When Dave Clawson got to Wake Forest from Bowling Green almost a decade ago it was clear he was in for a total rebuild. To hear Clawson’s longtime longtime offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero tell it, “At that first winter workout, I said to myself ‘What am I doing here?’ Really, there was not one kid that would have started for us at Bowling Green on offensive unit.”
Early results bore Ruggiero out. Even when Wake won early in Clawson’s tenure it was in low scoring, slow paced games. Anti-football underdog tactics taken to reduce the total number of plays and maximize variability. Highlights from his first few seasons include a meme dedicated to offensive futility and the “Wakeyleaks” scandal.
This season Ruggiero is calling plays for the second best scoring offense in the country, nestled snuggly between powerhouse Ohio State and Alabama teams. Even advanced statistics, which have never liked the Demon Deacons much and frankly don’t particularly even now, respect what Clawson and Ruggiero have built on this side of the ball.
How did they do it? The rebuild started with an administration and fanbase willing to endure some lean years while players developed. Wake Forest can’t expect to recruit players at the same level as conference peers like Clemson or even in state rivals like UNC, but they can develop players and hope to level the playing field with creative scheme. Or, as Clawson puts it, “we can’t take lesser talent and win the race, so we had to change the race.” Not that Clawson thinks his players are that much lesser, mind you,
“The key to our success is to find the guys who can still develop and become as good as those four- and five-star guys. They’re not missing anything physically. It’s just a year of development. I really believe a lot of our players, after a year of development in our program, they’d be four-star players.”
Clawson’s recruiting and development plan bears him out. Wake Forest is on an unprecedented bowl streak. Since 2015 the program has had as many players drafted as the Texas Longhorns. Two players Clawson brought to campus are included in the Heisman odds in Kenneth Walker III (at MSU) and Deacons QB Sam Hartman (#10).
If you told me before this season that the Tarheels would rush the field after beating an undefeated Wake Forest I would have laughed you off. Then I saw it happen with my own eyes a couple of weeks ago. The 2021 Demon Deacons team, laden with experience up and down the depth chart, has the chance to be the best in university history. QB Sam Hartman declared that ten wins was the goal before the season, he’s one win away heading into Clemson.
Hartman and co. have stacked those wins up running an RPO heavy system with a signature anxiety inducing element, a slow-mesh where QB and RB shuffle together towards before the line of scrimmage before the QB either hands the ball off, pulls to keep the ball himself, or pulls the ball to throw to one of the receivers.
RPO’s, a handful of air raid concepts, and a wildcat package really are about all the offense runs. The goal is not to beat you with a litany of personnel groups or plays but “flat-out execution” at warp speed. Brent Venables compared it to playing a triple option team in terms of being forced to defend the entire field.
Because most plays look the same before the snap, and even for the first few moments after the snap, second and third level defenders are left in a no win proposition. The slow-mesh gives Hartman extra time to make his reads as the play is happening, and getting burned once can end in a touchdown. The offense is designed, in essence, to put Hartman in a game of rock-paper-scissors where he is always throwing his hand down well after his opponent.
This indecision gives Wake Forests offensive line, still not exactly road graders, a chance to win battles against defenders racked with indecision. This gives time for the Demon Deacon’s backs to find a hole and cut upfield, which they excel at. The offensive line is essentially always blocking either inside zone with tags or dart if it is a run play, or setting up to pass block if it’s third and long.
Wake Forest still isn’t exactly elite running the ball, but by combining every play with a QB run and pass option Clawson and Ruggiero are able to maximize what they get out of the running game. Hartman in turn excels at making simple reads under pressure and runs the ball well enough to take advantage of what the defense is giving.
The Deacons have a handful of favorite RPO’s. There is the frontside or backside slant/post, the pivot route designed to punish defenders sitting on the slant, the fade, the hitch route to punish off coverage, and then there are the screens teams have been pairing with zone runs since Y2K.
There is also a nasty little RPO in goal line situations that combines a TE running to the flat with a receiver running a corner route, giving Hartman a high/low read and the option to carry the ball in himself.
Because so many of Hartman’s plays come with a genuine run threat attached the defense is almost always out of position when he is throwing the ball, if he ever doesn’t like his options throwing the ball it’s handed off or he keeps it himself. Toss in two star caliber receivers in Jaquarii Robinson (#5) and A.T. Perry (#9) and the end result is a wildly explosive passing game that is the highlight of the team.
The air raid influence shows in the passing game, which features a heavy dose of snag, four verticals, Y cross and screen and go. Ruggiero is quite fond of having his receivers run rub routes to create separation.
This helps his QB, despite all his experience (the man is 22 years old, in his fourth season and listed as a sophomore) Hartman is not the quickest to get to his second and third read. When he has the time to get there he can make them, but that’s unlikely against a Tigers front averaging over three sacks per game.
Hartman gets himself into trouble against pressure. It’s not that he can’t make plays against pressure, he knows he can and he’s very comfortable doing it after years of throwing RPO’s out of the slow-mesh. There’s no situation left where Hartman doesn’t think he can make something out of nothing. Sometimes he’s right, and sometimes he scrambles directly into a sack.
At times the results are worse than that. An inordinate number of Hartman’s interceptions this year have come on passes tipped at the line of scrimmage.
You can also pick off Hartman on deep/intermediate passes by undercutting his throws. Hartman has improved his arm strength through the years but it is still the weakest part of his game.
Wake has had a history of starting strong and tailing off in recent years. The combination of more difficult November schedules and injuries impacting the depth of what will always be a relatively shallow team hit the program hard. Last years team ended the season with a four game losing streak, the year before they started out 7-1 before limping to an 8-5 record. They’re hoping a new strength coach and the class of super seniors on campus can make this season different.
I’m not sure Clemson has the offense to keep this game interesting. Wake Forest has scored thirty points against every team they’ve played, Clemson has scored thirty points against three FBS teams and UConn barely counts. The Wake Forest defense has some vulnerabilities but plays complimentary football for a fast paced, elite scoring offense.
SP+ favors the Tigers, and would also point out that the Louisville, Syracuse and North Carolina games could as easily have ended in Wake Forest 1-2 as 3-0. I really think this game is a toss up. I don’t want this season to forget to feature something memorable in the form of losing to the Demon Deacons at home, but Clawson has put together a great team this season. Still, I can’t bring myself to bet against the Tigers ability to dominate the line of scrimmage.