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Wake Forest Football: 2017 Demon Deacons Preview and Prediction

Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest Football

Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest Football

Wake Forest went to and won a bowl game last season, but it could be tough to pull off a repeat of either feat this fall. The Demon Deacons remain a relatively young team and depth is at a premium, so the key players must stay healthy. The offense returns eight starters, but also was one of the nation’s least productive in 2016. The defense more than did its part in 2016, but only five starters return on that side of the ball, there are questions at both linebacker and in the secondary, and there’s a new coordinator running the unit.

Previewing Wake Forest Football’s Offense for 2017

Dave Clawson won a bowl game with the nation’s No. 118 scoring offense. He’s hoping that experience will improve that ranking. “This is the first time where the guys returning on the offensive two-deep will be in their third, fourth or fifth year,” he says.

Everything starts — or stops — along the line. The Deacons have struggled to keep quarterbacks John Wolford and Kendall Hinton healthy, allowing at least 39 sacks in each of the last three seasons. While Wake Forest’s average yards per carry in 2016 topped only 17 other programs, that’s actually an improvement.

The line loses two long-time starters but returns three rising juniors — Justin Herron, Phil Haynes and Ryan Anderson — who already have 62 combined starts. “Those guys are now legitimate ACC offensive linemen,” Clawson says. Depth is a concern: Only two of the projected non-starters have played.

Hinton missed most of last season with a knee injury. He can threaten defenses with his feet and a big arm, but accuracy is a concern. Wolford, a senior, has taken a beating, and he’s offset his positives with 35 interceptions.

The running game improved with Matt Colburn (626 yards) and Cade Carney (589). Still, the backs were stopped at or behind the line 21 percent of the time, and only 8.6 percent of their carries gained 10 yards or more, third worst in the Power 5. Speedy Arkeem Byrd could change that.

The receiving corps failed to produce explosive plays. Slot Tabari Hines has 70 catches in two seasons, and every player who caught more than one pass returns. But the Deacons need another outside receiver to develop — and for Cortez Lewis and tight end Cam Serigne to get over nagging injuries and back to their 40-plus-catch form.

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Previewing Wake Forest’s Defense for 2017 

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Wake Forest went from one of the worst in the country at creating turnovers to one of the best (No. 10), good enough to get coordinator Mike Elko hired by Notre Dame. New coordinator Jay Sawvel (Minnesota) will be without four of last year’s top six tacklers.

End Duke Ejiofor (fourth in the ACC with 10.5 sacks) leads the program’s best unit. The line goes at least six deep, and its excellence will have to cover for some question marks behind it.

The Deacons produced NFL-level linebackers in consecutive seasons (Brandon Chubb, Marquel Lee), but whether Jaboree Williams is next in line remains a question. Former walk-on Grant Dawson returns in the middle, as does Demetrius Kemp at rover. But the unit is so thin that two freshmen, Jeff Burley and Chase Monroe, could play.

Safety Jessie Bates made second-team All-ACC as a redshirt freshman, intercepting five passes to go with 100 tackles. The biggest issue will be finding two reliable cornerbacks — it looks as though sophomore Amari Henderson and graduate transfer Cedric Jiles will start.

Previewing Wake Forest’s Specialists for 2017 

Wake Forest returns All-ACC kicker Mike Weaver, automatic from inside 40 yards, and punter Dom Maggio, who impressed as a freshman. The return units remained at the bottom of the ACC, where they’ve been for most of the last decade, resulting in Clawson changing the special teams coach.

Final Analysis 

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The Deacons had only seven seniors play more than 100 plays last year, and every player who scored is back. Still, this team is young, with only nine scholarship seniors. Clawson faces a much more difficult schedule, has four new assistants and questions about depth everywhere. Wake Forest has little margin for error, and injuries could wreak havoc. The Deacons are 6–24 in November over eight seasons, and they could need two late wins to go bowling. Clawson could field a better team but end up worse off in the standings.

National Ranking: 52

ACC Atlantic Prediction: 5