The 2023 season for Wake Forest gets underway in much the same way 2022 did, against an overmatched FCS opponent. The Demon Deacons host Elon Thursday night at Allegacy Stadium with a stretch of out-of-conference games that should get them to a 3-0 start.
Wake head coach Dave Clawson met with the media on Monday and did what all good coaches do. He pumped up the viability of a lesser opponent. Yes, Elon was 8-4 last year with a 6-4 record in the Colonial Athletic Association Conference. And yes, they had a close game against a Power Five school in perennially underachieving Vanderbilt. But much of the offensive firepower from that Phoenix team is gone in 2023.
Building The Phoenix Up
Still, Clawson did his best sales pitch on the game. “Elon is coming off a great season. They made the FCS playoffs. They made the Top 20 in the final poll,” he said. He talked about how the offensive line has experience with more than 100 combined starts. And he pointed out that, “On defense, they were really good a year ago.”
All well and good. But gone is starting quarterback Matthew McKay, who was a 61% passer and threw for just under 2,800 yards and 21 touchdowns. They also lost a receiving duo that accounted for nearly half of the team’s total receptions and more than half of the total receiving yards.
Matthew Downing replaces McKay. This is the fourth stop in Downing’s college career. He has thrown a total of 61 passes in one year at Georgia, two at TCU, and one at Louisiana Tech. He had 356 yards passing and only three touchdowns against four interceptions prior to tearing his ACL in the fourth game of the season in 2022.
Expect the Phoenix to come with a heavy run game. Jalen Hampton is in his second year at Elon after being at Virginia Tech for two seasons. He rushed for 1,053 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
A Lot of Snaps. Not A Lot of Starts
Clawson talked about the transition in his own program. “We have 11 new starters. We are inexperienced, but we’re not young.” Typical of Clawson’s teams over the last few years, the starting line-up is chock-full of guys who are in their fourth and fifth year at Wake Forest and have been waiting for their chance to start. “Unlike last year there is not the accumulated starts and experience across the board that we have had,” he added.
Still, with a game that appears on paper to be such a mismatch, it is fair to ask Wake’s head coach what he anticipates he can learn about his team with this game. The response to our query came with a chuckle and a bit of a head shake. “You guys [the media], label it that way,” he said. He added that in his perfect world, the FCS game would come at the end of the year when a roster of 63 players would be more worn down compared to his roster of 85 scholarship players. But then we got a real answer on expectations and the learning curve. “More than anything, I want to see clean football. “Game ones are always mistake games,” Clawson explained. “I don’t want to see false starts. I want to see us be clean in the kicking game. And I’d like to see us win the turnover battle.”
Balance and Depth
With the Demon Deacons notoriously being able to put up a lot of points, eyes will be on the offense and new starting quarterback Mitch Griffis. He played well in his one start last year, ironically against an FCS opponent, VMI. But Clawson does not want to put it all on his fourth-year quarterback.
“To me, this year’s team has to be more of a team,” he said, pointing out that with Sam Hartman, A.T. Perry, and others, the expectation was that Wake Forest would win solely with its offense. “I’d like to see us win more as a team. I’d like to see us have a more balanced offense. I am feeling that our defense is going to take a step forward.”
Clawson also referred to this year’s offensive line with high praise. “My expectation is that this group is as good as any group we have put out there.”
Clawson historically identifies a number that he refers to as the “over the line” number. It is the number of players providing depth at all of the positions that he can plug in as needed. While last year the number was 51, this year he did not offer a specific number but was mostly optimistic with the results from camp. “My goal is to have a certain number at each position and then a total number. We probably have the total number, but the distribution maybe isn’t the way you draw it up.”
Change at Wideout
He specifically pointed out every position on offense as a positive in terms of depth. He likewise said the defensive line is not yet where he would like it to be in terms of comfort with the depth. “But I think we can make up for that with where we are at linebacker and safety.”
One seemingly significant change coming from having enough positional depth is that slot receiver Taylor Morin is moving to the outside. With the loss of Donavon Greene for a significant portion of the season, if not all of it, Clawson had options. Morin has played on the outside in the past and this puts Ke’Shawn Williams at the slot position. Clawson said as much as anything it allowed him to put the three best receivers on the field at the same time.
News and Notes
Clawson said he did not watch any of the week 0 games Saturday as he celebrated his wife’s birthday. That would mean he did not see his former starting quarterback put up large-scale numbers for Notre Dame against Navy.
Running back Justice Ellison did not miss it. “I texted him too,” Ellison said of Hartman. “And I let him know, ‘I’m proud of you.’” Ellison emphasized that friendship goes beyond the football field. “I spent years with that dude. I wish the best for him.”
The ACC executive board was scheduled to meet to discuss adding Stanford, Cal, and SMU to the conference. The meeting was postponed because of the active shooter situation on the Chapel Hill campus. But prior to knowing that, Clawson had thoughts on realignment. “I think it’s insane that eight schools from the West Coast are in three different Power Five conferences.” He gave credit to ACC commissioner Jim Phillips for being what he called proactive in trying to secure the conference’s future by adding schools. “Whatever is good for the ACC is good for Wake Forest.”
Clawson continued to advocate for college football having its own commissioner with the premise that everyone at each level is doing what they are tasked to do for their constituents. He wants someone to look after the game overall. Unless all of the current commissioners are willing to give up their power and authority, it is not likely to be something to come soon.
Photo courtesy: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports