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Wake Forest Football: Demon Deacons' 2020 Spring Preview

Wake Forest Football: Demon Deacons' 2020 Spring Preview

Wake Forest Football: Demon Deacons' 2020 Spring Preview

It may not have registered outside of the fan base, but the Wake Forest Demon Deacons had one of the most successful football seasons in program history in 2019. Among the highlights, the Deacs played in a bowl game for the fourth consecutive year, which was a first for the school, and secured a fourth consecutive winning record for the first time since the 1940s.

Wake Forest also swept in-state rivals North Carolina, NC State, and Duke for just the fourth time ever, remarkable because the school has played the trio more than 100 times in history. And the Demon Deacons broke into the AP Top 25 (albeit short-lived) during a season for the first time since 2008. Kicker Nick Sciba earned All-American honors and set an NCAA record with 34 straight field goals. Sciba, wide receiver Sage Surratt and defensive end Carlos "Boogie" Basham all earned first-team All-ACC selections, and the trio led a school-record 14 players named to the All-ACC team last year.

As Wake Forest attempts to build upon that success in 2020, the Demon Deacons are set to begin spring practice. Here we take a look at five storylines to watch.

5 Storylines to Watch During Wake Forest’s Spring Practice

1. It's Sam Hartman’s time to shine — again

Jamie Newman started 12 of the 13 games for the Deacs last season, and emerged as one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the ACC. Newman completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 2,868 yards and 26 touchdowns with 11 interceptions, and he ranked fourth in the ACC in yards per pass attempt (7.9). Newman ranked second among ACC quarterbacks with 574 rushing yards. He also scored six times on the ground, which led the team.

But Newman opted to leave Wake Forest after his junior season, joining Georgia as a graduate transfer. For most programs, it would be an incredible blow, but the Demon Deacons are fortunate to have an experienced quarterback ready to take over.

Hartman started nine games for the Deacs as a true freshman in 2018 and threw for 1,984 yards and 16 touchdowns with eight interceptions before suffering a season-ending injury that led to Newman's rise up the depth chart. Hartman also ran for 275 yards and two scores as a freshman. In four games of action (one start) while redshirting last year, Hartman threw for 830 yards and four touchdowns with two picks, completing 56.7 percent of his passes and averaging 8.6 yards per attempt. He also added 89 yards and one touchdown on the ground.

Hartman is the clear favorite to return to the starting role in 2020, though Michael Kern was impressive in two appearances as a true freshman last year. Early enrollee Mitch Griffis is on campus for spring practice as well.

2. Health and development in the receiver room

Boasting a 7-1 record and still in control of its fate in the ACC Atlantic, No. 19 Wake Forest traveled to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech in early November. Receiver Sage Surratt, who had been named ACC Player of the Week four times already, caught four passes for 53 yards and two touchdowns (his 10th and 11th of the season) in the game, surpassing 1,000 receiving yards in the process. Unfortunately, Surratt also suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, the Demon Deacons lost 36-17, and Wake would go on to lose three of its last four games to close the season.

Surratt's injury (among others) was a major blow, and with the loss of fellow starting receivers Kendall Hinton and Scotty Washington to graduation, as well as veteran contributor Steven Claude and tight end Jack Freudenthal, the 2020 Wake Forest receiver room is one of the youngest groups on what is a very inexperienced offensive unit as a whole.

Among those expected to compete for starting jobs alongside Surratt, sophomore Jaquarii Roberson has the most experience and redshirt freshman Donavon Greene has flashed the most upside. Roberson caught six passes for 80 yards and a touchdown last season, and has appeared in 18 career games. Greene caught 13 passes for 249 yards overall — a team-high 19.15 yards per catch - and two touchdowns in four games. A.T. Perry (6-5) and Stanford grad transfer Donald Stewart (6-4) each offer excellent size. Rising senior tight end Brandon Chapman caught 11 passes for 100 yards last season and has the inside track to start in 2020, though a quartet of freshmen will also vie for playing time.

3. Who will carry the load at running back?

With Cade Carney out of eligibility and Newman off to Georgia, Wake Forest must replace a large chunk of its rushing production from the 2019 squad. But like at quarterback, there is more experience on hand in the backfield than first meets the eye. Kenneth Walker III is the leading returning rusher for the Demon Deacons, having gained 579 yards (just 41 fewer than Carney last year (and four touchdowns (one less than Carney). Walker led the team with an average of 5.91 yards per carry.

Walker would appear most likely to take over as the primary ball carrier, though having multiple running backs sharing the load is highly probable. Christian Beal-Smith gained 304 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns in nine games (he was suspended for the final three), averaging 4.28 yards per attempt in the process. Kendrell Flowers, who appeared in two games as a true freshman in 2019, is the highest-rated running back on the roster in terms of 247Sports Composite ratings with a .8614 coming out of high school. Similarly talented incoming freshmen Ahmani Marshall (.8510) and Quinton Cooley (.8490) are both set to enroll early and participate in spring practices.

4. Inexperience at cornerback

Newman's departure has gotten the most buzz during the offseason, but arguably the biggest holes that need to be filled for Wake Forest in 2020 are at cornerback. Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson combined to make 82 starts for the Demon Deacons, with Bassey — an All-ACC third-teamer in 2019 - starting the final 39 games of his career.

As the only cornerback returning with any starting experience, Ja'Sir Taylor is likely to slide into one of the starting roles this year. Taylor, who has appeared in 38 games and made five starts across his first three seasons, recorded 30 total tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack, and intercepted two passes in 2019. Tyriq Hardimon and Isaiah Essissima are expected to compete for the other spot, though others with playing experience at safety, such as Zion Keith, A.J. Williams and Peyton Woulard, could see action there this spring. A trio of true freshmen — Gavin Holmes, J.J. Roberts and Caelen Carson — could enter the mix for early playing time when they arrive this fall.

5. Injury updates, transfers to know, and injury updates for transfers

Surratt's injury wasn't the only one to have a major impact on Wake's late-season slide. Newman and Carney were banged up at different points of the season and Washington missed the final five games. Linebacker Justin Strnad looked like an All-American before a biceps injury ended his senior season in Week 8.

Those players are all gone, but rover Luke Masterson and safety Nasir Greer (who both suffered major injuries in 2019), are expected back in 2020, as is linebacker D.J. Taylor, a key contributor in '18 who missed all of last season after suffering a knee injury in spring practice. Greer will sit out this spring given the late date of his knee injury.

Miles Fox, who like Taylor was sidelined for the entire 2019 season due to a spring practice injury, is expected to make his Wake Forest debut on the defensive line this season. Fox made 26 starts at Old Dominion from 2016-18 and is expected to compete for a starting spot at defensive tackle this spring. At the least, Fox should add to the depth of what could be Wake Forest’s strongest unit.

Finally, offensive lineman and Maryland transfer Terrance Davis, who made 31 starts and appeared in 37 games for the Terrapins before joining the Demon Deacons, is expected to miss spring practice after re-aggravating the knee injury that cost him all but four games in 2019. Davis, the projected starter at right guard, should be ready for action this fall.

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and managing editor of CFB Winning Edge. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.