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Dave Clawson’s now pulled off the same 4-year rebuild at 4 different levels of college football

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And his 2018 Demon Deacons should be solid once again.

Belk Bowl - Texas A&M v Wake Forest
Dave Clawson
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Each week before we record Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, Steven Godfrey and I solicit for “#AskPAPN” questions on Twitter. We always get more solid questions than we can actually use, but I saved one for this Wake Forest preview. It blew my mind a little bit.

Fleck’s first impression was that of an impossibly energetic program builder. He went 1-11 in his first season at Western Michigan but recruited his tail off and took the Broncos to 13-0 with a Cotton Bowl bid three years later. That rebuild earned him the Minnesota job, where he’s attempting a similar house-flip.

Clawson, however, has done this a few times now. He just needs four years to win anywhere.

  • Fordham: 0-11 in year one, 10-3 in year four
  • Richmond: 3-8 in year one, 11-3 in year four
  • Bowling Green: 2-10 in year two, 10-3 in year five
  • Wake Forest: 3-9 in year one, 8-5 in year four

Clawson has done nearly identical refurbishing jobs in non-scholarship FCS, scholarship FCS, a Group of Five conference, and a power conference. That’s astounding.

As I wrote last year, that’s not the way this is supposed to work.

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.

Over the last three seasons, Wake has improved by 19, 28, and 23 spots, respectively, in S&P+. After that first-year tear-down, Wake has improved and improved and improved.

Wake Forest S&P+ progression

For the first time in nine seasons, Wake Forest, the smallest school and hardest job (Duke aside, perhaps) in the ACC, played at a level above the conference average. For just the eighth time ever, they played at a top-40 level. The offense, 128th in Off. S&P+ three years earlier, was 22nd. What an absolutely masterful job by Clawson. Again.

So why doesn’t he carry the same name recognition as Fleck, who has been at this a shorter amount of time and hasn’t accomplished as much? Clawson doesn’t have Fleck’s social media game and doesn’t seem to care to. He’s just interested in coaching well, and that’s fine.

I do wonder about those first impressions, though. The first time most fans, especially in the Southeast, took notice of Clawson’s name was when he was brought to Knoxville to succeed Dave Cutcliffe as Phil Fulmer’s offensive coordinator. Quarterbacks Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens failed to grasp the “Clawfense,” and the Vols fell from 10th to 108th in Off. S&P+. Fulmer was pushed out after the season. The problem, I guess, is that he wasn’t there four years.

So what happens now? We don’t have much of a sample for what happens in year five and beyond. Clawson hasn’t yet stayed more than five at one stop. But his fifth Wake team has a good news, bad news situation.

Bad news first: the Demon Deacons have to replace their longtime starting quarterback, leading receiver, and five of last year’s top havoc defenders (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles).

Good news, though: their leading rusher and entire offensive line are back, there’s still tons of experience in the front seven, and some key pieces at receiver and defensive back are now way more experienced.

Clawson has built depth that is hard to attain in Winston-Salem, but we’ll see just how much the loss of a couple of stars hurts. One thing we know for sure: doubting Clawson doesn’t get you very far.

Offense

2017 Wake Forest offensive radar

One thing Wake has going for it, when it comes to replacing quarterback John Wolford, is that junior Kendall Hinton has already done it. Hinton briefly overtook Wolford early in 2016 before he got hurt, and over parts of three seasons he has thrown for 1,502 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for 705 more yards and 10 scores. If healthy, he’s got a decent amount going for him.

He was suspended for the first three games of the season. Either sophomore Jamie Newman or true freshman Sam Hartman will start against Tulane, Towson, and BC.

Despite past demotions, Wolford set a pretty high bar. Despite being an overwhelmed freshman in 2014, he threw for 8,794 yards and 59 touchdowns in his career, and almost half of that came last year. Spreading the ball around to four primary targets, Wolford commanded a passing game that ranked second in Passing S&P+. That’s a pretty incredible end to his story.

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

Two of those four targets are back. Tabari Hines used a graduate transfer to Oregon, and tight end Cam Serigne graduated, but sophomore slot man Greg Dortch and 6’5 junior Scotty Washington return after combining for 101 catches, 1,463 yards, and 12 touchdowns.

In terms of marginal efficiency, Dortch was the most efficient high-usage receiver in the league last year. Washington wasn’t far behind.

Top 10 ACC wide receivers, per marginal efficiency (min: 75 targets)

  1. Dortch (plus-18.3 percent)
  2. Hunter Renfrow, Clemson (plus-16.3 percent)
  3. Jaylen Smith, Louisville (plus-15.8 percent)
  4. Jakobi Meyers, NC State (plus-14.8 percent)
  5. Dez Fitzpatrick, Louisville (plus-13.7 percent)
  6. Washington (plus-12.7 percent)
  7. Kelvin Harmon, NC State (plus-10.9 percent)
  8. Deon Cain, Clemson (plus-10.7 percent)
  9. Hines (plus-10.2 percent)
  10. Ervin Phillips, Syracuse (plus-9.1 percent)

Wolford had a lot to do with those players’ efficiency levels, but there are worse things in the world than a new QB having a couple of really nice possession receivers.

The new QB will also have Matt Colburn II. Wake had lost three games in a row last fall before he took over as the primary rusher. The Deacs finished 4-2, and after rushing 48 times for 183 yards (3.8 per carry) through seven games, Colburn rushed 118 times for 721 yards (6.1) thereafter.

He had 237 yards in the 64-43 shootout win over Syracuse, and he rushed for 150 in the 55-52 bowl win over Texas A&M. The more the Wake defense struggled, the more coordinator Warren Ruggiero leaned on Colburn. The RB unit is unproven after him.

