Wake Forest football takes another step up this week. The Demon Deacons play host to Georgia Tech in the ACC opener for Wake. It was an FCS team in the season opener, followed by a weaker SEC team, a pretty good Sun Belt team, and now an ACC opponent with a potent revamped offense. So now Wake Forest preps for a new look Georgia Tech.
In case you had not noticed, this is no longer your grandparents’ or even your parents’ Rambling Wreck offense. Gone is the triple-option offense that had been a staple for so many years. Brent Key’s team actually throws the ball…a lot.
New Look Offense
Quarterback Haynes King, the transfer from Texas A&M, is leading the ACC in passing yards per game with 303. He is also 21st in the country in passing efficiency. Doesn’t sound like the same Yellow Jackets we all grew up with, right?
“I think their new coach, Coach Key, has done a really good job of kind of assembling talent,” Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said Tuesday. He complimented Key, who is actually in year two having spent the last eight weeks of the 2022 season as the interim head coach, for his use of the transfer portal. Clawson pointed out the high number of players that have moved over to GA Tech from other Power Five schools. Out of the 16 players Key took from the transfer portal prior to this season, a dozen of them came from Power Five programs.
King was the key off-season grab for Georgia Tech. Clawson said, “He’s got really good arm strength, but he is really, really athletic and fast.” Along with the 66.7 completion rate and nine touchdown throws, King also has just under 100 yards rushing and a touchdown on the ground.
While each week both coaches for any game are heaping praise on their counterparts on the other side of the field, we cannot overlook the major flaw in GA Tech’s game. At 1-2 on the season, the Yellow Jackets have a sustainability issue. They have been unable to compete in the second half of their two losses this season.
GA Tech Problems on Defense
GA Tech was up 28-13 over Louisville at halftime only to get run over in the second half by a 26-6 margin for the 39-34 conference loss.
Likewise, they were only down by seven to Ole Miss, 10-3, at the half. They got outscored 38-20 in the second half and lost 48-23. Their one win of the season was 48-13 over South Carolina State.
Key said this week that his defense has to do a better job of, “Limiting explosive plays. We’ve got to be able to make plays one on one. We’ve got to create negative plays.”
He also fulfilled his coaching prerequisite this week by giving kudos to Clawson and his Wake Forest team. He called Wake, “Over the last six or seven years one of the most impressive teams, not just in the conference, but in the country with what Dave Clawson’s been able to do there.”
Cleanup at Wake
That’s not to say that Wake does not have its own cleanup issues to manage. Notwithstanding the excitement of Saturday’s come-from-behind win over Old Dominion, the game provided plenty of items for the “must-fix” checklist.
While first-year starting quarterback Mitch Griffis was a pleasant enough 25 of 42 passing for 312 yards and three touchdowns, he also had two interceptions, one of which was run back for a touchdown. He also fumbled the ball twice, one of which was recovered by ODU and run back for a touchdown.
“Right now, we’re loose with the football,” Clawson said of the team’s five turnovers in three games. “Turnovers happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the protection breaks down. Sometimes the receiver doesn’t break off the route when it’s hot. And sometimes at the quarterback position, you just can’t hold on to it so long.”
Picking Up Griffis
Clawson was asked what it takes to get an inexperienced player who has the DNA to try to make every play, to learn when to ditch the play when it isn’t there. “He’s got to adjust,” Clawson said. And that adjustment needs to come quickly. Playing the opponents Wake has to get to 3-0, Griffis has held on to the ball too long in some instances, and he has had a lot of time in the pocket. That is going to change, per Clawson, now that the Deacs enter ACC play. “The time that we’re going to have is probably going to get shorter, not longer,” Clawson said of the defenses Wake faces over the remaining nine games. “Experience is a great teacher, but you’ve got to take that experience and adjust.”
After Saturday’s game, Griffis did not look like a quarterback who had just helped engineer a significant comeback win. He took a lot of direct hits from the ODU defense, and he was openly displeased with his performance saying that he was happy the team was able to win in spite of his play.
Now comes the work to get him mentally and emotionally ready for the start of ACC play. “He’s a competitor,” Clawson said of his fourth-year player. “When you’re the starting quarterback at any college football program, the mental grind of doing it week after week after week is as hard as the physical grind.” He said Saturday’s game for himself and for his quarterback was more of a relief than a point of celebration. “That was misery for three hours and 15 minutes.”
Staying Home…For Now
As comes with success, Clawson’s name is again being thrown around in the coaching vacancy world. He is being mentioned by some covering Michigan State as one of about eight or nine candidates to replace Mel Tucker when he is inevitably fired in the coming days or weeks.
Clawson spoke with certainty when asked about the rumors. “I think time and time again I have confirmed my commitment to this place,” he said. “I’ve been here 10 years. This is home.” He added that there are generally two times a coach’s name gets thrown around publicly. One has to do with success. The other, not so much. “Usually as coaches, your name is going to be mentioned for other jobs or it’s going to be mentioned that you’re getting fired. Given the choice of those two, I’d rather it be that way. You’re never in the middle. They’re never going to say, ‘Hey, he’s there and he’s staying there,’ unless you’re Nick Saban, or whatever.”
The growth of the program under Clawson assures that this will not be the last time his name pops up when the coaching carousel goes around and around.
Photo courtesy: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports