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Wake Forest Football season in review

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How did we get here?

Wake Forest v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

At the time this goes up, Wake Forest and Wisconsin will be about 24 hours to kick off in Charlotte for the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.

It’s been a turbulent season, to say the least, from injuries(again), to heartbreaking losses, to the constant unknown and then ultimate pause due to COVID. We’ve seen this team seem to click on all cylinders both on offense and defense, but also seen the team look as disjointed as you would expect given the circumstances of the season. It’s an act in 3 parts and we’re coming to the end.

Act I: Rude awakening

The opt-outs of Sage Surratt and Kendrell Flowers on August 19th were tough. Wake fans had a boost from the end of last season that, even though their starting quarterback had transferred, they’d return a 1st round draft pick in Carlos “Boogie” Basham and an early-round guy in Sage Surratt. When the latter opted out, as well as Flowers, Wake was in a bit of a hole.

Gone was the guy that had 66 receptions for 1,001 yards, was a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist, and was First-Team All ACC, yet only played in 9 games before suffering a season-ending injury against Virginia Tech. This left Wake’s wideouts as one giant unknown. Wake was already replacing 2 stud receivers, one on the outside in Scotty Washington, and one on the inside in Kendall Hinton. In a normal year, you’re worried about this but at least have 3-4 warm-up games before entering ACC play. In the year 2020, Wake was slated to open the season with a home game against Clemson, heading to Raleigh to face NC State, and a game in Charlotte against Notre Dame. So, the complete opposite of what you would’ve preferred.

While getting College Gameday to come to Winston-Salem was fun, Wake opened the season looking like a team that was looking for receivers to break out and to replace two cornerbacks that are now in the NFL. But for some reason, things didn’t feel right. This is the part where I’m obligated to say that Wake was one of a few schools that didn’t release ANYTHING involving COVID numbers and while Les Johns and Conor O’Neill did their best to play, “Where’s Waldo”, you were never sure how many people were out due to injuries, COVID, or contact tracing on a given night until you looked through snap counts Sunday morning.

The trip to Raleigh was quietly a defining moment for the season. in the 45-42 loss to NC State, we saw a bit of everything. We saw the first glimpse of how effective this running game could be as Kenneth Walker III and Christian Beal-Smith combined for 40 carries, 170 yards, and 4 touchdowns. We saw the emergence of Jaquarii Roberson with a 7/75/1 line, the transfer wide receiver Donald Stewart came on as a reliable depth option, Traveon Redd was all over the place, the defense had 11 TFLs, Ja’Sir Taylor had a pick-six. However we also saw missed tackles left and right, atrocious run fits, dropped passes, Donavon Greene leave with an injury, Nasir Greer looking hobbled but also having to play slot corner due to depth, just a head-scratching game. We got an omission from Lyle Hemphill saying 2 things: 1) they were just down so much in the back due to injuries and COVID that they were essentially piecing things together, which means they put too much stress on the defensive line and linebackers to hide them and 2) they needed to trust their depth more in places, especially linebacker, so they don’t run into depth issues across the board.

COVID pushed the ND game to later in the season, Old Dominion announced they weren’t playing in the fall, this just wasn’t what anyone had hoped for at the beginning of the year. Thankfully they were able to schedule Campbell for October 2nd, and with some hit or miss defensive possessions, the team actually looked like they started getting the reps they needed. You had a Zion Keith pick-six, Traveon Redd(again) flying all over the field, Beal-Smith and Walker combined for 31/235/4 on the ground, AT Perry and Ke’Shawn Williams flashed. Yes, it’s Campbell but just ask Florida State how playing bad opponents can go. We also saw some more cracks: Nasir Greer was nowhere to be found while Luke Masterson and Tyler Williams would go down with injuries that at the time seemed long term. Wake gets a bye week to reflect, even when they really wanted to just keep playing to get reps, and Act I comes to an end.

Act II: Potential

The pressure, from fans at least, was put squarely on the defense going into a stretch that included playing both Virginia teams and Syracuse before another bye and the UNC game. Wake fans have for years thought the defense needed an overhaul.

The first half of the UVA game was pretty much par for the course in what Wake fans expect. The offense scored on 4 out of 6 possessions, and after the first drive, the defense gives up 20 points on the next 4 drives. The interception by Keegan Good seemed to have changed, well, everything. In a bit of role reversal, the offense sputtered until the 4th quarter, where a 1 play, 75-yard touchdown scamper by Kenneth Walker III broke open the game, the defense gave up 3 points the entire second half. The defense gave up 95 yards in the second half until UVA mustered a 65-yard drive that ended in a turnover on downs. 155 yards allowed, a 4th down stop, and a very acrobatic pick by Caelen Carson. The offense didn’t need the insurance TD by KW3 that was set up by Kenneth Dicks III recovering a pooch kickoff, or a Nick Sciba field goal, but no one will complain about it.

