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Wake Forest football is sturdy again, but can the Deacs survive 2017’s schedule?

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Dave Clawson’s rebuild is already a year ahead of pace, so he’s earned some patience.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Clawson is a methodical builder. In 2014, he stripped Wake's depth chart to its freshman-and-sophomore foundation. In 2015, he added a layer of freshman depth. This fall, he'll have his most experienced lineup yet, and there could still be as few as two seniors starting on offense and five on defense. He's keeping attrition to a minimum and letting guys develop. He's recruiting better.

This is a long road with traffic. Progress could cease at any moment. But he's proved himself a patient driver, one who resists fruitless shortcuts.

I expect Wake Forest to be rewarded. A bowl bid is likely still a year away, but I expect to see tangible progress in 2016, of the "more good" variety, instead of "slightly less bad."

My 2016 Wake Forest preview

We like to think improvement is linear, that when our new coach takes over, he generates improvement, then more and more. Taking steps backward is no fun. Constantly getting better: very fun.

It’s also almost impossible. First, you can only rise for so long. Second, everybody else is also trying to improve. What sounds beautiful and logical on paper is rarely so in real life. Unless you’re Clawson.

In last year’s Wake preview, I noted Clawson’s record by year throughout each of his head coaching stops. Let’s update those numbers:

  • Year 1: 10-25 (0.400)
  • Year 2: 14-22 (0.389)
  • Year 3: 25-22 (0.532)
  • Year 4: 29-11 (0.725)

Clawson takes on rebuilding jobs, tears the house down, and builds something nice in its place. He went 0-11 in his first year at Fordham in 1999 and 10-3 in his fourth year. He was 3-8 in year one at Richmond and 11-3 in year four. He delayed the cycle a year at BGSU but went 2-10 in his second year and 10-3 in his fifth.

Now he’s taken the Demon Deacons’ S&P+ ranking from 107th in 2014 to 88th in 2015 to 60th in 2016. The record didn’t change at first — 3-9 in both of his first two years — but broke through last fall. They reached their first bowl since 2011 and won their first since 2008.

Now, the Deacs were a little lucky. They averaged plus-1.3 points per game in turnovers luck, and adding up their postgame win expectancy figures suggests this was more like a five-win team in the regular season. But the improvement was still stark.

And it was only year three! Things don’t tend to coalesce for Clawson until year four. Granted, the Deacs will forever be in the wrong division — now that Clemson and Florida State have their acts together, unlike 2006, when Wake won the league — but whatever ambitions they have, a Clawson fourth year might be the time to achieve them.

The two-deep has taken shape. Wake returns both longtime starting quarterback John Wolford and the guy who replaced him before getting hurt last year (Kendall Hinton). The Deacs return nearly every running back, each of last year’s top eight receiving targets, and seven offensive linemen who have combined for 76 career starts. That would mean more if this offense hadn’t finished 101st or worse in Off. S&P+ for the last five years. But hey, Hinton is tantalizing, if he can stay on the field.

On defense they’ve got three of last year’s top four linemen, three of five linebackers, and four of seven defensive backs (plus Mississippi State transfer Cedric Jiles). That’s quite a bit to work with.

Of course, they’re without their stud defensive coordinator, who left for Notre Dame. And despite all this linear growth and returning production, S&P+ projects Wake to win just five games. The Deacs play six teams projected in the S&P+ top 31, which means they’ll have to either sweep the other games (which includes trips to BC, Appalachian State, and Syracuse) or pull an upset or two.

It’s a tricky slate. Last year they had to play only four top-30 teams and went 7-2 against teams outside of that range. This year, there’s no margin for error.


2016 in review

2016 Wake Forest statistical profile.

There was almost no middle ground on Wake Forest’s 2016 regular season slate. Four opponents finished 25th or better in S&P+, seven were 72nd or worse, and only one was in between. The difference in stats is what you would expect.

  • Wake Forest vs. S&P+ top 25 (0-4): Avg. percentile performance: 33% (~top 85) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.6, Wake 3.9 | Avg. score: Opp 32, Wake 12
  • Wake Forest vs. No. 51-plus (6-2): Avg. percentile performance: 59% (~top 50) | Avg. yards per play: Wake 4.8, Opp 4.7 | Avg. score: Wake 23, Opp 17

Wake was a one-unit team — two, if you include special teams — and against lesser foes (and a strong Temple in the bowl game) they were able to define games as low-scoring slogs and then out-execute in that space. They beat Tulane and Duke by a combined 31-17 to start the year. They were struggling to alternate between Hinton and Wolford, and while things got better when Hinton injured his knee against Delaware, gains were short-lived once better teams started showing up.

