The worst of the storm has passed. The rebuilding continues in earnest in Winston-Salem.
By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello
Absolutely no one, even those tied closest to the program, held grand hopes for Dave Clawson’s debut at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons went with youth at many key positions in 2014, resulting in a predictable three-win campaign.
But now that all of those letterwinning underclassmen are a year older, and Clawson’s approach isn’t so foreign, Wake Forest is expected to take another gradual step toward competitiveness in 2015. While the program is still at least a year away, it can claim an important victory this fall by simply continuing to head in the right direction.
Clawson is doing more than just coach football players these days. He’s in the process of changing a culture that had become increasingly stale and moribund under Jim Grobe. The Demon Deacons prepare differently under Clawson and his staff, especially in the weight room, which had slipped badly under the previous regime. If nothing else, Wake Forest will be bigger and stronger in 2015, and better prepared to compete with the rest of the ACC.
In terms of personnel, the defense will remain ahead of the offense for the foreseeable future. The Deacons were home to one of the nation’s most futile attacks a year ago, due in large part to inexperience and an inability to keep opposing defenders out of the backfield. And while youth will continue to be served, QB John Wolford is no longer a rookie, and line play should be slightly improved.
It’s on defense where Wake Forest will have its best chance to win games in 2015. The unit that played with so much heart and tenacity for coordinator Mike Elko last season brings back seven starters and most of the front seven. If the Deacons can coach up the new starting cornerbacks, a major concern, this team is going to beat someone it shouldn’t this fall on sound D alone.
Patience, Wake Forest fans. Yes, you’ve endured six consecutive losing seasons, and you’re backing one of the toughest programs at which to succeed. But your second-year coach is making a difference, even if those changes don’t immediately appear in the standings. Given a couple of years to instill his philosophies and dedication to hard work, Clawson is a proven turnaround specialist, whether it’s been at Fordham, Richmond or Bowling Green. He’ll have the same impact at Wake, but significant time will be needed for all of his young contributors to fully mature.
What you need to know about the offense: The Demon Deacon offense hit rock bottom in 2014. But then again, that was the same mantra muttered following the 2012 and 2013 campaigns, too. A young and physically inferior unit was feeble last fall, averaging a league-low 14.8 points per game, while yielding more sacks and tackles for loss than any FBS squad. It was a disaster, yet hardly unexpected considering the youth that dotted the two-deep. The upshot is that just about everyone who played is back, and they’re bigger and stronger following a dedicated offseason in the weight room. The offense will be better, though, fireworks are a long way off. Wake is still extremely green, and that nagging issue of blocking will be an ongoing sore spot. The hope of Dave Clawson and coordinator Warren Ruggiero is that second-year quarterback John Wolford gets enough time to locate open receivers, like TE Cam Serigne, and that backs Isaiah Robinson and Dezmond Wortham enjoy a sliver of daylight. If this group raises its average to 20 points per game for the first time since 2011, it’ll qualify as progress.
What you need to know about the defense: If there’s going to be a rebirth at Wake Forest, as Dave Clawson hopes, it’ll be driven in the early going by the D. Mike Elko is simply one of the most underrated coordinators in America, proving it again last year in Winston-Salem. His kids fought and scrapped and played with boundless intensity to help keep the Demon Deacons in a lot of games in which it was otherwise overmatched. And the unit will be feisty again this year, provided the new cornerbacks aren’t routinely exposed. Besides the need to replace Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel in the secondary, the defense is in good shape. The linebackers will be among the best in the ACC. The Ryan Janvion-led safeties are vastly underrated. And the D-line has come a long way in a short period of time. A liability at this time last year, the front wall has birthed playmakers in NT Tylor Harris, DT Josh Banks and drop end Wendell Dunn. And testament to the unit’s ascent, even Harris, an all-star, is being pushed for reps at the nose by emerging sophomore Zeek Rodney.
What to look for on offense: Forever young. Even after leaning on plenty of youth in 2014, the Demon Deacons will remain inexperienced on offense. Better, but still inexperienced. The post-spring depth chart features more freshmen listed as starters—four—than upperclassmen—two. Although the unit has a long journey ahead of it, it’s going to benefit from the redshirt year that RT Justin Herron, C Ryan Anderson, LT Phil Haynes and WR Cortez Lewis, among others, used to get bigger and stronger. Even if the results don’t change overnight, the Wake offense is in a better position to compete in 2015.
What to look for on defense: Developing new cornerbacks. Wake Forest is underrated on defense, and getting better. But progress this season could be stifled by the insertion of two new cornerbacks into the lineup. And the newcomers to the first team will be replacing two terrific, next-level performers, Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel. Making matters even worse, possible starter Bryant Gross-Armiento, a Rutgers transfer, is still recovering from ACL surgery. Sophomores Brad Watson and Josh Okonye are the frontrunners to start entering the summer, but they’ll need to continue proving themselves when practice resumes.
