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Wake Forest’s 2019 season could go in so many different directions

In 2019, sixth-year Wake head coach Dave Clawson will try to prove that he can maintain a program as well as he builds them.

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NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-Memphis vs Wake Forest
Dave Clawson and an amazing Birmingham Bowl trophy
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

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

Near the end of Astroball, Ben Reiter’s tremendous journey through the building of the Houston Astros from MLB’s Kansas to MLB’s Bama, I found a college football parallel.

Sig Mejdal, the original nerd behind Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow’s statistical powerhouse, left the Astros after the 2018 season to take part in a new build with the Baltimore Orioles. Why? Because he liked to build, not sustain.

Sig had always thrived on the launch stage. He’d derived less satisfaction from the marginal tweaks needed to keep a satellite in orbit, as he’d once done at Lockheed Martin. “I realized I was missing being involved in the more significant changes that you only experience early in the life cycle,” he said.

Dave Clawson is a “launch stage” kind of guy, too. At least, he was.

Every year in the Wake Forest preview, I marvel at Clawson’s program-building abilities. From 2018:

Clawson 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

In four head coaching stops, Clawson has launched four programs. He moved from low-FCS to high-FCS to the Group of 5 to the power conferences, and the results were astoundingly similar. He is one of college football’s most underrated coaches.

In 2017, his fourth season at Wake, his Demon Deacons not only won eight games; they also finished 31st in my revamped S&P+ rankings. They hadn’t ranked in the top 35 since 1948. Even 2006’s ACC championship team ranked only 48th, benefiting from close-games luck (5-0 in one-possession games) and a dreadful ACC.

In 2018, the ACC regressed, and so did the Deacs. They had a new starting quarterback, which really turned into three new starting QBs.

  • Presumptive starter Kendall Hinton got himself suspended to start the season, then moved to wide receiver.
  • Freshman Sam Hartman stepped into the role and, well, looked like a freshman. He torched Towson, Rice, and Louisville (71 percent completion rate, 193.7 passer rating), got torched by everyone else (51 percent, 104.4), and missed the last four games with a leg injury.
  • Sophomore Jamie Newman then took over, and basically split the difference between the good and bad Hartman (60 percent, 139.5).

Wake Forest was projected 41st in S&P+ to begin the season, then plummeted into the 80s during a 4-5 start. But the Deacs won at NC State and crushed Duke to earn bowl eligibility, then outlasted Memphis in a super fun Birmingham Bowl.

And then Clawson stayed for a sixth season. His new contract runs through 2026. This is noteworthy because, well, he never has before. Best I can tell, he hasn’t lived in the same town for more than five years since he was growing up, if even then.

Now we get to see if Clawson is as good at keeping a satellite in orbit as he is at getting it there.

His 2019 team will boast a lot of the continuity that his 2018 team does not. Hartman and Newman are both back, as are 1,000-yard rusher Cade Carney and stars at each level of the defense: end Carlos Basham Jr. (11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks), linebacker Justin Strnad (8.5 TFLs, five passes defensed), cornerbacks Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson (three TFLs, 26 PDs).

The Demon Deacons have to deal with turnover in the receiving corps (1,000-yard receiver Greg Dortch and 500-yarder Alex Bachman are both gone) and on the offensive line, but if Clawson has indeed built the culture and program depth that it appears he has at first glance, then the Deacs can overcome that and bowl once more.

A little of that 2006 close-games magic wouldn’t hurt. Wake plays a ton of teams ranked near itself in the preseason S&P+ rankings, and seven games are therefore projected within five points. Split them, and you go 6-6 or 7-5. Find a run of good fortune, and a nine- or 10-win season is on the table.

Offense

It’s hard to glean too much from Wake’s full-season stats because of the QB changes, but it says something that the Deacs went through that and still finished 48th in Off. S&P+. Granted, that was a pretty steep fall from 2017’s No. 21 ranking, but it’s also only their third top-50 performance of the last 15 years.

Dortch was a big reason for that. If opponents couldn’t stop him, Wake would lean on the slot receiver for most of the game. In wins, he averaged nine catches, 123 yards, and 1.1 touchdowns per game. In losses, six catches for 56 yards. Also an ace punt returner, Dortch declared for the NFL draft with two years of eligibility remaining and ended up signing with the Jets.

Dortch and Bachman were by far Wake’s two most efficient receiving options, but a full-strength Scotty Washington could pick up some slack. The 6’5 senior from Washington, DC, was one of the most efficient WRs in the ACC in 2017 — he had three 100-yard gains late that season — but dealt with a shoulder injury early last season and never really got on track.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Duke
Scotty Washington
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

If Washington is able to rebound, and tight ends Jack Freudenthal and Brandon Chapman and new slot men Jaquarii Roberson and Hinton are able to bring an efficiency element to the table, that would open things up for sophomore Sage Surratt, an exciting but all-or-nothing wideout (48 percent catch rate, 14.2 yards per catch). Surratt had a combined 19 catches for 259 yards in road wins over Tulane and NC State but also caught two or fewer passes five times.

Wake Forest has slowly become one of the most up-tempo offenses in the country under the guidance of offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero. The Deacs were third in FBS in Adjusted Pace — on average, they executed plays 5.6 seconds faster than expected based on their run-pass ratio — and a tempo that high can become a serious weapon as long as you’re clearing a certain efficiency bar. (If you’re not, it’s just like running full speed into a wall.)

