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Dave Clawson and the Rebuilding of a Program through Recruiting

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How have past recruiting classes helped shape the team into what it is today?

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of excitement around the Wake Forest football program these days, and for good reason too. After the staff once again brought in a recruiting class that is one of the most highly regarded in program history, many people are beginning to realize just how special this team could be in a couple years. You’ve likely seen articles posted recently about how the 2016 class compares to others in the past. This piece dives into that slightly, but instead of just comparing how those classes were ranked, let’s have a look at who from those classes outperformed their ranking or ended up not contributing much to the program. The numbers may surprise you.

I’ve looked at Wake Forest recruiting classes from 2013-2016 and put each player into an excel spread sheet ordered by Rivals ranking coming out of high school. You can see their position, their star ranking, their Rivals rating, their home state, and their current status in the program. Let’s look at the 2013 class first.

The first thing that pops up when you look at this class is just how many are no longer affiliated with the program. Even more fascinating is that the players most highly regarded coming out of high school are those that have had the least impact on the program. Seven out of the top 10 commits from 2013 have transferred. Not only that, but Cory Helms is the only transfer that ended up significantly contributing while he was wearing the Black and Gold. Tyree Harris had an encouraging true freshman season in 2013, but fell out of favor as soon as the coaching change occurred. Ford Howell never played a down for the Deacons and now is a member of the Wolfpack in Raleigh. Lance Virgile transferred to local school FAU, along with former QB Tyler Cameron, who was a member of the 2012 class.

The class had 16 recruits who were ranked 5.5 or higher and only four of them are expected to get any playing time next year (Harris, Dunn, Lee, and Ejiofor). That being said, it’s interesting to see just how "bottom heavy" the class is. There were a lot more diamonds in the rough than normal, and the high attrition rate of guys ranked above them certainly allowed for playing time to be more readily available. All-ACC Honorable Mention players Cam Serigne and Brad Watson were the only two members of the 2013 class to be recognized last year by the Conference; both were 2* recruits coming out of high school.

I think with this class you really see just how much a coaching change can mix up a program's roster. Once Clawson was hired, it became clear a lot of these players would be prioritized over in upcoming recruiting classes. Many Grobe recruits began to realize that future playing time may be limited due to the fact that 1) Clawson was bringing in his own guys who he’d have a preference for and 2) Clawson was bringing in better and more competitive talent. Upon his arrival, many recruits jumped ship and got out to try and compete for snaps elsewhere. Those that didn’t leave (John Armstrong, Ali Lamot, Cam Gardner, etc) have had a couple years of being firmly stationary on the depth chart.

Now, let's have a look at the 2014 class. (* next to a name means the recruit committed after Clawson was hired)

As for the 2014 class, the trend of top recruits no longer being a part of the program continues, but to a slightly lesser degree. Of course, everyone always talks about Kam Uter and how disappointing for the fanbase his decision was to pursue a career in baseball rather than football at WF. I truly believe he had a skill set that would have been extremely valuable for the offense over the course of his four years here.

A less talked about, but equally interesting situation was Jaylan Barbour’s choice to decommit in July 2014 and attend App State, leaving the class without two of its top commits before camp had even begun. Ironically, despite the program losing two highly-regarded 3* WR’s in the span of a couple weeks that summer, Wide Receiver now seems like one of Wake’s deepest depth charts as Clawson has proven time and time again he can bring in talent at the offensive skill positions.

Travis Smith is a name you probably haven’t heard of in a while, but the former Michigan Player of the Year was one of the highest rated recruits in the 2014 class. After losing the QB battle to John Wolford, he transferred to Eastern Michigan before leaving their program as well in February of 2015. His twitter timeline seems to have a lot of Central Michigan material, yet on CMU’s latest roster post he is nowhere to be found. Two years later, Smith has yet to play a down of college football despite being one of WF's most decorated HS recruits in the last half-decade.

The 2014 class might be the deepest the program has signed in a long time. Not only did it produce five starters by the end of their sophomore year, but there is so much depth across the board at almost every single position. Jaboree Williams, Devin Pike, Cameron Glenn, and Rashawn Shaw all should be able to compete for significant playing time in 2016 if they can stay healthy. Demetrius Kemp also looks like the heir to Hunter Williams’ Rover position after two years of great development in the program.

Of the 25 players in this class, 14 committed after the Clawson hire including John Wolford, Zeek Rodney, and Justin Herron. Cortez Lewis, Ryan Anderson, and Demetrius Kemp all committed to Wake Forest just days before the Jim Grobe resignation and thus the staff had to put in serious work to affirm those verbal commitments as well. Five of the top six members of the 2014 class were Clawson’s guys and the only one who wasn’t opted out of his LOI before the season even started. The theme of Clawson constructing the roster how he wanted took no time to take effect.

How about the 2015 class?

For the 2015 class there’s a lot less to talk about simply because it is still so early in these players’ careers. More than half of the 2015 class redshirted last season, which gave many guys ample amount of time to develop and get used to the program before anything is expected of them on the field. Steven Claude and Scotty Washington are the two players I feel will have breakout 2016 seasons based on all reports I’ve been hearing from inside the program.

Rocky Reid is another recruit that many had high expectations for last season before a nagging injury forced him to redshirt as well. I think Reid, Tyler Bell, and Arkeem Byrd will get the most touches coming out of the backfield next year given that each one of them brings something different to the table.

The nice surprise in this class was probably Tabari Hines, who went from being the lowest 3* recruit to a vital part of the offense in 2015. Hines had 32 receptions for 366 yards and 3 TDs as a true freshman last year and I expect his numbers to rise again as chemistry with John Wolford and Kendall Hinton grows.

Top ranked recruit Kyle Kearns redshirted this past season to learn the system and be more comfortable in the offense, but all indications are that the QB battle this spring and summer will be between Wolford and Hinton instead. With Jamie Newman enrolling early and the two QB’s ahead of him on the depth chart still underclassmen at the moment, Kearns will have a lot of competition at his position for the rest of his career at Wake Forest.

Finally, let’s look at some charts and graphs that give us a better understanding of Wake’s recruiting success in recent years. What position has Wake been able to bring in the best talent? What position has Wake struggled to develop?

Interestingly, QB is the position that has had the highest ranked commits over the last four years for Wake Forest. This stat, however, is somewhat skewed due to the fact that a) There’s a very small sample size and b) Kyle Kearns being rated a 4* and 5.8 on Rivals thus has a huge impact on the average. I noted earlier how I though Clawson has been stacking up on offensive skill positions in recent years and the average rating since 2013 is certainly representative of that. It’s no wonder that in 2016 the depth charts at WR and RB will likely be deeper than any other time in the last ten years.

Another interesting note is that a school that sometimes refers to itself as DBU brings in more 2*s at CB/S than any other position other than K/P. Both Thomas Dillon and Cameron Glenn were 5.4's and are in a great spot to contribute in 2016. Dionte Austin, on the other hand, was the highest ranked DB of the last four years and is an expected lock for a starting corner role next year.

For comparison to past classes, have a look at the 2016 class.

This 2016 group has the chance to be like the 2014 class in just how deep it is across the board. Although the Rivals ratings might not indicate it, I think the one area that was most improved on NSD was the defensive line. Zander Zimmer, Emmanuel Walker, and Carlos Basham dominated opponents on the line this past fall and are three of the prospects I'm most excited about over the next few years. I think two of these commits will end up redshirting and one will see PT as a true freshman, but as of right now it is completely unclear who that will be. Add those 3 to Sulaiman Kamara who Scout listed as a 4* DT and one of the highest ranked commits in program history and you have a D-Line that is going to be absolutely terrifying in 2018-19.

Another player I'm extremely excited in this class to watch develop is DeAndre' Delaney who set records at RB in high school in Tennessee, but was recruited to be a Safety for Wake Forest at the next level. At 6'2, 200 and quick, Delaney has the size and speed to be a dominant S in the WF defense in a couple of years. Given the fact that RB was his primary position in high school, we likely won't see him on the field until his RS Sophomore or even RS Junior year, but when he does find his way into the lineup it could be bad news for opposing passing attacks.

Finally, let’s look at what areas of the country Wake football has tapped into the most during its recruiting efforts the last couple of years. Did Clawson and co. develop a pipeline in a new region?

Florida is actually the state with the most Wake Forest commits since 2013, which is surprising yet understandable at the same time. It’s surprising in the sense that even the most north part of the state is 5+ hours away from Winston-Salem and there are plenty of other FBS schools in the FL area that recruits could pick from. At the same time, however, Florida is known to be one of the best talent producing states in the country and there are dozens of 3*+ talent available each and every year. Given just how deep Florida HS football is every season, schools all up the east coast are bound to land at least a couple from the Sunshine State.

North Carolina came in 2nd for most WF commits with four in each class from 2013-2016. VA and GA came in 3rd and 4th, mainly due to Clawson’s recent movement to bring in talent from nearby states so recruits can get on campus early and often. He mentioned how this was a priority in the 2016 class and stated at the recruiting reception that only Zander Zimmer and Lukas Masterson are a 6+ hour car ride away (Though I believe Florida-raised Je’Vionte Nash would also fall into that category as well).

The fact that top recruits were primarily from nearby states meant they could visit campus far more often than in previous years. I, and many others, think this is the main reason we have a class that is more vocal and pro-Wake on social media than any in recent memory. It also is probably a big reason why Wake Forest didn’t suffer any decommitments in the month of January during the prime poaching period before NSD.

Throughout the coming years I would expect this trend to continue and the staff to heavily focus on recruiting from VA, NC, SC, and GA. Although Texas was the state with the 6th most commits since 2013, not a single one of them is from the current regime. Given the strong connections the staff has been making with high school programs locally and the prioritization of maximizing unofficial visit opportunities, the southeast's presence on WF's football roster will continue to grow in the coming years.

Here's a final breakdown of the average Rivals ranking per class over the last four years.

Although Rivals listed this class as a slight downgrade from 2015, I don't necessarily see it that way. The 2016 group brings a lot of talent to the table in positions of need, and while there are a few projects in the class, the program can afford to do that given how much deeper the roster is now than when Clawson began his tenure. More intriguing to me than rankings is just how many recruiting battles the staff won over other P5 programs over the last year and a half. Never before has Wake gone head-to-head with so many SEC, ACC, and Big 10 programs and ended up with the WF hat on the recruit's head when it was all said and done. If you are comparing classes based on how desired the average commit was by other competitive programs, I'd say 2016 is up there as one of the most talented in program history.

Excitement doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about where this program is going in the coming years. Between a new $22 million dollar indoor facility, top recruits staying loyal to the program and generating buzz about the future, and a 2016 team/schedule that puts the Deacs in a fantastic spot for its first bowl game in 5 years, the upward trajectory is easy to see. Let’s hope we can ride the momentum of yet another strong National Signing Day into a new era of Wake Football that we all can be proud of.

For more frequent and daily Wake Forest recruiting news, follow me on Twitter @DeacFan3.