The team will be far better if … O-line growth in the weight room translates to the field. The Deacon offensive line is unmistakably bigger and stronger than a year ago. But will the group be better on Saturdays? It’ll have to be for QB John Wolford and an embryonic collection of backs and receivers to have a chance at progress this season. In 2014, Wake Forest yielded more sacks than any other FBS squad, and its miniscule one-yard rushing average was testament to the magnitude of its issues at the point of attack.
The Schedule: The Demon Deacons will have a hard time getting settled, with back-to-back home games twice.
– Not only is Notre Dame one of the non-conference games that’s not really a non-conference game, it’s on the road. Fortunately, Elon and going to Army will be manageable. Beating Indiana at home could be a must to have any hopes of a bowl season.
– Playing a home game to start the season and end it won’t be a positive considering there’s a run of four road games in six weeks early on and road games at Notre Dame and Clemson after the week off.
– Playing Duke and North Carolina from the Coastal isn’t too bad a break, considering there’s no real travel with the lone road game in interdivisional play in Chapel Hill.
– WATCH OUT FOR … The date at Army. The Demon Deacons will make one trip to New York to face Syracuse, and then will go to the other side of the state to deal with the Army offense. The Demon Deacons will have to be fully focused after the ACC opener in the Carrier Dome.
Best Offensive Player: Sophomore TE Cam Serigne. Serigne is a symbol of the youth movement currently taking place in Winston-Salem. In just his first season out of high school, he led the Demon Deacons in receiving, providing fellow rookie QB John Wolford with a reliable target in the middle of the field. And Serigne has now added 10 pounds of muscle since the end of last year to better handle blocking and the general rigors of playing in the ACC. As the talent around him improves, he has a shot to be one of the league’s better pass-catching tight ends.
Best Defensive Player: Senior NT Tylor Harris. Harris typifies what Wake Forest wants to become during the Dave Clawson era. Atypical of most interior linemen, the senior is extremely quick off the snap, with the agility and the athleticism to beat opposing blockers to the backfield. If the Deacons operated out of the 3-4, Harris would be ideally equipped to line up as a strongside end. He’ll begin his NFL audition year 10 pounds stronger and determined to break free from the ranks of the anonymous.
Key players to a successful season: The offensive tackles. Any talk of team improvement must begin with an offensive line that was overmatched a season ago. And while Wake is in relatively good shape at guard with underrated Josh Harris and converted RT Dylan Intemann, tackle will be a sore point in 2015. The future is bright, but the present is rather unsettling, as the Demon Deacons anticipate life with redshirt freshmen on the flanks, Phil Haynes at left tackle and Justin Herron on the right side.
The season will be a success if … Wake Forest goes 5-7. Yeah, falling a victory shy of bowl-eligibility would be excruciatingly painful, but the Demon Deacons are all about making progress these days. And after going 3-9 in 2014, a two-game improvement would qualify as momentum. Wake figures to beat Elon and bow to Florida State, Notre Dame and Clemson. If it can split the other eight games somewhat within reach, it’ll represent another layer in Dave Clawson’s foundation.
Key game: Sept. 12 at Syracuse. Wake Forest figures to open with a win over FCS Elon, but the first real test of the season occurs the following weekend with a trip to face the Orange in New York. The Demon Deacons have dropped 10 consecutive road games, so an upset in the Carrier Dome could be just the confidence boost that the young program needs. Plus, in what figures to be a tight, low-scoring affair, Wake must begin learning how to win these types of 60-minute scrums.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Points per game: Wake Forest 14.8 – Opponents 26.4
– Rushing yards per game: Wake Forest 39.9 – Opponents 182.7
– Sacks: Wake Forest 28 – Opponents 48
Players You Need To Know
1. NT Tylor Harris, Sr.
Harris has picked up where Nikita Whitlock left off, abusing opposing linemen from the interior of the line. Harris was a revelation in his debut as a full-timer, needing just 10 games to rise to the All-ACC Second Team. He’s explosive with his feet and his hands, particularly for a 6-4, 305-pounder, getting off the snap before blockers can get out their stance. Posting numbers that don’t do justice to his potential, Harris had 25 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss, a sack, four fumble recoveries and three blocked kicks. He’ll have the interest of NFL scouts this fall.
2. S Ryan Janvion, Jr.
Out of South Florida, the former Wake Forest staff mined a gem three years ago. Janvion has started every game of the last two seasons at strong safety, leading the team in tackles in both years. As a sophomore, the captain racked up 115 stops, including seven behind the line, and broke up six passes. Janvion plays much bigger than his size, just 5-11 and 190 pounds, and he’s especially effective when pressing up to defend the run in the box.