Wake’s efficiency was ... decent. The Deacs were 56th in marginal efficiency and 45th in havoc rate allowed. Cade Carney’s biggest strength is his ability to avoid negative plays and fall forward — Wake was only 103rd in rushing marginal explosiveness but got stuffed at or behind the line only 15 percent of the time (17th). That, plus Dortch’s impact, allowed them to avoid extreme third-and-longs and stay in a third-and-medium range that they could convert.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Duke
Cade Carney
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Carney and explosive backup Christian Beal-Smith will be running behind a line that returns tackles Jake Benzinger and Nathan Gilliam (43 combined starts), plus senior Justin Herron, a three-year starter who was lost for the season one game into 2018. All three interior starters are gone, though. Gilliam will likely move inside, but there will still be two new starters between the tackles, where Carney often runs.

We’re ignoring the elephant in the room, though. Wake’s 2019 success will be driven by who wins the QB job and how well they develop.

For the season, Hartman and Newman produced similar numbers, though Hartman had higher highs and lower lows. They both ended up between plus-0.6 and plus-1.4 percent in marginal efficiency, and while Newman was more explosive, both via run and pass, he also had slightly higher interception and sack rates. Newman was absolutely dominant in the spring game (15-for-18 for 254 yards), and my guess is he wins the job, but this battle will continue into the fall.

Defense

It took a few years for Ruggiero’s offense to find traction. Clawson basically burned the two-deep to the ground, and Wake averaged a 118 Off. S&P+ ranking for his first there years in town. The defense, therefore, was asked to do some heavy lifting, especially during 2016’s run to 7-6, but coordinator Mike Elko and company were up to the task.

Since Elko left following 2016, Wake’s seen some slippage. The Deacs fell from 32nd to 51st in Def. S&P+ in 2017, Jay Sawvel’s first season as DC, and after a 56-27 loss to Notre Dame four games into 2018, with the Deacs at 92nd in Def. S&P+, Clawson let Sawvel go. Under interim co-coordinators Lyle Hemphill and Dave Cohen, Wake rebounded to 64th.

The biggest issue under Sawvel was passing downs. Wake Forest was consistently able to leverage opponents behind schedule but then let them off the hook. On blitz downs last year (second-and-super-long, third-and-5 or more), Wake ranked 74th in success rate, 121st in big-play rate, and, perhaps most tellingly, 117th in sack rate.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-Memphis vs Wake Forest
Carlos Basham Jr.
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

A little bit more pressure up front would be a great thing. Basham, a 275-pound end, is dynamite against the run (his 23.5 run stuffs were tied for the most in the ACC with Syracuse’s Ryan Guthrie), but he’s only a decent pass rusher. The same goes for linebackers Justin Strnad and DJ Taylor.

Wake desperately needs a boost in the pressures department. Maybe junior end Manny Waler (two sacks among his 10.5 tackles as a backup) can provide it? A young end like redshirt freshman JaCorey Johns or incoming star recruit Shamar McCollum? A young linebacker like Ja’Cquez Williams or Ryan Smenda Jr.?

NCAA Football: Towson at Wake Forest
Essang Bassey
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

A little more pressure could go a long way in the secondary. Wake should be solid against the run again, and when QBs don’t have all day to find a receiver, Bassey and Henderson could thrive. Hell, they already got their hands on tons of passes even with all the passing downs issues.

If Hemphill, now the sole coordinator (Cohen is the “assistant head coach for defense”), has to take more risks up front to get to the quarterback, though, that will put pressure on some young safeties. Last year’s starters, Cameron Glenn and Chuck Wade Jr., are both gone, leaving some combination of juniors Luke Masterson and Travel Redd and sophomores Nasir Greer, Tyriq Hardimon, and Coby Davis to patrol the back. This is a big, physical group of safeties, but we’ll see how well they can put out fires.

Special Teams

Wake enjoyed its fourth top-50 special teams unit in five years in 2018, doing so mostly by avoiding weakness. Dortch was explosive if only reasonably efficient, and place-kicker Nick Sciba and punter Dom Maggio were both average. The legs are back, but the return game gets a total reset.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug Utah State 42 -1.9 46%
7-Sep at Rice 126 20.7 88%
12-Sep North Carolina 61 2.4 56%
21-Sep Elon NR 25.2 93%
28-Sep at Boston College 72 -0.1 50%
12-Oct Louisville 87 8.4 69%
19-Oct Florida State 28 -5.3 38%
2-Nov N.C. State 47 -0.7 48%
9-Nov at Virginia Tech 30 -10.0 28%
16-Nov at Clemson 3 -29.3 5%
23-Nov Duke 65 2.7 56%
30-Nov at Syracuse 56 -4.0 41%
Projected S&P+ Rk 62
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 64 / 61
Projected wins 6.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.2 (75)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 60
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / 1.0
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (55%, 72%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 7.4 (-0.4)

The ACC might be even more absurdly top-heavy this year than last, with Clemson dwarfing the competition and Miami the only other projected top-25 team. That’s bad if you like interesting conference title races, but with a ton of teams bunched together in the middle, it could at least make for lots of close games.

Wake Forest is projected to easily beat Rice and Elon, mostly easily beat Louisville, and lose by double digits at Virginia Tech and Clemson. Every other damn game on the schedule is up for grabs.

Clawson is 14-11 in one-possession games at Wake and has yet to have an extreme season in this regard. If that trend continues, then the Deacs will likely finish just on the right side of bowl eligibility and head to a fourth straight bowl for the first time in program history. But with so many close games, this season could go in quite a few directions based on what the Deacs get from the passing game and whether the defense can actually get to the quarterback a little bit.

Making just a few extra plays could make a large difference as Clawson tries to prove he’s as good a program-maintainer as he is a program-builder.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.