The Wake Forest football team begins play in just over a week, and he team has the highest expectations that they’ve had during Dave Clawson’s tenure in Winston-Salem. Considering the excitement of the fan base, I wanted to analyze what Wake’s realistic ceiling is in terms of wins, and what would have to happen in order for Wake to get there. Not just in terms of which games Wake has to win, but how each unit will have to perform. In my opinion, Wake’s realistic ceiling for 2016 is 7-5. What has to happen in order for the Deacs to get there?
To me, this piece isn’t as much about which games that Wake Forest will win if it goes 7-5, but rather how well the Deacs will play. For the record, I think a 7-5 season goes something like this:
- Definite Wins against Tulane, Delaware, and Army
- At least one win against Duke, Indiana, and NC State
- At least two, probably three wins against Virginia, Syracuse, and Boston College
But fundamentally, what is Wake Forest going to have to do in these games in order to finish the regular season with 7 wins? Let’s go through each positional unit.
John Wolford beat out Kendall Hinton and was named the starting quarterback on Monday afternoon, and he’s going to have to perform. He has been the starter for each of the past two seasons and has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns during each of those seasons. Those interceptions aren’t entirely his fault, as his receivers have struggled to get open, and his line hasn’t been the best, but accuracy is the number one thing that needs to improve. His arm strength is better and his release is faster, so I expect improvement out of Wolford. He improved his yards/attempt by 2 yards last year, and if he can take another step forward in that category, the Deacs will have a much improved offense. I also believe that Clawson is going to have to effectively manage both Wolford and Hinton in order to maximize utility out of the position.
The running game has been a major weakness for Wake Forest during Clawson’s tenure. Not that it’s necessarily been his fault, however. He really inherited nothing at the position, but has worked hard on the recruiting trail to improve it. This season the Deacs should have 5-6 viable backs, most likely led by true freshman Cade Carney. This unit needs to stay healthy for the most part, occasionally make defenders miss in the open field and break long runs, and also convert critical short yardage situations on third down or around the goal line.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Wide receiver is the most sure-thing on Wake’s offense. Cortez Lewis can be close to an All-ACC performer this year at the X receiver, and I expect Alex Bachman and Steven Claude to have nice seasons at the S receiver. In the slot, Tabari Hines and Chuck Wade can be game changers if they can get the ball in space and use their breakaway speed. Wake will need its receivers to catch short-to-intermediate passes and gain a lot of yards after catch. They are deep, and it never hurts when you have arguably the best tight end in the conference on your time.
Oh goodness, it’s time to talk about the offensive line, which has left A LOT to be desired over the past two years. Again, Clawson did not inherit a terrific amount at this position, but has done his best to address the situation through recruiting and internal development. He and the staff made a concentrated effort to recruit offensive linemen in his first (technically) recruiting class. That class produced Justin Herron, who could be a breakout performer at left tackle. It also produced Ryan Anderson, who will be the team’s starting right tackle. He also landed Phil Haynes in the 2015 class, but Haynes was able to graduate from high school early and enroll during the same time as the 2014 class.
In the middle, we need Ty Hayworth and Josh Harris to call out assignments, and create leverage for inside runs. The line is still somewhat young, but has close to 50 more combined starts than it did a season ago. Wake’s second-string offensive line consists of players who might have been in contention to start last season. Now they are reserves, who will provide quality depth. This unit, especially the tackles, above anything else, has to provide Wolford or Kendall Hinton adequate time to read the defense and get the ball to our most talented players - the receivers.
Special Teams/Red Zone
Red Zone efficiency has to improve. Last season the Deacs were 101st nationally, and scored on just 78% of their trips inside the red zone. What was even worse, is that Wake finished 118th in touchdown %. When you combine that with just 32 total trips to the red zone (115th nationally) then you have a losing combination. Wake should take a jump forward on offense this year, but it’s unrealistic to expect that the Deacs will turn into the Greatest Show on Turf. They need to capitalize on the opportunities they have, and that means not turning the ball over, and taking calculated risks on 4th downs in order to score touchdowns and not settle for field goals. The same can be said of 4th and short yardage situations outside of the red zone. If Wake does attempt field goals, then they have to make them (brilliant point here IMO). My main point is that it’s understandable to miss long field goals, but Mike Weaver has to convert nearly every opportunity he has inside of 40 yards.
On special teams, Wake is going to need Dom Maggio to continue to show off his magical boot. He has been excellent in fall camp (and in the parking lot), and one could argue that he has more natural talent than Alex Kinal had. There are going to be times this season when the offense struggles, and Wake is going to need Dom to help flip the field. On coverage units, the Deacs are not good enough to still win games if they allow major plays on special teams. They are going to have to limit explosive plays from the opposition, and players like Steven Claude are going to have to make those explosive plays.
The Wake Forest defensive line’s performance will dictate how good of a defense that Wake Forest can have. Defensive end Duke Ejiofor missed the first half of last season, but averaged more than 1 tackle for loss in the 7 games that he played. He has already been dealing with some injury issues in camp, but if he can stay healthy, then he can be one of the better pass rushers in the ACC. An improved pass rush will translate to opposing quarterbacks having to get rid of the ball quickly, which should lead to more interceptions for the Wake Forest secondary. The Deacs are probably going to have to need another pass rusher opposite Ejiofor, and the most likely scenario is that Chris Calhoun emerges in his sophomore campaign. Wendell Dunn has had 15 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, but just 1.5 sacks. He needs to do a better job getting to the quarterback.
Wake Forest has to deal with the loss of defensive tackle Zeek Rodney, who was starting to perform better, but Josh Banks can help in run support. He has struggled with consistency, but can be a very good player for Wake. Then, Wake is going to need rotating support from Willie Yarbary and Chris Stewart.
Wake Forest should be solid at linebacker. Marquel Lee could be an all-ACC performer for the Deacs. He just needs to play his game, and he will be fine. He had 10 tackles for loss last year, including 3 sacks, but I think he can do even better. Jaboree Williams should be solid opposite Lee, but the real hope is that these players avoid injury. If Wake is forced to play Grant Dawson, Justin Strnad, and Nate Mays significant snaps, then it’s problematic. They are fine backups, and deserve to play, but it’s not an ideal situation if they are starting this season. At rover, Demetrius Kemp and Thomas Brown should provide very good athleticism and playmaking abilities. Overall, linebacker/rover will be a much more athletic unit than it was a year ago.
The secondary gave up a number of big plays last season, but that seemed to mostly be a result of Devin Gaulden getting beat, or Zach Dancel taking poor tackling angles. Wake needs Brad Watson and Dionte Austin to increase their interceptions in 2016, and help put the offense in better field position. Ideally those two are going to have to stay healthy all season. I’m a big fan of both Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey, but Wake is going to need all four of those guys to be healthy in each Power 5 game that Wake plays. At safety, I’m very excited about Jessie Bates. If Wake is winning 7 games, then Bates will probably force a few turnovers of his own and flip the field. Ryan Janvion has never been much of a playmaker, but he needs to be solid in run support.
Overall, the defense should be faster and stronger. That has to translate to applying more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and forcing more turnovers. If Wake has just 6 interceptions again, then it’s not likely that the Deacs are going to a bowl game.
Is this a realistic ceiling? What do you all think Wake has to do to get there? Let me know in the comments section below.