After taking Wake Forest to five straight bowl games but never winning more than eight games in a season, Dave Clawson broke through in 2021: an AP top-10 ranking, an ACC Atlantic Division title and 11 wins, including the Gator Bowl. The Deacons again return players with starting experience at almost every position and add transfer Kobie Turner, an FCS second-team All-American at defensive tackle. Clawson has changed the perception of a program with a lengthy losing tradition.
"People now when they play Wake Forest have a little more respect for who we are and what we've done," Clawson says. "There's been times we've been able to beat people who maybe didn't take us seriously. Those days are probably over."
The offense commands respect under coordinator Warren Ruggiero, averaging at least 30 points a game in each season since 2017. Last year, the Deacons averaged 41 points per game, fourth in the nation. The defense struggled to keep up, finishing 88th in scoring and 111th against the run. The Deacons hung on with a big-play approach: tied for fifth in turnovers gained and tied for 17th in tackles for a loss. Clawson brought in Brad Lambert, a former WFU assistant under Jim Grobe, from Purdue to run this year's defense, as well as adding two new assistants.
Previewing Wake Forest's Offense for 2022
The Deacons lose their top rusher and lineman, but there's little reason to believe that those losses will slow down this juggernaut. Two players who missed last season because of injury will return in receiver Donavon Greene and lineman Je'Vionte' Nash. In the last two games Greene played in 2020, he caught 14 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Nash, a seventh-year senior, will move from right to left tackle. The other four offensive linemen — led by third-team All-ACC guard Sean Maginn — started all but one game last year and have 90 career starts total. As the rest of the offense, finding depth will be a key.
Quarterback Sam Hartman has plenty of experience with making decisions in Ruggerio's long mesh-point attack, and his improved running ability opened up the passing game. Hartman was third in the nation in points responsible for and threw for 4,228 yards, the sixth most in ACC history. Hartman has struggled in key moments, however. In 2020, he imploded in the final two games, and last season, against UNC, NC State and Pittsburgh, he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and threw nine interceptions.
Hartman found the 6'5" A.T. Perry 71 times last year, and his pairing with Greene should be explosive on the outside. Wake Forest makes stars out of slot receivers, and Taylor Morin (43 catches) will move inside, backed by breakout candidate Ke'Shawn Williams (27).
The backfield will be a committee approach again, led by Justice Ellison (5.1 yards per carry) and Christian Turner, who both gained more than 500 yards last season. The Deacons finally returned to using the tight end as a receiving threat last year, as Brandon Chapman and Blake Whiteheart combined for 27 catches and six touchdowns. WFU will miss the departed Chapman's blocking and needs to find Whiteheart's backup.
Previewing Wake Forest's Defense for 2022
Lambert inherits a defense that allowed 42 or more points five times, although it did create 29 turnovers. The Deacons struggled at the second level, especially against the run, and that linebacker unit is full of question marks again. Ryan Smenda Jr. (83 tackles) and Chase Jones (47) return, but they will have to be faster to the ball. There's little experience behind them, and the rover position will be up for grabs. Wake Forest hopes former Navy transfer Chelen Garnes can emerge.
Disruptive end Rondell Bothroyd was a glaring omission from the All-ACC teams. The other end spot is a question mark, though: Jasheen Davis — who received significant Power 5 attention as a recruit — showed flashes (8.5 tackles for a loss) but was inconsistent in his first full year, and oft-injured Jacorey Johns hasn't lived up to his potential.
The secondary lost a lot of talent but, if it can stay healthy, still has a chance to be good. At corner, Gavin Holmes and Caelen Carson are both emerging stars, and safety Malik Mustapha showed big-play ability as a true freshman. Former walk-on Nick Andersen had a disappointing year after a strong 2020.
Previewing Wake Forest's Specialists for 2022
Redshirt freshman Matthew Dennis will have the difficult job of filling the kicking shoe of Nick Sciba, one of the best kickers in college football history. Punter Ivan Mora is recovering from a leg injury suffered in the Gator Bowl but is expected to be ready for the season and could be one of the ACC's best. Wake Forest's return units have gone from bad to solid over the last two years, led by punt returner Morin. A healthy Greene could add a threat on kickoffs.
Another eight-win season and a bowl game seem probable, and if a few breaks fall the Deacons' way, another challenge for the Atlantic title as well. But injuries always seem to be an issue for the Deacons late in the season, and this team is searching for depth across almost every unit. Clawson will have to hope some younger players develop quickly. The offense should be at the top of the league again, so the key will be whether Lambert can improve the defense and keep the turnovers coming.
National Ranking: 16
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