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Wake’s 2023 Debacle Falls on Clawson

Wake’s 2023 Debacle Falls on Clawson

Dave Clawson did what head coaches do following Saturday’s embarrassing performance against North Carolina State. He fell on the sword. He didn’t take full responsibility for what has turned into an unrelentingly poor season. There is enough blame to go around to the players, the staff, and to Clawson. But he took enough blame. And to be clear, at the top of the list, the responsibility for Wake’s 2023 debacle falls on Clawson.

This was always going to be a transition or rebuilding year. The loss of multi-year starters from 2022 made it so. The problem is the program is neither transitioning nor rebuilding. The staff spends every week sticking band-aids on gaping wounds and then wondering why the patient is not getting better. And that rests in Clawson’s office.

Apologies Are Fine for the Moment

“I want to apologize to our fan base, our students, everybody. That was just an awful, awful performance,” he said opening his post-game press conference after the 26-6 loss. Many in the crowd at the game did not see it get worse, as the line of people leaving the stadium at halftime was visible from the back side of the press box.

“We were flat. We had no energy. And that is 100% on me,” Clawson went on to say. There is an argument to be made that he is incorrect there. The team not being put in the best position to win; the team not having answers on either side of the ball…that is on Clawson and his staff. But 18–24-year-old college football players coming out flat for a game against an in-state rival is on them. It’s a sign they may be the wrong people in the wrong place.

Clawson said he was going to do some deep dive soul searching before digging into getting ready for the trip to South Bend this weekend. His forthrightness and accountability are commendable. His 2023 results are not.

He said it is his job to field a competitive team, and the obvious introspective question he had to have asked himself is, why didn’t he?

Lack of Preparedness

Again, the transition or rebuild or whatever label you want to give it is one thing. But this team has not gotten better over the year. There is an argument to be made that it has regressed by being 10 weeks into the season and not making any significant improvement.

The loss of game starts on the offensive line after 2022 was always going to be significant and was a well-known issue before Wake even got to Spring camp this year. Changes on the defense were not going to be easy. The next Rondell Bothroyd is not just sitting there. Yet, the defense was the glue that held the team together through the early season rough patches. Now the defense looks worn down from having to carry the load for so long and is prone to rudimentary mistakes.

And of course, the headline change was the change at quarterback. The challenge was not replacing Sam Hartman’s stats. Yes, he is the all-time leading touchdown passer in ACC history. But as a 58% career passer in his time at Wake Forest, it wasn’t about the numbers. It was about replacing someone who knew how to run the offense. Since Mitch Griffis was going into his fourth year as a backup quarterback, it should be an obvious transition. With hundreds of practices under his belt over the years he should have been ready to step in.

So why wasn’t he? Why has the transition from what Clawson describes as great practices to game time play been so poor? It’s been only slightly better for Michael Kern. And Santino Marucci had his lightning bolt moment in the win over Pitt. But the confidence level in him is marked by this being his fourth position at Wake. And his one start at quarterback came when no one else was available because of injuries.

From Practice To Games and the Empty Space In Between

What is happening at Wake Forest practice that has coaches so convinced, yet players so bumfuzzled when they get in a game? While that is really more of a rhetorical question, the doubts about the offensive line are legitimate. Yes, a lot of starts were lost from last year. But the returning group had a lot of snaps, if not starts, under its collective belt. And please stop yourself before you start to go down the rabbit hole of, “If this tackle had not been injured for this game, or that guard did not have to move positions.” It’s college football in 2023. Talk to any coach in the country, and by week four they are shuffling the patio furniture around to fill gaps.

And perhaps therein lies part of Clawson’s challenge. He isn’t comfortable with all of his patio furniture. In this part of the country, it has been repeated as often as a Knute Rockne halftime speech. Because Wake is not going to get five-star recruits in the same numbers as other schools, it is about developing the three-star players for the coach’s system, and in three or four years they are ready. The reasons Wake does not compete at those recruiting levels for football are often stated, legitimate and need not take up more space here. It is about doing better with what you do have as opposed to lamenting over what you cannot get.

Maybe that process needs to be benched alongside a few players. Clawson openly likes to keep as many young players set aside as possible, so as to play them in November, get them some game reps, and not burn their redshirt year. It’s part of the stockpiling theory. But how much longer can it work when the younger players, with their saved eligibility, see players ahead of them not able to execute the same playbook?

Young and Restless

Clawson said after the game Saturday that the receivers had chances to make contested catches, “And I don’t think we made one of them, other than Deuce for the touchdown.” And there it is. An answer, one answer, was there all along. More Deuce Alexander and less of the more heralded guys in front of him. Wake has an extensive history of talent at receiver over the years. That includes this year even with the significant loss of Donavon Greene. But as John Wooden used to routinely say back in the ‘60s, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

Perhaps the time to take the training wheels off some of the younger guys was well before you lost three games in a row for the second time this season. Could it have been any worse than the product out there now? At least you could have said, “Hey the young guys are putting in the work and the effort and will us get there.” As opposed to scratching your collective heads about how a bunch of third-, fourth–, and fifth-year players can’t execute the offense, and the defense is crumbling under late-in-the-season pressure.

Clawson said Saturday that some of the veteran players, “Are not in a good place,” when asked about whether they had mentally and emotionally checked out. There is plenty of space available on the Wake sidelines next to the coaches, and plenty of younger, more eager players ready to go. But that is a call Clawson has to make.

He has said over recent weeks that they asked too much of Griffis, and the quarterback room, to run what Hartman did. Maybe. But then why did it take three-fourths of the season to come to that conclusion? He and offensive coordinator Wayne Ruggiero should have been at this stage after week two. This was not a situation where tinkering was needed. A major overhaul was in order to create an offense the available talent could run.

The End is Near

Wake is 4-6. The record is a mirage. Take out wins against an FCS school and an SEC bottom feeder and you are legitimately 2-8. The Deacs need two wins in the last two games to become cleanly bowl-eligible. They won’t get there. They can get to a bowl with a 5-7 record and their high APR status. All coaches tout the benefit of having extra practice for everyone. That depends on how you spend the practice. Fifty-plus practices since August have not exactly gotten you good results or proper analysis. If it had, there would not have been a need for an introspection weekend.

This is the week when college football coaches start to meet reality. Because of the early signing period in December, schools now feel the need to not wait until the completion of the season to make changes In the last 48 hours, Boise State, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M have fired their head coaches. There will be more before this weekend’s games, and then still more the following Monday. Some have started to fire coordinators and other assistants as well.

Clawson is not in any danger with his job, nor should he be. His 63-58 overall record buys him some latitude. So does the fact that he is at Wake where the fan base has what would best be described as realistic and appropriate expectations. But this year is cause for concern as Wake does not exist in a vacuum. The college football world is changing, and Clawson, his staff, and the athletic administration need to do more than acknowledge it. They need to change as they can with it. Just bringing a bad football program like Cal into the ACC is not enough to elevate Wake Forest to where it could and should be.

 

Wake’s 2023 Debacle Falls on Clawson
Photo courtesy:  Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

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