BLACKSBURG – Former Richmond coach Dave Clawson has built Wake Forest into arguably the second best team in the ACC, behind Atlantic Division foe Clemson. The Demon Deacons are nationally ranked and 7-1 on the season, and can solidify their claim to that No. 2 spot with a road win at Virginia Tech on Saturday.
Conor O’Neill has been at the Winston-Salem Journal since 2017. O’Neill had a previous stop in North Carolina at the Burlington Times-News, and before that he spent 3½ interesting months, yes months, in Pine Bluff, Ark.
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O’Neill took time out to answer four downs worth of questions about No. 19 Wake Forest going into Saturday's game at Virginia Tech.
1) Dave Clawson has been steadily building up this Wake Forest program. Was this a year people close to the Deacons were pointing to as a potential break-through or has the success been somewhat of a surprise?
There was a sense that last year actually would be a breakthrough season.
But then Wake Forest suffered 12 season-ending injuries, including losing its left tackle and one of its best safeties in the second quarter of the season opener. Sam Hartman was good but still developing, and Jamie Newman excelled in the final four games, including scratching their way into the Birmingham Bowl and winning a thriller against Memphis.
So this season it’s been more of things playing out the way they thought were possible, given they stayed healthy. Other than season-ending injuries to two key defensive starters (linebacker Justin Strnad and rover Luke Masterson) and one missed game for Newman, they’ve been pretty healthy, and the results reflect that.
2) It's impossible not to notice the numbers Wake Forest is putting up offensively, especially in the passing game. How good has Jamie Newman been and what else is working offensively? Sage Surratt and Kendall Hinton obviously give the receiving corps some big-time playmakers, and it looked like the tight end had a big game last time out. Is Clawson happy with the run-pass ratio?
Newman has been a developmental revelation. I’m not really sure Wake Forest knew what it had in him, or that he truly knew what he was capable, that night in Raleigh a year ago when he made his debut on a short week against a ranked N.C. State team. But he led a two-touchdown comeback in the fourth quarter that night and including that game, he’s thrown 29 touchdown passes in 11 starts – his confidence seemingly skyrocketing ever since.
It does help that he’s throwing to a receiving corps that’s probably the best in the league other than Clemson’s. Surratt had an up-and-down season last year, his first on the field, and is now a star. Hinton was always an incredible athlete and he’s already been a natural at slot receiver. Scotty Washington, too, is a 6-5, 225-pound receiver who’s made some remarkable plays.
And yes, Jack Freudenthal enjoyed an efficient four-catch, three-touchdown game against N.C. State – he began his career as a walk-on receiver out of Richmond.
They came away from the win against N.C. State displeased with their running game – 123 yards in that one and 116 against Florida State signify they’re scuffling a little bit up front – but it’s always going to be about the RPOs and how defenses react.
In two-plus seasons covering Wake Forest and Clawson, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him call for more runs or passes.
3) The offense gets the attention, but Wake Forest has been pretty solid defensively, it appears, this season. What does that unit do well? It's tied for second in the ACC with 9 interceptions. How important has forcing turnovers been?
The defense has been inconsistent, but seems to have found its footing after the train wreck that was the loss to Louisville. Holding Florida State to 20 points was decent because Cam Akers was great that night, and then Wake Forest did what it needed to do against a first-time starting QB in Devin Leary last week, mixing up coverages and disguising blitzes to throw off the redshirt freshman.
Forcing turnovers is crucial – Clawson emphasizes it just as much as not turning the ball over. Amari Henderson is a fifth-year cornerback who has been a high-risk, high-reward player for his entire career, and with two interceptions last week his gambles clearly paid off.
The mid-level has had to replace two starters with the injuries to Strnad, who was and still is the leading tackler, with 69, and Masterson, who was probably the most-versatile player on the defense. Ja’Cquez Williams is a good linebacker who’s starting at the position for the first time, while Traveon Redd is starting in Masterson’s spot and has some local ties – he’s from Martinsville.
4) On the lighter side, the screenshot GIF of Frank Beamer with his arms raised at the end of the 0-0 regulation of the 2014 meeting between these teams is, ummmm, iconic around Blacksburg and other parts of the ACC. Do Wake fans embrace it or is it not a thing in Winston Salem? As bad an offensive day as that was, it was a great outing by Bud Foster's defense. How does Wake view the longtime coordinator, who is retiring after this season?
Ha! I’m glad I waited until after Clawson’s Tuesday press conference to answer this.
“I think both programs are a lot different now than they were in that epic 6-3 game that we had in ’14,” Clawson said.
He was looking right at me on the word “epic,” though I don’t know why – I’ve never given him a hard time about it.
I’m not sure I’d use the term “embrace” for how Wake Forest fans feel about that game as much as they kind of laugh about it (along with the rest of the league’s fans and media, seemingly). That was Clawson’s first season, in which John Wolford was a freshman and took beatings in every game behind what has to be one of the worst offensive lines in league history. I think the final bludgeoning wound up being 48 sacks. And Wolford was basically the only option at QB, so much so that they removed any quarterback runs from the playbook.
Wake Forest, I imagine along with the rest of the ACC, holds Foster in high esteem. I’m sure it would be more meaningful, though, if these teams met each other more than once every 5-6 years.