Wake Forest v Syracuse
Matt Colburn II
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The line will also be an asset. Ruggiero’s system tends to get the ball out of the QB’s hands pretty quickly, and combined with a solid line, Wake ranked 18th in Adj. Sack Rate. The run-blocking stats weren’t amazing (56th in Adj. Line Yards, 72nd in stuff rate, 78th in power success rate), but they all improved with Colburn carrying the load, and returning every starter — including all-conference center Ryan Anderson and two third-teamers (tackle Justin Herron and guard Phil Haynes) — is a good thing.

Ruggiero’s system is designed to keep the QB out of trouble. Not only are there lots of quick passes, but there’s also quite a “zig when they think you’ll zag” element: Wake ran 55 percent of the time on standard downs (5 percentage points below the national average) but 45 percent on passing downs (10 percentage points above).

The QB situation is going to be awkward, but everything else should help as much as possible.

Defense

2017 Wake Forest defensive radar

In its first year after losing coordinator Mike Elko to Notre Dame, Wake’s defense was ... contradictory. Former Minnesota coordinator Jay Sawvel inherited a young secondary and still produced a No. 29 ranking in Passing S&P+; the Deacs also disrupted opponents’ run games as well as just about anybody, ranking 13th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). That’ll help you force a lot of passing downs.

Yet Wake struggled to force passing downs. The Deacs ranked just 76th in standard-downs success rate; opponents found they could take advantage of conservative pass coverage, completing 60 percent of their passes on first and second down.

The strengths and weaknesses could flip this year. Wake will be missing four starters in the front seven (ends Wendell Dunn and Duke Ejiofor and linebackers Grant Dawson and Jaboree Williams), and the quartet combined for 47 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, and nine passes defensed. Each of them took part in at least 12 run stuffs, too, and only one returnee (tackle Zeek Rodney, with 16) could match that.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Notre Dame
Justin Strnad (23)
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The hope is that the pass defense improves enough to offset the run defense’s regression. It’s possible. First, you’ve still got some potentially strong pass rushing options in buck linebacker Justin Strnad and lineman Willie Yarbary. And while end is awfully young, sophomore Carlos Basham Jr. saw plenty of playing time last year, and redshirt freshman Mike Allen was one of the most touted recruits on the roster.

More importantly, you’ve got experience in the secondary this time. Among last year’s top seven tacklers in the secondary were three freshmen and two sophomores. Only safeties Cameron Glenn and Jessie Bates III were upperclassmen, and Glenn (3.5 TFLs, nine passes defense) is back.

Corners Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson are juniors and could be ready for star turns after combining for five interceptions and 28 breakups. Bassey might already be a star; he combined 19 of those passes defensed with six tackles for loss, rare territory for a cornerback. Throw in sophomore Ja’Sir Taylor, and you’ve got not only an aggressive CB tandem in 2018, you also have potentially one of the league’s best in 2019. If a sophomore safety — either Luke Masterson or Coby Davis — steps up to replace Bates, this unit could improve pretty dramatically.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Wake Forest
Essang Bassey
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Wake Forest’s Special Teams S&P+ rating in 2017 was plus-0.0, meaning it provided neither positive nor negative overall value. The return game, led by Dortch and safety Chuck Wade Jr., should remain solid, but awesome place-kicker Mike Weaver is gone.

Punter Dom Maggio has a booming leg (44.1 yards per punt), but the Deacs ranked just 101st in punt efficiency because Maggio out-kicked his coverage. Add a little more height to his kicks, and this could be a solid unit again, but losing Weaver hurts.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug at Tulane 98 11.4 75%
8-Sep Towson NR 31.5 97%
13-Sep Boston College 48 5.8 63%
22-Sep Notre Dame 7 -11.5 25%
29-Sep Rice 128 26.1 93%
6-Oct Clemson 3 -15.6 18%
20-Oct at Florida State 18 -7.4 33%
27-Oct at Louisville 29 -4.4 40%
3-Nov Syracuse 71 10.4 73%
8-Nov at N.C. State 37 -2.3 45%
17-Nov Pittsburgh 45 5.2 62%
24-Nov at Duke 40 -0.9 48%
Projected S&P+ Rk 34
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 24 / 59
Projected wins 6.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.5 (76)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 67 / 62
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 7.7
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 72% (74%, 69%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.2 (0.8)

Though Wake’s trajectory under Clawson has been predictably upward, the Deacs’ strengths and weaknesses flipped from 2016 (110th in Off. S&P+ and 22nd in Def. S&P+) to 2017 (22nd in Off. S&P+ and 65th in Def. S&P+).

That paints a picture of a team with both significant upside — a team with 2016’s defense and 2017’s offense would have ranked in the S&P+ top 15 — and a steep downside — combining 2016’s offense and 2017’s defense would have barely ranked in the top 100.

With the loss of Wolford, it also suggests a large set of unknowns. Does the defense still have 2016’s upside? Can anyone match the rhythm that Wolford established with Hines, Dortch, and company, especially with the projected starting QB missing nearly the first month of the year? What’s the real Wake Forest?

The climb is hard to ignore, and S&P+ is pretty confident in the Deacs’ upside. They are projected 34th overall — 24th on offense, 59th on defense — and even in a brutal ACC, they are projected to make their third straight bowl, a feat they’ve only managed on one other occasion (2006-08). There are four likely wins (two of which come during Hinton’s suspension), two likely losses, and six games with a projected margin of seven or fewer points.

I’m pretty confident in Clawson’s ability to replace key pieces. Maybe he doesn’t care about the fanfare, but Clawson has become one of football’s most impressive builders. I’m interested to see how he performs as a maintainer.

Team preview stats

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