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Previewing the Wake Forest Demon Deacons Offense

After four years of progress, 2020 might be a step back for Clawson’s squad

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New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Michigan State v Wake Forest Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

As surreal as it feels, we’ve made it to the 2020 Clemson football season. The Tigers and Wake Forest open their seasons on College Gameday this Saturday, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 pm ET in Winston-Salem. There might not be any fans in the stands (were there any before?), but we’ve got a ballgame. This should be a tune-up game for the Tigers, with Wake Forest having lost the matchup by 49 points last season. As of writing, Clemson is favored by 32 points over the Demon Deacons.

A necessary disclaimer — We don’t know whether the covid-19 virus will impact this game yet. We’ve already seen outbreaks take whole position groups out of games before they even start (Texas State has played without tight ends, Austin Peay without long snappers). Navy, in an attempt to keep players socially distanced, played a game after only practicing blocking and tackling on dummies. We’re going to write the rest of the preview assuming that that isn’t going to happen. With that said, if the Tigers show up without, say, their linebackers or wide receivers, all bets are off.

The Demon Deacons lost a ton from an offense that already struggled to find enough depth. Wake Forest is going to be without 3/5ths of the starting offensive line, both starters in the backfield, top three receivers and tight end from 2019. With four straight bowl appearances, Dave Clawson has Wake Forest humming and looks like a premier program builder. But the schedule did him no favors facing a national title favorite in week one.

It helps to have a former starter to turn to at QB in Sam Hartman. The redshirt sophomore has shown flashes of potential in limited time on the field but struggled to stay healthy. Hartman was named a captain in the off-season, and with freshmen as his likely backups it’s his job to lose. Hartman is nowhere near the dual threat Jamie Newman was, and has struggled with turnovers, but the Mount Pleasant native has drawn positive reviews at fall camp. He’s going to have his work cut out for him behind an offensive line returning only 28 career starts.

Last year’s starting center, Zach Tom, was excellent though playing out of position. This year he’s going to be back at his natural position of left tackle and he’s made a few preseason All-ACC lists. After him there’s a significant drop-off. Although Wake Forest tried to address this in the offseason by bringing in Terrance Davis as a grad transfer, “he’s a bit of an unknown” for now. Much like Clemson, Wake Forest is starting a lot of last year’s backups on the offensive line. Unlike Clemson, Wake Forest’s offensive line did not enjoy a particularly successful 2019. While Clawson and OC Warren Ruggiero’s scheme keeps sack percentages down, Wake’s backs often struggled to find rushing lanes.

The Deacons rely on a mix of inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, and dart. They operate out of 10, 11, 12 personnel and empty. They’re a relatively up-tempo team, especially if they get a positive play on first down. A favorite of Wake Forest’s is to hustle into an unbalanced formation, then snap the ball and send their TE downfield for a big play on an RPO.

The Demon Deacons lost last year’s starting RB Cade Carney, but backup Kenneth Walker often looked more dangerous in 2019, and JR Christian Beal-Smith has been productive in limited snaps. The Deacons will run Hartman as a decoy and/or to keep teams honest, but he’s neither efficient nor explosive on the ground.

Wake Forest is unique in using a slow mesh on zone reads, where the QB almost shuffles perpendicular to the line of scrimmage before deciding to give or keep. Doing this helps the offensive line establish their blocks (and Wake’s backs cut back well), receivers to get further downfield, and provides the offense some added misdirection.

No one knows where the ball is going until the last second, and it could be headed anywhere. OC Warren Ruggiero has experience in a variety of option heavy schemes, including Willie Fritz at Tulane and the Pistol option at Nevada.

Wake Forest runs as wide a variety of run pass options (RPOs) as any team in the ACC. Their bread and butter is probably going to be throwing slants and posts over the middle this year, although the Demon Deacons were fond of isolating Sage Surratt out wide every time they had half a chance. Without Surratt this year it remains to be seen if Greene (the presumptive #1 receiver) will be targeted the same way.

Wake Forest uses their RPO scheme to help cover some of the weaknesses of their offensive line’s pass blocking. Because so many of their looks come off what are essentially runs for the defensive line, they are able to slow down pass rushers. Combine that with a scheme that gets the ball out quickly and the Demon Deacons protect their QB well against most teams.

The fundamental premise of any option play is this — by reading a defender or two instead of blocking them the offense is able to gain a numerical advantage. But the option relies on some assumptions. The main assumption is that the offense can block the defense with equal numbers.

Take this play for example, it’s one of Wake Forest’s staples. For it to work the offense assumes the defense cannot stuff the run with only six defenders. If they can, well, the safety being read can just sit on the slant and now no one is open. Options can help disadvantaged offenses claw back some advantage, but they’re not miracle workers. If you can’t execute you can’t execute.

This hurts Wake Forest in the red zone, where the space they use to spread defenders out shrinks. They tend to settle for field goals when they can’t run teams over. It helps to have an excellent kicker, but it’s hard to win trading three points against seven. For an example of this, look at the Demon Deacons against FSU last year.

Which brings us back to the Demon Deacons offensive line. With Clemson’s defensive line looking like a strength again after a down 2019, I don’t see how Wake Forest moves the ball on the ground. I don’t see how a receiving corps that brings back less than a sixth of their production from 2019 is going to be able to move the ball in the air either. Hartman is allegedly an efficient passer but with a sub-60% completion percentage two years in a row. With so much of the passing game gone it’s hard to make many concrete predictions, but I’m not assuming this is going to work.

While the Tigers lack of experience at safety worries me, that’s nitpicking. Wake Forest has managed just a field goal in each of the last two years. Looking at the offense, I have a hard time seeing how they score a touchdown before garbage time, and I have a hard time seeing how garbage time isn’t going to start before halftime.