Dave Clawson has solidified his reputation as a program rebuilder, coaching Wake Forest to three straight bowl wins for the first time in school history. He'd just like this season to be a little less stressful than last season was.
In 2018, Clawson started a true freshman quarterback and fired his defensive coordinator after four games. Despite losing his quarterback to injury, Clawson saw his team win two of its last three to become bowl eligible. Then the Deacons rallied from 18 down and survived a missed field goal on the final play to win the Birmingham Bowl.
Clawson's offense has led the turnaround: The past two seasons have been the top two in program history for scoring and total offense. Clawson survived the loss of quarterback John Wolford after 2017, but this year he loses big-play receiver Greg Dortch, who left early for the NFL, and the core of his offensive line.
Clawson — whose 2019 recruiting class included three of the top five highest-rated prospects in school history — isn't as worried about replacing that talent as he would have been a few years ago: "We're not winning by accident here. We have good players."
Previewing Wake Forest's Offense for 2019
There's a possible quarterback controversy brewing. Sam Hartman returns after breaking his leg in the ninth game, and Jamie Newman won three of his four starts in relief. Newman, a junior, may open with a slight edge. He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and threw an excellent deep ball. He also added more of a running threat than Hartman and, at 6'4", 235 pounds, showed he could take a pounding. But Hartman was fourth in the ACC in total offense when he went down, so Clawson is facing a difficult decision.
The offense loses Dortch, who was a threat to score at any time, but it returns leading rusher Cade Carney and Sage Surratt, who caught 41 passes as a redshirt freshman. Wake Forest will add Christian Beal-Smith's speed to the backfield and hope for Scotty Washington, who caught 45 passes as a sophomore, to get fully healthy.
Kendall Hinton will try to turn the elusiveness he showed at quarterback into a solution in the slot. Hinton was in line to start at QB last season before an off-field incident derailed him, and he eventually converted to receiver but caught only six passes. Also look out for four-star early enrollee Nolan Groulx.
The line loses three players who made 112 combined starts. "Right now, the offensive line is sort of a puzzle," Clawson says. The Deacons should be strong at tackle, where they return two-year starter Jake Benzinger and three-year starter Justin Herron, who was lost for the season due to a knee injury in the first game. Tight end Jack Freudenthal is a strong blocker but needs to improve as a receiving threat.
Previewing Wake Forest's Defense for 2019
Since former coordinator Mike Elko left after the 2016 season, the defense has struggled. Clawson fired Jay Sawvel after four games last season, but play didn't improve much: Wake Forest gave up more than 33 points per game and finished 116th in total defense. Assistants Dave Cohen and Lyle Hemphill took on larger roles, and the Deacons will still have a 4-2-5 look. However, they’ll play three safeties or cornerbacks and not the rover linebacker position.
The defensive line also loses its core, graduating two tackles with 52 career starts. Junior Sulaiman Kamara will have to step up to lead a young group. End Carlos Basham Jr. (11 tackles for a loss) is a rising star, but the other end spot is a question mark. True freshman Shamar McCollum, a spring standout, could be the answer.
Linebacker was an issue last year, and that probably won't change as standout DJ Taylor is already lost for the season. Justin Strnad led the team in tackles, but he needs help, perhaps from former touted recruits Chase Monroe and Jeff Burley, who are now third-year sophomores who haven’t played because of injuries.
After several years of struggles, cornerback could be a strength, led by Essang Bassey, who is one of the ACC's best. However, the veteran group needs to force more turnovers and be better against the run. The Deacons have some talent at safety, but not a lot of experience. Luke Masterson and Coby Davis may start, but Nasir Greer came on strong as a true freshman, and Traveon Redd excelled in the spring.
Previewing Wake Forest's Specialists for 2019
The Deacons also lose Dortch (two scores last season) as a returner, and Clawson’s teams ranked at the bottom of the league before Dortch arrived. Beal-Smith and Hinton will get a chance to take over. The kicking game is solid, with Nick Sciba hitting 19-of-22 field goals as a true freshman and veteran Dom Maggio back as a reliable punter.
Clawson has worked wonders on the field and off (fundraising is breaking records), but this season will be another challenge. Dortch and the line keyed the recent offensive surge, so Clawson's recruiting acumen will be tested as younger players have to step up. Injuries have hit the defense hard, thinning some of Clawson's classes, so the Deacons are not deep or experienced. The schedule isn't easy either, with Utah State (11 wins last year) on the nonconference slate, and three of the final four games on the road.