Wake Forest's turnaround on offense was on full display in the 55-52 Belk Bowl victory over Texas A&M to finish out last season. The challenge for Dave Clawson's Demon Deacons will be maintaining that level of performance, especially with a new quarterback at the controls. A veteran offensive line and one of the ACC's top receivers should ease the transition. The defense returns six starters, but the losses on that side of the ball are significant. There are big holes to fill at defensive end and linebacker and there's some uncertainty in the secondary as well. The foundation is in place but does Wake Forest have enough complementary pieces to go bowling for the third year in a row?
Previewing Wake Forest Football's Offense for 2018
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After historically bad offenses under coach Dave Clawson, the Deacons picked up the pace and rode the top-scoring team in program history to eight wins, including a bowl victory over Texas A&M. Once forced to play inexperienced, undersized linemen, Clawson finally started to reap the benefits of their experience, and that should continue.
"We've got four fifth-year seniors on the offensive line," Clawson says. "The improvement was huge. Those guys allowed all that to happen." The line returns all five starters, including three who earned All-ACC honors. However, only one non-starter has seen significant action.
At quarterback, John Wolford overcame doubts about his talent and his health and embraced the run-pass option to finish 12th nationally in total offense. The staff's challenge is to repeat that with Kendall Hinton, who faces the same questions but without the same experience. The dynamic Hinton beat out Wolford in 2016 before suffering a knee injury. He offers more as a runner and has a bigger arm, but he's struggled to stay in the pocket and be accurate. Due to a violation of team rules, Hinton was suspended for the first three games of 2018. Jamie Newman or Sam Hartman will start in Hinton's place for the first three contests.
Matt Colburn emerged at running back to top 120 yards in four of the final six games. He's backed by bruising junior Cade Carney and redshirt freshman Christian Beal, who should add speed and receiving ability.
Greg Dortch had a spectacular season in the slot before a punctured small intestine sidelined him. Dortch and record-setting tight end Cam Serigne drew so much attention that the whole passing game thrived. Wake's biggest struggle will be to replace Serigne.
Previewing Wake Forest's Defense for 2018
Last year's defense took a step back under new coordinator Jay Sawvel and two new assistants, but Clawson is confident that continuity can overcome the loss of five starters. "At times [the new coaches] weren't on the same page," he says. "All these guys have had a year; we've looked at it, we see our mistakes."
Ends Duke Ejiofor and Wendell Dunn (81 starts combined) are gone, so the line's strength will become the interior, where fifth-year seniors Willie Yarbary and Zeek Rodney are backed by the fast-rising Sulaiman Kamara. On the outside, the staff believes Carlos Basham can be a disruptor.
Clawson calls linebacker "the position of greatest concern." Gone are two starters, and returning Demetrius Kemp struggled in his pass-coverage role, which could mean a move inside. The Deacons have little experience, although Justin Strnad had some big late-season moments.
Over the season's final six games, the Deacons allowed an average of 380 passing yards. Then the best of the unit, safety Jessie Bates, turned pro early. Cornerback Essang Bassey has All-ACC potential, and safety Cameron Glenn is solid. But the Deacons will move converted receiver Chuck Wade into Bates' role and hope to develop some depth.
Previewing Wake Forest's Specialists for 2018
The Deacons lose All-ACC kicker Mike Weaver, which could force punter Dom Maggio into double duty. True freshman Nick Sciba the only other option. Dortch's speed revitalized the return games.
The building blocks are there for a third straight bowl appearance. That starts on both lines, where Wake finally boasts talent and experience. Depth is always a concern, and a couple key injuries could eliminate a small margin for error. Clawson has rebuilt the facilities and the culture, and this is now a program that expects to win.