Up next was a matchup that was worrisome. For Virginia Tech, Hendon Hooker had been a sparkplug for that team at QB, they had a surefire first-round draft pick at LT in Christian Darrisaw, and Khalil Herbert had come into the game AVERAGING 9.7 yards per carry. What resulted was Hooker throwing 3 interceptions, all of them to a walk-on freshman safety in Nick Andersen. What resulted was Herbert mustering 64 yards on 14 carries(that is less than half his YPC coming into the game) and effectively shut down. We saw Boogie get a critical sack, we saw JaCorey Johns and Miles Fox get in on the action. AJ Wlliams had his best game as a Deac, Chase Monroe and Ja’Cquez Williams were active. The offense wasn’t necessarily on point, Hartman went 12-17 for 110 yards but had a couple of plays that we thought stayed with freshman Sam. Beal-Smith was efficient on his 13 carries for 129 yards, Walker legitimately bullied his way into the endzone for a score, but the offense was slow by design, and well it worked? We also saw a couple more injuries pop up as Zion Keith was down with a broken thumb and AT Perry went down with a foot injury. So what they gained in getting freshman corner Gavin Holmes back, was quietly wiped out in a secondary that was just finding their footing.

On to Syracuse, a team that just had given Clemson fits, and well again the defense comes up looking good. Trey Rucker was named to PFF’s team of the week, Gavin Holmes had a pick-six, Greene seemed to be quietly coming online, Roberson proved again why he was the rightful heir to the throne that’s been Wake’s slot receivers over the last 3 or so years, Taylor Morin showed that this team had 3 reliable guys even with Perry sidelined, Ryan Smenda Jr had his best game of the year and it was a good one, Ja’Cquez Williams was quietly very effective as well.

But then the hits kept coming, Gavin Holmes looked to pull a hamstring on said interception, Ja’Cquez Williams was knocked out of the game after getting his arm crushed, outside of Rucker the safety play gets a bit more.. questionable. However, Wake comes out with a very easy win and gets rewarded with a bye week before heading to Chapel Hill.

Act III: Frankenstein

A 59-53 loss after being up 45-31. By the end of this game Wake Forest was missing the following: Donavon Greene, AT Perry, Michael Jurgens, Tyler Williams, Ja’Cquez Williams, Gavin Holmes, Trey Rucker, Luke Masterson, Nasir Greer, Zion Keith, and Coby Davis. The offense was rolling a bit over a half, until injuries, missed throws, and a refusal to run the ball just completely crippled it. The defense struggled to start and settled in(as much as you physically can against at worst the 3rd best offense in the country) from the second quarter until the beginning of the 4th quarter until injuries, UNC turning up the heat and the offense not being able to give them a breather just allowed the bottom to fall out. There’s a great film review by Conor O’Neil right here($) that addresses all of these.

Even after this Wake is supposed to have Louisville, Miami, Duke, FSU, and Notre Dame left, a season can still be salvaged. It’s 2020 though, and Wake finally loses to the opponent they’ve been playing all year. The team is shut down due to COVID cases and contact tracing. Notre Dame game is canceled, Miami game is canceled, Duke game is canceled. By the end of this, Wake is left with Louisville, FSU, and then a possible bowl game. Kenneth Walker III opted out which made the Kendrell Flowers opt-out, and eventual transfer, much more consequential compounded with Quinton Cooley having surgery that knocked him out for the year. This left the running back room with Christian Beal-Smith as the only guy with experience and two true freshmen in Justice Ellison and Ahmani Marshall.

The Louisville game arrives and surprises just continue to pop up. Wake Forest barely practiced in over a month, the defense was down nine players who have combined for 241 total games and 106 starts, the offense just also happened to be missing Donavon Greene. As the game went, it was a recipe for disaster. The offense was just off all day, the defense started fine for a bit and then just not tackling for a month and now having no depth at any position reared its ugly head and the game looked as such, falling to the Cardinals who were also down key players.

FSU did what FSU did 2 other times and canceled their game the week of, and Wake’s regular season comes to an end, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Boogie Basham opts for the draft, we have some surprise Senior day additions in Ja’Sir Taylor and Ja’Cquez Williams, and a bowl game against Wisconsin, which was touch and go as the Big Ten almost as a whole opted out of bowl season.

This act is the picture of 2020 as a whole, a thrown together few weeks that feel like 4 months, always wondering if you or the people around you have COVID, and scrambling to find the light at the end of a dark tunnel, but every time you think you have some footing another #2020 event happens and you’re back at square one.

Epilogue

The last week or so has been a good ending to the season for Wake. A grad transfer committed, Ja’Sir Taylor announced he’s coming back for his last year of eligibility, as it stands COVID hasn’t knocked out the team just yet, and they’ll be playing in a bowl game to end the season on a high note. Most importantly, everyone gets to go home soon for the longest break they’ve ever gotten according to Dave Clawson. This section is obviously short due to the unknown, but who knows, maybe we’ll be able to put a bow on this season and this year that I’m sure even Shakespeare would have called ludicrous.

Go Deacs.