When you’d been to one bowl in seven years, you’ll take a season like this. Grind out wins against iffy teams, make the postseason, pull off a sneak attack in your bowl, and raise a trophy.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Temple vs Wake Forest
Dave Clawson
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

This was a wonderful season, whether the Deacs were able to keep up with Clemson or not.


Offense

Wake Forest offensive radar
I see a starburst. Or a child’s drawing of Texas.

Full advanced stats glossary.

We’ll start with some positives. Here’s a list of what Wake Forest’s offense did reasonably well last year:

  • The successful run plays were pretty big. The Deacs ranked [redacted] in Rushing Success Rate (okay, it was 120th, but I was trying to be positive) but did rank 34th in Rushing IsoPPP, a measure of the magnitude of the successful plays. Unfortunately, most came from Wolford and Hinton. The backs weren’t necessarily carrying their big-play weight.
  • They were not awful in short yardage, ranking 64th in power success rate. They were 65th in Adj. Line Yards, too, suggesting that if the backs can mature — the Deacs were led at RB by freshman Cade Carney and sophomore Matt Colburn last year — they might have decent blocking.

Two items qualifies as a list, right?

This was once again a bad offense, one that failed to build off of 2015’s progress. (And yes, ranking 105th with an adjusted point total of 22.4 points per game qualified as massive progress in 2015, coming off of 2014’s “maybe the worst offense I’ve ever seen” performance.)

Wake Forest offensive efficiency & explosiveness

It’s almost like Wake has its own Favre-Rodgers dynamic, with a far lower ceiling.

Wolford is the wily veteran a lot of fans want to retire (so to speak); he enters his senior season having thrown for over 5,000 yards and having tried to provide steadiness, with a gulf of non-talented pieces around him. He has almost never been successful — in three seasons, he has produced a passer rating of 160 or more three times, and once was against Elon in 2015 — but has shown poise in a situation that would melt a lot of quarterbacks.

Hinton flashed just enough potential last year to convince the fan base that perhaps the Deacs shouldn’t wait until Wolford graduates.

This is classic fan behavior, but Hinton did average 7.6 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) to Wolford’s 4.7, and he did rush 23 times (not including sacks) for 140 yards and two scores. And he posted a lot of those numbers against a Duke defense that hadn’t yet bottomed out.

NCAA Football: Delaware at Wake Forest
Kendall Hinton
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero has an awkward situation, but Clawson is doing his best to head off the awkwardness.

As we go into camp, Kendall will go in as the starter, and when he got hurt last year, he was the starter. But John will get reps with the ones, and we’ve got to keep those guys healthy. I mean, we don’t want to be a two-quarterback system. We don’t want to shuttle guys in and out. Unfortunately John and Kendall, neither of those guys have been able to stay healthy the past two years. So I think we’ve got to keep them healthy, and they’ve got to keep themselves healthy, and that will play itself out.

Last year we even had to play a third quarterback quite a bit. Getting Jamie Newman ready becomes important, too.

So there you go. Hinton’s the starter. Until he’s not.

Hinton could be the best thing for the Wake run game. Wolford is a solid runner and averaged more yards per non-sack carry (7.4 to 6.1) but rushed only about eight times per game. One could see Hinton carrying more of a 10- to 15-carry load and distracting defenses enough to open space for Carney and Colburn. They’ll need all the help they can get; they combined to gain five-plus yards on just 30 percent of their carries (the national average was about 40 percent) and didn’t make up for that with explosiveness.

The return of junior back Isaiah Robinson from injury gives Wake another option in the backfield, but he wasn’t any better in 2015 than Carney or Colburn were last year. If redshirt freshman Arkeem Byrd or true freshman Christian Beal finds any immediate spark, there will be plenty of carries to reward them with.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Wake Forest
Cam Serigne (85) and Cortez Lewis (15)
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

With any help from the run game, the passing game could be efficient. Tight end Cam Serigne, wideout Cortez Lewis, and slot man Tabari Hines flashed potential as possession guys, combining for a 49 percent success rate — not bad, all things considered. There’s no proven explosiveness in the receiving corps, and there are no star recruits in the pipeline (mid-three-star Scotty Washington, a 6’5 sophomore, is as close as it gets). But perhaps the higher ceiling in the run game will rub off? Is that how it works?

Defense

Wake Forest defensive radar

I’ll give Clawson credit for this: when ace coordinator Mike Elko left for Notre Dame, Clawson didn’t attempt to hold onto the magic by promoting from within. Coaches do that all the time, and it can work, but Clawson hired another potential ace DC.

Jay Sawvel spent 2016 running Minnesota’s defense for Tracy Claeys, and his Minnesota D produced almost exactly the same level of quality as Wake’s.

  • 2016 Wake Forest defense: 22nd in Def. S&P+, 44th in success rate, 40th in IsoPPP, 72nd in Standard Downs S&P+, 21st in Passing Downs S&P+
  • 2016 Minnesota defense: 23rd in Def. S&P+, 15th in success rate, 33rd in IsoPPP, seventh in Standard Downs S&P+, 68th in Passing Downs S&P+

Wake was brilliant at red zone defense, allowing 3.8 points per scoring opportunity (18th), and that allowed the Deacs to get away with a bend-don’t-break structure. You could move the ball on standard downs, but once the field got shorter or you fell behind schedule, Wake pounced.

Minnesota was the opposite. Sawvel’s defense attacked the run and forced a lot of negative plays on standard downs but suffered glitches in the name of aggressiveness on passing downs.

Sawvel’s ability to attack the run will depend on whether he’s got the pieces at defensive tackle. Three of the four guys in last year’s rotation are gone, leaving junior Willie Yarbary (2.5 TFLs), senior Zeek Rodney (back from a leave of absence), and unknowns. Sophomore Elontae Bateman did record a TFL for one of his two tackles, but Wake will be relying on at least one youngster, maybe more. And that might be fine: redshirt freshman Sulaiman Kamara was one of the best-regarded recruits Clawson has signed.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Temple vs Wake Forest
Demetrius Kemp (34)
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Wake also has to replace linebacking dynamo Marquel Lee (20 TFLs, 7.5 sacks), but veterans Jaboree Williams, Grant Dawson, and Demetrius Kemp should provide a nice LB presence. And dynamic ends Due Ejiofor and Wendell Dunn (combined: 23 TFLs, 13 sacks) should be well-suited for a Sawvel defense.

Wake also has to replace three key defensive backs (corner Brad Watson, safeties Ryan Javion and Josh Okonye), but has sophomores and transfers to the rescue. Safety Jessie Bates III logged five picks, four breakups, and 3.5 TFLs as a freshman last year, and sophomore corners Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson combined for 1.5 TFLs and 13 passes defensed. There is massive potential in the back, and Jiles should be able to help immediately. If Sawvel can find pieces in run defense, the pass defense should be fine.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Louisville
Jessie Bates III
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Wake was able to lean on solid special teams to help the defense when the offense couldn’t. Senior Mike Weaver is a strong place-kicker (15-for-16 on field goals under 40 yards, 6-for-11 over 40), and over 50 percent of his kickoffs result in touchbacks. The punting and return games were decent despite freshman punter Dom Maggio and a freshman return man in Bates. Everybody but kick returner John Armstrong is back, so Wake has an excellent chance to improve on last year’s No. 33 Special Teams S&P+ ranking.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Presbyterian NR 44.4 99%
9-Sep at Boston College 76 2.4 56%
16-Sep Utah State 73 6.6 65%
23-Sep at Appalachian State 62 -2.8 44%
30-Sep Florida State 3 -20.8 11%
7-Oct at Clemson 6 -22.4 10%
21-Oct at Georgia Tech 31 -8.7 31%
28-Oct Louisville 14 -13.1 22%
4-Nov at Notre Dame 17 -14.8 20%
11-Nov at Syracuse 60 -3.1 43%
18-Nov N.C. State 27 -4.5 40%
25-Nov Duke 65 2.5 56%
Projected S&P+ Rk 64
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 97 / 26
Projected wins 5.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -4.4 (90)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 66 / 63
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 4.5
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 83% (97%, 69%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.8 (1.2)

We shouldn’t doubt Clawson at this point. The guy pulls off the closest thing to linear improvement that you’ll see in college football.

Part of that is because he picks programs that have a lot of room for improvement, and we don’t know what he does after four or five years, because he’s usually moved on by that point. But he’s done what he was hired to do at Wake — restore respect and make bowls a realistic proposition — and it only took three years.

His fourth year is a mystery. If the offense improves to mediocrity with Hinton and the defense finds a couple of tackles, Wake has a shot at another nice season. S&P+ projects the Deacs 64th and gives them at least a 40 percent chance of winning in seven games.

If they end up closer to a top-50 level, they could bowl again. But it will require something closer to top-50, as Wake is dealing with what a lot of the ACC is dealing with: an improved conference and a harder slate. Wake has to improve just to keep up, much less catch up.

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