boosting those stats this season.
This remains a scheme abnormally familiar to Notre Dame fans. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel replaced Mike Elko when Elko went to South Bend for a season, but enough of Elko’s concepts remain, including the rover position, manned by senior Demetrius Kemp (63 tackles last season).
However, it is a defense filled with personnel somewhat unfamiliar to Deacons fans. Replacing two defensive ends, two linebackers and a safety spells little but inexperience.
In Clawson’s first three years at Wake Forest, the offense never gained more than 333 yards per game. In his first two seasons, it scored 14.8 points and 17.4 points per game before jumping to 20.4 in 2016.
Then last season, the Deacons averaged 466 yards and 35.3 points per game. Without Wolford, regression may seem probable. If quarterback drama ensues, it likely is, but if Clawson can stabilize that position, the program should continue the overall trends of late.
Some states would allow those interested to guess if Wake Forest will win more or fewer than 6.5 games this season. In the ACC, that is a tougher ask than it may seem, and it likely comes down to quarterback play. The schedule includes three should-be wins in a season-opening trip to Tulane and visits from Towson and Rice. Three conference contemporaries all visit the Deacons: Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Perhaps the season will come down to Thanksgiving weekend’s trip to nearby Duke, but an upset of Notre Dame, Florida State, Louisville or North Carolina State would conceivably render that concern moot by then.