Dave Clawson's work at Wake Forest culminated last season in a fifth straight bowl appearance, which is a new level for a program that still has the worst all-time winning percentage of any Power Five school. However, in those five bowl seasons, Wake Forest is 25–13 before Nov. 3 and 6–12 in the regular season after that, including 1–5 the last two seasons.
"(Depth) is a critical issue," Clawson says. "We have to find a way to stay healthy and maintain our depth if we're ever going to take the next step. If there's ever a chance to do that, I think it's this year."
That's because the NCAA's ruling to grant another year of eligibility may help Wake Forest more than any other school. The program relies on "coaching up" lower-ranked recruits and playing numerous fifth-year seniors. Nine "super seniors," 19 returning starters and 10 players who arrived in January (eight freshmen and two transfers) will make practices extra competitive.
Injuries have gutted an already thin defense the last several years, but an explosive offense has covered up some of those issues. In 2017-19, the Deacons had the three best seasons in school history for total yards and points scored, and then last year, they set a school record by averaging 36.0 points per game.
Previewing Wake Forest's Offense for 2021
The upward trend should continue as every offensive starter returns. The line was shaky last season, especially on the interior, but the returning O-line starters played almost 90 percent of the snaps. The Deacons could add injury-riddled Terrance Davis, a 2019 transfer from Maryland who has 33 career starts, by the fall. Tackles Je'Vionte' Nash and Zach Tom are standouts, but Wake needs improvement from center Michael Jurgens.
Veteran quarterback Sam Hartman needs a cleaner pocket to excel at the long ball. He's not a running threat, which removes an option from the long mesh-point handoffs. But given time, Hartman can be efficient. After tearing up UNC for 429 yards and four touchdowns, Hartman had completed 63 percent with no interceptions through seven games. In the final two, however, he completed fewer than 50 percent and threw five picks.
The Deacons continue to make stars out of their slot receivers, with Jaquarii Roberson averaging more than 100 yards per game. Wake hopes former top recruit Donovan Greene breaks out on the outside. Versatile Taylor Morin leads a number of other players in the mix, including graduate transfer Donald Stewart (Stanford, 2019).
In the past, the Deacons have worked the middle with their tight ends, but Brandon Chapman and Blake Whiteheart were only effective as blockers last season (10 combined catches). Wake also doesn't throw much to its running backs (nine catches). Christian Beal-Smith (5.2 yards per carry) returns to lead the backfield, but losing potential star Kenneth Walker III hurts. WFU added Christian Taylor as a transfer from Michigan (270 career yards) but needs a young player like Quinton Cooley (the leading prep rusher in N.C. in 2019) to make a jump.
Previewing Wake Forest's Defense for 2021
The defense hasn't been good since 2016, but at least last year's team created 17 turnovers. Still, poor linebacker play and an injury-decimated secondary led to allowing 37 or more points in five games. This year's team returns a lot of experience but needs to stay healthy.
The interior of the line should be strong with Miles Fox (10.5 TFLs) pushing to be one of the ACC's best, backed by Sulaiman Kamara and Tyler Williams. The Deacons also hope to get a steal in Luiji Vilain, a transfer from Michigan who was a prep standout but has suffered from knee problems. Outside will have more questions without NFL pick Carlos Basham Jr., especially if Jacorey Johns can't deliver on his potential.
Linebacker remains a question mark. Ryan Smenda Jr. struggled with nagging injuries but had 16 tackles in the bowl game. He'll be joined by former safety Luke Masterson, who could excel with less ground to cover. They're backed by a logjam of players who haven't distinguished themselves. Traveon Redd excelled at the rover spot, and coaches like backup AJ Williams.
The secondary could finally be loaded. Walk-on safety Nick Andersen emerged to become a third-team All-ACC player, and cornerback Ja'Sir Taylor will look to join him. Safety Nasir Greer appeared to be on the same path before being sidelined by injuries last year. Caelen Carson locked down the other corner as a freshman.
Previewing Wake Forest's Specialists for 2021
For the first time under Clawson, Wake Forest's return units were near the top of the ACC, and Greene and Morin will handle those duties again. Better depth should help the special teams units as well. Nick Sciba is the most accurate kicker in ACC history. Punter Ivan Mora was inconsistent as a redshirt freshman but has the potential to be All-ACC.
Injuries have derailed two straight seasons, and Clawson remains steadfast in trying to find fixes for those issues. This team is loaded with talent and experience and could be the deepest in program history. It will need to win its early games against teams packed in the middle of the Atlantic Division; it could be difficult to win any of the last four. The key will be finally building a defense that can support one of the league's top offenses.
National Ranking: 46
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(Jaquarii Roberson photo courtesy of Wake Forest Athletics)