As we continue our pre-season Q&A series, we take a look at the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. In the seven seasons from 2009 through 2015, the Deacons won only 30 games (for reference Clemson has won 29 in the past two seasons), but Coach Clawson has put the program back on the right track as they’ve won bowl games in each of the past three seasons. We talked about that and more with Robert Reinhard who is the former Editor-in-Chief of Blogger So Dear and a dear friend of mine. You can follow him on Twitter here.
STS: The Deacons are coming off a season in which they needed to win on the season’s final week to make a bowl, but did so by blowing out Duke 59-7. They then went on to beat Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. The bowl win was their third in three seasons. How do you evaluate the year they just had and the general direction of the program? Are they close to their ceiling? If not, how much more growth can fans reasonably hope for in Winston-Salem?
RR: They had a roller coaster season that ended on some great high notes. In addition to the blowout of Duke, they beat a top 25 NC State team on the road on ESPN. It was very important for the program to maintain momentum, and they did that with some gutsy performances to close the year.
The program is in great hands with Clawson. The team has much more top to bottom depth now, and he’s turning guys into NFL prospects. The program has an excellent indoor practice facility, as well as an outstanding sports performance center. Wake is now landing more and more recruits who have multiple Power 5 offers. I would say that Wake is close to its ceiling as long as Clemson continues this stretch of dominance. If this was 2008, then these Wake Forest teams would be good enough to have a shot at an ACC title, but that’s not happening with the machine that Dabo has built. Wake Forest finished the 2017 season ranked 31st in S&P+, which is the program’s best ever finish in that metric. The 2006 team that won the ACC Championship was actually just ranked 48th, but was in a down league and won 5 one-possession games.
STS: Last season, in part due to injuries (particularly at linebacker), Wake Forest’s defense wasn’t good. They allowed 33.3 points per game. Clemson scored at will as they the Deacons were moving players into new positions on the fly and trying to figure out something that worked. Wake Forest fired their defensive coordinator mid-season and seemed to improve later in the year. Can you tell us a bit more about the state of the defense as they return only four starters in 2019?
RR: I expect that you’ll see a defense that’s much closer to the one you saw in the second half of the year than the one we saw with former coordinator Jay Sawvel. Under Sawvel, Wake plummeted to 92nd in defensive S&P+, but after the change Wake was 64th. Not great, but much improved. We got the play calls in much faster after the coordinator change, and as a result had much better alignment and fewer breakdowns from the beginning.
Wake has talent at all three levels of the defense. DE Carlos “Boogie” Basham could be a star pass rusher for us this year, while Justin Strnad could be an all-ACC performer this year at linebacker. Our secondary will likely be the strength. They will be led by an excellent pair of corners in Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson, and Nasir Greer could be a ballhawk at safety.
STS: I recently recorded a video about the top QBs in the ACC for 2019. In that video, I ranked Jamie Newman just behind Trevor Lawrence, Bryce Perkins, and Tommy DeVito. Furthermore, I argued that regardless of who wins the Wake Forest QB job, I’d rank Jamie Newman or Sam Hartman #4 in the conference. Do you agree or am I getting a little carried away with Wake Forest quarterbacks?
RR: I think that we have some decent talent at QB, and do have one of the best QB battles in the country right now. That said, I think this may be more of a situation where we have two good quarterbacks, but not necessarily a great one. Sam Hartman was very good against bad teams last season, but was not great against tougher competition. Still, he performed well for a true freshman, and he’s also added about 20 pounds in the offseason. Newman was outstanding against NC State and Duke, but left a lot to be desired against Pittsburgh and in the early part of the Memphis game. I’d guess that Newman ends up winning this one, but it will come back to the final 10 days of camp.
STS: Last season, WR Greg Dortch had 20 more receptions and 140 more receiving yards than the team’s next two leading receivers combined. Regardless of how good Wake Forest’s QB may be, it’s going to be a tough task to match last year’s passing production without Greg Dortch. How much of a hit do you think the offense will take without him? How do they go about replacing him?
RR: Man, I love Greg Dortch. In addition to him being an elite receiver, he was an exceptional returner for us, and is currently slated to be the New York Jets’ starting punt returner. I don’t think we replace Dortch with just one player. Kendall Hinton has successfully transitioned from quarterback to slot receiver, and has had a great camp by all accounts. He’s an explosive athlete, and I expect that he’ll make plays for us in the slot. I also expect that sophomore Sage Surratt will have more consistent production for us on the outside. He averaged more than 14 yards per reception last year, but was inconsistent from game to game. The hope is also that Scotty Washington can return to his 2017 production, where he had 45 receptions for more than 700 yards.
STS: Las Vegas has the over/under for Wake Forest set at 6.5 regular season wins. The ACC media picked them to finish 6th in the Atlantic Division. They’ve won 6, 7, and 6 regular season games the past three seasons so these picks feel pretty reasonable to me. How do you think they’ll perform relative to these projections?
RR: The over/under of 6.5 is pretty reasonable to me. I’d guess that we finish the season with 6 or 7 regular season wins, but we will likely have 7 or 8 games where the point spread is a touchdown or less, so that opens up the door for a wide range of outcomes. We could get hot and end up with 9+ regular season wins, but we could also come up just short in a lot of those and fail to earn a fourth consecutive bowl berth.
6th in the Atlantic feels low to me. We get FSU, Louisville, NC State, and Duke at home, with BC being a very winnable road game, so it seems a bit disrespectful to rank us 6th. We should have a quality offense, and we have very talented players at each level of the defense.
STS: Lastly, let’s look at the matchup against Clemson. Last season was a 63-3 blowout where Wake Forest couldn’t slow Clemson’s run game. The Tigers racked up a ridiculous 461 rushing yards and 6 rushing TDs. That was in Winston-Salem. Now it’s in Clemson. What is the most probable way Wake Forest can keep it competitive this time?
RR: If Wake is to somehow keep it competitive, then I think it’ll be a result of forcing turnovers, maybe making a defensive or special teams touchdown, and finding explosive plays in the passing game. That said, I don’t anticipate that any of that will happen. Wake hosts Duke the week after the Clemson game, and that one is far more important for our program in terms of win probability. I expect that Clawson will run the ball often and look to avoid injuries/fatigue headed into the matchup against the Blue Devils.
Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, please consider giving both writers - @Ryan_Kantor and @Robert_Reinhard - a follow on twitter. If you enjoy this type of content you may also like the Clemson Pawcast, a Clemson sports focused podcast. Several Shakin the Southland writers will be guests on the show throughout the season so check it out here and subscribe via the iPhone’s podcast app.