Dave Clawson wants you to know he is all good with you being disappointed in Wake Forest’s 8-5 record this year. Clawson, in fact, wears it as a badge of honor. Sure, he wishes Wake had won more games. But Clawson says the disappointment signifies a ramping up of the expectations in Winston-Salem, and he has no problem taking much of the credit for that. So where does Wake Forest go next?
Certainly, 8-5 is subject to interpretation. If they had gone 9-4, the success is indisputable. If they had gone 7-6, it would have been hard to back up a claim that it was a good season even with the bowl game. But 8-5 is full of gray areas. It is less than last year when the Demon Deacons caught lightning in a bottle and went 11-3. And certainly, the ceiling looked higher when they were 6-1 and ranked in the top 15 by all real polls.
Is The Record Good?
So, what does the 8-5 mean? Surely, it means Wake Forest took care of the business it was supposed to handle. They beat VMI, Vanderbilt, Liberty, and Army. Like any coach who has been doing this job long enough, Clawson will tell you that beating Vandy meant going on the road to beat an SEC team, and thus was significant. As those of us who cover this game for a living will tell you, beating Vandy is not the same as beating any other SEC team. The school doesn’t even support its own football program, much less anyone else in the SEC giving the Commodores a second thought. VMI and Army were a given, and Liberty was closer than it needed to be. And there is half your win total.
The peak was Florida State. It’s a tough road venue. Having a game week in limbo because of a hurricane in Florida. A quality opposing quarterback. Yet, Wake Forest controlled the flow of the game early and throughout. Both sides of the ball played well. It wasn’t one side carrying the other.
Four weeks later, it all began to crater in Louisville. The third quarter was about as bad as any team could play. Clawson has told us repeatedly since then that it was the low point because the team went in unprepared. That usually sits on the head coach’s shoulder. But this was one of the most experienced teams in the country. The fact that the players stepped on the same banana peel time and time again in the second half puts the responsibility for the debacle on everyone on that sideline.
The Post Season
Wake never fully recovered. The Demon Deacons dropped three of their last four regular season games. Sure, they were competitive for significant parts of it, but a team with these credentials should have known how to pull out the close games.
That gets us to the last game and another source of the reasonable divide. The Gasparilla Bowl was Wake Forests’ seventh straight year with a postseason invite. Clawson is 5-2 during that stretch. And he celebrated another win over another SEC team, even though the reality is it was a subpar Missouri team that was lucky to have even qualified for a bowl game.
When the playoffs expand for 2024, many of the third-tier bowl games (most of which are played before Christmas), will be on the cusp of survival. But for this year, for 2022, Clawson and his team have another bowl championship trophy. It was a win worthy of some celebration.
What comes next is going to test Clawson and the Wake Forest program he has elevated. The Demon Deacons have had no fewer than 10 players go into the transfer portal as of this publishing. Some are not a surprise. Clawson has been public about his displeasure with the defensive secondary’s inability to stop the big plays over the top. Part of it was due to injuries hitting the secondary disproportionately. Part of it was simply bad football. Still seeing Gavin Holmes suiting up for the Texas Longhorns next season and seeing J.J. Roberts playing for Marshall is a byproduct of the quick-change era in college football and of little surprise for Wake Forest.
The Wake Forest run game has been by committee for the last couple of years, and it is a crowded running back room. So, seeing the likes of Christian Turner and Quinton Cooley look for carries elsewhere is not a surprise.
Defensive lineman Rondell Bothroyd was leaving Wake Forest, but it was assumed he was putting his name in for the NFL draft. Seeing him decide to play another year of college football elsewhere was a surprise. But frankly, players like Bothroyd are who the transfer system was built for. He graduated from Wake Forest while playing for five years for the Demon Deacons. Bothyroyd played through some significant injuries but was a key component of Clawson’s defense. He has done all you ask of a college football player but has one more year of eligibility and wants one last chance to determine his fate before he attempts the NFL.
Wake will also be putting Sam Hartman in the proverbial rearview mirror. He made it clear back in November that he would be moving on. Everyone assumed it was for an attempt at the NFL. But before they even got to the bowl game, it was clear he was going into the portal in an effort to elevate his very modest draft projections. Hartman has confirmed his intent to move on to Notre Dame. From NFL scouts we have talked to, they want to see Hartman run more pro-style offense. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees needs a more consistent quarterback than what he got with Drew Pyne, who is headed to Arizona State.
As is the case with the current day NIL, rumors in social media become de facto truths. The dollar amount rumored to be there for Hartman is wildly unsubstantiated. Notre Dame had one of the best tight ends in the game and one of the top two in school history. Michael Mayer was a unanimous All-American, and he got a confirmed $825,000 in NIL money. It is incredibly unlikely Hartman has the rumored $2 million waiting for him.
He was asked after the bowl game about his decision-making process. He could not run off the stage fast enough without answering the question. QB1 is generally the face of any football program. Hartman has run hot and cold with his willingness to play that role. Now it is Mitch Griffis’ turn to take the mantle.
Success Breeds Changes
Success also means losing players early to the NFL. Receiver A.T. Perry, linebacker Ryan Smenda, defensive linemen Jacorey Johns and Dion Bergan, Jr., as well as defensive back Jermal Martin are leaving eligibility behind to try their lot at the next level. Some have a better shot than others. And then of course others have just exhausted their eligibility. Je’Vionte’ Nash was only going to be able to play in Winston-Salem for so long.
The challenges going forward at Wake are not easy to resolve. The Demon Deacons have newfound success. That helped lead to one of the best recruiting classes in school history a couple of weeks ago.
But this is not a program that is designed to work in a plug-and-play world. There aren’t the blazing five-star recruits headed to Winston-Salem. There are well-established reasons why. So, the staff takes its disproportionate share of three-star recruits and spends years developing them, hoping the majority stay long enough to put that growth to the test on the field at Truist Field.
Filling The Holes
Clawson is also significantly restricted in his use of the transfer portal by Wake’s admissions department. He can get the occasional grad transfer through admissions and hope they can produce for the year or two they are there. But most of the highly valued undergrads in the transfer portal won’t be listing Wake Forest as their next destination. They will get waived off by the admissions department before they choose their next school.
NIL Inducements are not a top-level option for Wake Forest either. A few have referred to the Roll The Quad NIL collective as a game changer. The reality is, its immediate impact is limited and the long-term viability is a question mark. We will further examine that in a separate column.
Where does that leave Clawson for the 2023 season? The losses, in terms of sheer numbers, are significant. It is going to put the theory of his depth to the test. He often points out that he will have fourth, fifth, and even sixth-year players for another year or two. How they have grown as understudies for the last two years will determine Wake’s 2023 success.
The Schedule And The Expectations
The out-of-conference schedule has its usual easy spots. Elon and Vanderbilt are cream puffs. Old Dominion is a viable G5 program but Wake should be at the point where this is not a challenge. And then there is the trip in October to South Bend to face Notre Dame and its presumed quarterback Sam Hartman.
The conference schedule has some tough road games at Clemson and Virginia Tech. But there is no longer the concern about divisional races. Just finish in the top two and you play for the title.
Those have to be the expectations going forward after the last two seasons, (one very good and one above average), to at least compete for the top two spots. At this point, Clawson has brought Wake beyond the years of moderate to low expectations. He will tell you so. Now it is up to him to make sure everyone else in the program lives up to it.