Dave Clawson has turned Wake Forest, the smallest Power 5 school, into an above average ACC program. This just might not be their year, owing mostly to regression on offense. Graduated quarterback John Wolford led Wake Forest to one of the better offenses in the conference last year. The current offense, led by true freshman Sam Hartman, ranks 64th in S&P+. Despite returning all five lineman and some excellent skill position players (receiver Greg Dortch, running backs Matt Colburn II and Cade Carney) there have been some clear growing pains.
The Demon Deacons have retained a lot of the efficiency from last year. The problem is they’re one of the least explosive teams in the country, and their defense often puts them in bad field position. This means they need long, mistake free drives to make it to the red zone.
The offensive line is excellent at run blocking, running Clawson’s preferred inside/outside zone, power and dart plays well. Hartman has room to grow reading Clawson’s RPO schemes, but the threat of the pass opens up holes up front. The linebacker running with the tight end here enables the cutback. The emergence of the running game last year is an element Wake Forest hasn’t really had before, and helped them close out 2017 strong.
Clawson likes to keep a tight end on the field, either using him as a lead blocker, flexing him to the slot or as an RPO threat. The Demon Deacons pretty much exclusively run 11, 10 or empty personnel. This, combined with the speed they operate at (currently #1 in adjusted pace), helps them grind out long drives against exhausted defenses. They ran 105 plays against Boston College, they will dink and dunk all day if they have to.
Hartman is undersized but can contribute running the ball, particularly in empty sets. Hartman’s lack of size gets him in trouble on more option style runs. Still, all Hartman has to do is be able to hold the defense enough to get his skill players open, and he can do that.
The Wake Forest offense is built around RPO’s, and they’re better at them than traditional drop back passes. The emphasis on RPO’s keeps Hartman in good spots (throwing more on running downs, handing off or running more on passing downs) and throwing quick passes to open receivers. This has kept his turnovers down and completion rate up. This all combines to give Wake Forest a pretty good standard down passing game. Hartman is still only completing 58% of his passes, and that’s after torching Rice last week.
When Hartman has to drop back, look for Greg Dortch. Dortch is one of, if not the best, slot receivers in the ACC.
Behind him there’s not much to work with, and everyone seems to struggle with dropped passes. They’re not getting nearly as much out of their tight ends as they did last year, having lost Cam Serigne to the New Orleans Saints. The offensive line does pretty well keeping Hartman clean, but blitz pickup can still be an issue.
The tackles struggled against Notre Dame, and Clemson can almost certainly take advantage of that. This isn’t a team built to take advantage of Clemson’s weaknesses. If you remove the ability to run the ball from this offense things fall apart. Clemson stops the run better than almost anyone in the country. The Clemson defense has underperformed on passing downs, but so has the Wake Forest offense. As long as Clemson’s offense is able to move the ball, which seems likely given the Demon Deacons have already fired their defensive coordinator, they should be able to get on track after a nearly disastrous week five.