3. TE Cam Serigne, Soph.
Out of the darkness of 2014 shined occasional hints of light. Serigne, for example. Modestly recruited out of Ashburn, Va., he quickly emerged into a building block for the future, earning honorable mention All-ACC. He led all Wake Forest receivers with 54 receptions for 531 yards and five touchdowns, a single-season school record for tight ends. There’s nothing flashy about Serigne, who’s bulked up to 6-3 and 245 pounds since arriving. He simply runs great routes and never drops catchable balls.
4. LB Brandon Chubb, Sr.
Chubb moved from the middle to BUCK, or outside linebacker, in the new 4-2-5, yet remained one of the Deacons’ most productive defenders. The team captain started all 12 games, ranking second on the team with 109 stops, including 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and six quarterback hurries. Given additional latitude to freelance in Mike Elko’s D, the 6-1, 245-pound Chubb was a more frequent visitor to opposing backfields. ACC voters took notice, naming him honorable mention all-league.
5. LB Marquel Lee, Jr.
Lee’s career as a Demon Deacon took flight last season, setting the stage for what should be promising junior and senior years. He started every game in the middle, finishing with 101 tackles, a team-high 12 stops for loss and four sacks. And he was at his best down the stretch, a hopeful precursor of what’s to come in 2015. While Lee must get stronger at the point of contact, he has the 6-3, 235-pound base that can handle more weight, and his instincts and knack for shedding blocks portend another 100-tackle campaign.
6. DT Josh Banks, Jr.
Banks enjoyed a successful first season as a full-timer, ending it with honorable mention All-ACC recognition. While his size, 6-4 and 260 pounds, can be a liability versus downhill running teams, his quickness allows him to shoot the gaps and disrupt opposing backfields. Banks produced 36 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, four sacks and a pick six against Utah State to help earn his league’s Defensive Lineman of the Week.
7. P Alexander Kinal, Sr.
Kinal is the latest in a growing line of successful punters from Down Under. In Winston-Salem, the Aussie native gets plenty of chances to hone his craft, punting 81 times for a 43.6-yard average a season ago. And beyond his obvious leg strength, the 6-4, 205-pounder has also improved his hang time and placement, helping to justify his appearance on the 2014 All-ACC Second Team.
8. OG Dylan Intemann, Sr.
Intemann is the veteran of the Wake Forest O-line, even more so now that talented interior lineman Cory Helms has transferred to South Carolina. Intemann has started 28 consecutive games at right tackle in Winston-Salem, bringing experience and a sense of stability to the beleaguered front wall. The 6-5, 305-pound former three-star recruit, who has shifted to right guard, needs to set the example this season for a unit that was mauled at the point of attack in 2014.
9. QB John Wolford, Soph.
Absolutely no one will be more important to the Deacon rebuilding plans than Wolford, who—literally— took his lumps as a 12-game starter in his debut out of Bishop Kenny (Fla.) High School. The rookie did about as well as could be expected, getting almost no support from his line and skill position players. Generously listed at 6-1 and 205 pounds, Wolford refused to back down in the face of pressure, completing 214-of-367 passes for 2,037 yards, 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He makes snap decisions, a must for operating in this undermanned Wake attack.
10. DE Wendell Dunn, Soph.
Dunn represents an important part of what Dave Clawson and Mike Elko are trying to build on defense in Winston-Salem, a good fit for the team’s ‘drop’ position. The Miami native was recruited to be an outside linebacker, yet started all 12 games at defensive end in 2014. And he set the table with 43 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss and a couple of forced fumbles. Dunn is an athletic and versatile 6-3, 250-pounder, with the range to rush the passer or even drop back into coverage.
11. ROV Hunter Williams, Sr.
From unheralded walk-on in 2011 to full-timer, Williams has been a very pleasant surprise at Wake Forest. Although he won’t blow anyone away with his speed or his trimmed-down 6-0, 220-pound frame, he’s a lunch pail defender and a gym rat from the second level of the Deacon D. Williams has opened 20 games over the last two years, chipping in with 60 stops, seven tackles for loss and a pair of fumble recoveries in 2014.
12. S Thomas Brown, Jr.
Brown has spent the last two years as a backup preparing for this moment. He started just one game, Army, last year, but there’ll be an opportunity to move up the pecking order in 2015. At an athletic 6-3 and 220 pounds, Brown maintains the versatility to contribute at ‘whip’. Despite coming off the bench in 2014, he took part in more than 700 plays while making 54 tackles, six stops for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles.