On the back of four straight bowls, Dave Clawson has forged a reputation as one of the top program builders in the country. He has the Deacons winning with a consistency never seen in the program’s history. That stability will be challenged, though, as Clawson loses his starting quarterback, his leading rusher and receiver, three starters along the line, his tight end, his best linebacker and his two starting cornerbacks. Oh, and depth has been the program’s biggest issue over the last two seasons.
The Deacons have covered up defensive issues with record-setting offensive numbers the last three seasons, and they’ve survived losing star players. This year, Clawson will have to unexpectedly replace Jamie Newman, the multi-tool quarterback who salvaged WFU’s 2018 season and had Wake Forest at 7–1 last year before injuries set in. Newman moved to Georgia as a graduate transfer. Still, optimism abounds as Clawson has recruited well, and plenty of intriguing players return. “We’re younger; I didn’t say we’re going to be worse,” Clawson says about the offense.
Previewing Wake Forest's Offense for 2020
Clawson has the luxury of turning to a former starter at quarterback in Sam Hartman. As a true freshman in 2018, Hartman was fourth in the ACC in total offense before breaking his leg in the ninth game. He’ll have to be more accurate and protect the ball better, and the Deacons will have to rethink their approach as Hartman is not the running threat that Newman was.
Hartman will benefit from the return of Sage Surratt, who was on his way to an All-America season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the ninth game. Surratt already had 11 touchdowns and was the only Power 5 player with more than 1,000 yards receiving at that point. On the other side, top recruit Donavon Greene shined in the final four games.
For the second straight year, the Deacons lose a 1,000-yard receiver out of the slot. Incumbent Jaquarii Roberson has only 13 career catches, so watch out for former four-star recruit Nolan Groulx. Wake also likes to work the middle with the tight end, but new starter Brandon Chapman has been a better blocker than pass catcher.
The rushing attack not only loses Newman but also battering ram Cade Carney. The Deacons have high hopes for Christian Beal-Smith, who was suspended for part of last season, but he has yet to show it on the field. Kenneth Walker III averaged 5.9 yards per carry as a true freshman but struggled to pass block.
The offensive line will be the big question mark. Each of the past two seasons, returning linemen combined for more than 100 career starts. This year, the returning linemen have 28 career starts. The Deacons hope to get a big boost from grad transfer Terrance Davis, who had 31 starts for Maryland. Davis, a former four-star recruit, has battled injuries but has been dominant when healthy.
Previewing Wake Forest's Defense for 2020
Wake Forest hasn’t been good on defense since 2016, but the Deacons improved slightly last year with a better pass rush and by creating more turnovers. Injuries wiped out key players in 2019, and this year’s biggest challenge will be to replace two cornerbacks who started 82 games combined.
The defense should feed off the experienced line, led by NFL prospect Carlos Basham Jr., who was second in the ACC in sacks and TFLs last season. Five solid interior linemen are led by Sulaiman Kamara, and, on the outside, defensive end JaCorey Johns flashed potential in part-time action as a redshirt freshman.
The Deacons return two solid linebackers in Ryan Smenda Jr. and Ja’Cquez Williams, but depth is a question mark. The same could be said at safety, with Coby Davis and Nasir Greer primed to be standouts, but big questions behind them. Rover is the only deep position, with Luke Masterson returning from injury to battle Traveon Redd in the Deacons’ 4-2-5 look.
Ja’Sir Taylor moves from being the third corner to the only experienced one. WFU will likely start sophomore Isaiah Essissima on the other side, but look for a rotation of several players. The Deacons will need to create pressure to support their inexperienced corners. Before his injury, Greer also showed the speed and instincts at safety to be able to cover up other issues in the defensive backfield.
Previewing Wake Forest's Specialists for 2020
The Deacons have never been good in the return game under Clawson, and last year their coverage units fell apart as well (122nd in kickoff defense and 129th in punt defense). That led to a coaching shakeup. Veteran punter Dom Maggio is gone, with redshirt freshman Ivan Mora taking over. The lone bright spot is kicker Nick Sciba, who set an NCAA record with 34 straight made field goals.
Injuries snuffed out what could have been a special season last year, and Clawson will have to do some great work to keep the Deacons competitive. He loses a lot of talent on offense, and the schedule won’t help. Wake Forest picks up Notre Dame as a non-conference game and gets much-improved Miami as the rotating Coastal opponent. In addition, the Deacons rely as much as any program on being able to coach up players who weren’t highly recruited, so the missed workout time because of COVID-19 restrictions could really be impactful.