The Deacs attacked practice Wednesday with an extra bounce in their step and a smile on their face.
It was the last day of camp, and attention now turns to the season opener Thursday night against Tulane.
It’s a team full of players that believe they’ve improved across the board — and they’re relishing the opportunity to prove it soon.
After back-to-back record best recruiting classes, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson can sense the transformation as well — in the locker room, on the practice fields and very soon on game day.
Coaching a team now that’s largely put together with his own two hands, the joy on Clawson’s face through both spring and fall camps was patently obvious. This is a coach who loves what he does, and he sees the pieces coming together in Winston-Salem to do some damage in the ACC.
Known as a turnaround specialist, year three has often been the year of demarcation for Clawson, growing four wins from year two to three at Fordham and gaining three more wins in year three at Bowling Green.
If he was to add three more wins this year at Wake, the Deacs will go bowling — a goal he sees as realistic for this young, talented and experienced team.
The evidence suggests the offensive line improved last season, but for the Deacs to become bowl eligible, they will have to take yet another step forward.
Wake showed a 263 percent increase in rushing yardage in 2015, improving from 39.9 yards per game in 2014 to 105.2 yards per game last season. Even with the dramatic increase, Wake was still ranked no. 122 of 127 FBS teams. The Deacs were also no. 122 in sacks allowed, with 40 surrendered last season (down from 48 in 2014).
The Demon Deacon offensive line will be bigger, stronger and more experienced in 2016. The Deacs will start three sophomores, but the expected starting five on the offensive line have a combined 70 starts. The three sophomores on the line; Ryan Anderson, Justin Herron and Phil Haynes, have also tremendously adjusted their bodies since arriving at Wake in 2014, adding an average of 22 pounds of muscle.
The better news for Wake fans is that if the line can provide pass protection and create gaps for the running game, the Deacs are more deep and talented at the skill positions than ever during the Clawson era.
Wake returns five of their six offensive skill position starters from last season, and have a bevy of available options to replace K.J. Brent as the “S” receiver. In fact, the Deacs have six (if not more) wideouts that will play significant snaps this season with no discernible drop off in talent from first string to second. Additionally, the offense returns its most dependable pass catcher in All-ACC candidate tight end Cam Serigne,
The Deacs were no. 88 in the country last year in yards per completion (11.6). With speedy and reliable receivers like Steven Claude and Alex Bachman getting into the rotation, look for that number to jump this season.
The running back position was considered deep going into fall camp, but nagging injuries have limited the work of Tyler Bell, Arkeem Byrd and Isaiah Robinson. Freshman early enrollee Cade Carney has impressed and earned the starting job, but both Rocky Reid and Matt Colburn have also had flashes. This is a group that desperately needs to get healthy to have the impact the Deacs need this season to go bowling. Clawson often says that you can never have too many tailbacks, and that’s proven to be the case in camp.
Junior John Wolford and sophomore Kendall Hinton are set to share time at quarterback, with Wolford getting the start against Tulane. If the coaching staff can juggle these two successfully and extract their best attributes each week, it could be a winning formula for the Deacs. If things start to go south, however, this will probably be the decision that fans look at as the cause.
It took six games last season for the Deacs to force a turnover last season. That simply can’t happen in 2016. At -13, Wake Forest was no. 120 in the nation in turnover margin. Clearly the offense gave it up too much, but the defense didn’t force enough as well, and that’s been a major focus for defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s group in both spring and fall camp.
There were positives for the Demon Deacon defense last season, which finished 43rd in scoring defense and 38th in total yards allowed. Notable losses from that group include Brandon Chubb and Hunter Williams.
The Deacs also lost defensive lineman Zeek Rodney (leave of absence) and linebacker Zack Wary (injury) before fall camp even began.
They do return seven starters, including three of the top four leaders in tackles from last season. Senior Marquel Lee will anchor the defense from the linebacker position, and the Deacs should feature increased talent and depth in the secondary.
One of the keys will be pressuring the quarterback, which the Deacs did more of once Duke Ejiofor returned for the final seven games last season. Wake finished 94th in the nation in sacks, with 20. Ejiofor had four of those himself, along with two other quarterback hurries. Clawson regularly cites fellow defensive lineman Josh Banks as one of the players he needs to provide a consistent effort for the Deacs to be great defensively this season.
This is a season of opportunity for the Deacs. They believe they are improving in every facet of the game, and the schedule laid before them is definitely navigable.
At least a couple of writers have place Clawson on the coaching “hot seat,” which is completely absurd. The Deacs have an opportunity to break through and reach a bowl game, but it isn’t a layup by any stretch of the imagination. We’re still looking a roster dominated by sophomores.
Wake lost four games last season by eight points or less. Flipping a couple of those and taking advantage of a softer schedule would get them to the promised land.
This could be a fun season in which it goes down to the very last game of the regular season (Boston College at BB&T Field) to determine the Deacs fate.
Let’s enjoy it together!