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Wake Forest Football: Demon Deacons' 2021 Spring Preview

Wake Forest Football: Demon Deacons' 2021 Spring Preview

Wake Forest Football: Demon Deacons' 2021 Spring Preview

In recent years, many mid-major college basketball programs have become powerhouses and have made significant runs in the NCAA Tournament. The fact that these teams feature older, more developed players compared to the one-and-done recruits at the high major level is the primary reason for their success.

The same doesn't necessarily hold true in football. The NFL will not let a player enter the draft until three years after his high school graduation, so the top teams are not playing all freshmen. But if experience does matter in college football, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons should be in very good shape entering the 2021 season. The Deacs return much of the roster on both sides of the ball though there will be some key pieces to replace on defense.

As spring camp opens in Winston-Salem, here are some things to keep an eye on.

5 Storylines to Watch During Wake Forest's Spring Practice

1. Taking the passing game to the next level

For much of 2020, Sam Hartman was ultra-efficient. Heading into the final regular-season game, the third-year quarterback was completing 63 percent of his throws and did not have an interception. Plus, his 8.6 yards per attempt was more than solid. He did have just eight touchdown passes, but no one was complaining about his play. But in the last two contests, Hartman was 37-of-78 and threw five picks in losses to Louisville and Wisconsin. With top receiver Jaquarii Roberson and big-play threat Donavon Greene coming back, it is time to see what level Hartman can reach.

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2. Developing a running back rotation

Christian Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker III formed a nice duo for Wake right up until Walker decided to opt out before the regular-season finale against Louisville. Walker then decided to transfer to Michigan State, leaving Beal-Smith as the holdover. During Dave Clawson's tenure at Wake Forest, the team has split carries between multiple backs, so finding a successor to Walker is imperative this spring. Justice Ellison showed promise by rushing for 50 yards on nine carries in the Louisville game and will probably get the first crack as Beal-Smith's sidekick.

3. Offensive line improvement

All the starters are back, but their play was a bit inconsistent in 2020, and not one of the five earned even honorable mention consideration on the All-ACC team. But if there is an area where experience and continuity matter most, it is along the offensive front. So a step forward is expected, and it has to come if Wake Forest is to challenge for second place behind Clemson in the Atlantic Division. Last fall, they allowed three sacks per game (tied for 105th in the nation), and the team's 3.86 yards per carry was 90th in America. Getting better up front will have to begin this spring.

4. Life without Boogie

The Wake Forest defensive staff was blessed to have an elite pass rusher for the past three seasons. Now, they will have to find a replacement for Boogie Basham. Even though his numbers were down last fall, it's doubtful that one man can replicate what the star end provided the Deacs over the years. JaCorey Johns has been productive during his two years at Wake, and he should again be an impact player, but he needs help on the other side. Rondell Bothroyd will most likely line up at Boogie's spot, but we will get a glimpse this spring as to whether or not Jasheen Davis — the top-ranked player in the Class of 2020 — can make an impact.

5. Linebackers

It wasn't a strength of the team last fall, and they now have to move on without leading tackler Ja'Cquez Williams. The good news is that there are options that have flashed at times. Chase Jones and Chase Monroe both have talent, and Ryan Smenda Jr. is a fourth-year player who has been a proven contributor. Making the parts fit together will be a high priority in the coming weeks.

— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.