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Clawson Facing New Challenges at Wake Forest

By Dave Holcomb
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The Demon Deacons and Dave Clawson are both in unfamiliar territory, trying to sustain what has been built and continue to grow.

Dave Clawson has been a college football head coach since 1999, and yet, in a couple ways, he is just starting to arrive.

Clawson had never been a head coach at one school for more than five years until last fall, but over more than two decades, he’s proved to have a strong ability to build programs from scratch. He led Fordham and Richmond to 10 and 11 wins, respectively, which neither school had ever done. Then at Bowling Green, Clawson took the Falcons to a MAC championship in 2013.

Wake Forest suffered five straight losing seasons before Clawson became head coach, and then in his first two seasons, the Demon Deacons went a combined 6-18. But since 2016, Wake Forest has posted a 30-21 mark and earned four straight bowl bids. It’s arguably the greatest four-year stint in Demon Deacons football history.

In April 2019, Wake Forest signed Clawson to an eight-year extension through the 2026 season, essentially ending his days jumping from job to job. Now with the taste of success -- a lot of success for Wake Forest’s standards -- the Demon Deacons and Clawson are both in unfamiliar territory, trying to sustain what has been built and continue to grow.

After a 7-1 start in 2019, it appeared as though Wake Forest was well on its way to the team’s first nine-win (or more) season since 2007, but a tough final month on the schedule and injuries led to a disappointing 8-5 finish. While quarterback Jamie Newman still had a great year, he transferred to Georgia this offseason.

Clawson, though, has won 30 games over the last four years with three different starting quarterbacks, and he’ll turn back to one of them this fall -- redshirt sophomore Sam Hartman. He started as a freshman in 2018 but after going 4-4, he suffered a season-ending leg injury in early November. Newman took over and didn’t relinquish the job, leaving Hartman to redshirt in 2019.

So despite losing Newman, Wake Forest appears to possess the quarterback capable of winning eight or more games. This isn’t the standard redshirt sophomore rising to the starting role behind center. Hartman has played in 12 college games, starting eight of them, and attempted nearly 400 passes. He’s posted 20 touchdowns versus 10 interceptions with an average of about 7.3 yards per pass. Hartman should be able to step back into the starting job relatively seamlessly, which is an important factor during 2020 with the unusual offseason because of coronavirus.

The situation is similar at running back. While Wake Forest lost starting running back Cade Carney to graduation, rising sophomore Kenneth Walker III was the more dynamic runner in 2019. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry, which was nearly 2.0 yards per attempt better than Carney.

Three of the team’s top four pass catchers in terms of yards last year graduated as well, but Wake Forest’s top receiver, Sage Surratt is back after posting 15.2 yards per catch and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore. Rising sophomore Donavon Greene, who is a former 4-star prospect and one of the most-highly regarded recruits Clawson has landed with the Demon Deacons, is ready to breakout too.

Even with the losses on offense, which also include multiple starters along the offensive line, Wake Forest’s bigger concerns are probably on defense. The Demon Deacons were opportunistic with takeaways and third-down defense in 2019, but they were below average in the ACC in points and yards allowed.

Wake Forest finished second in the ACC with 14 interceptions, but graduated cornerback Amari Henderson is gone, and he led the team with four. The Demon Deacons have to replace both of their starting cornerbacks and linebacker Justin Strnad, who averaged nearly 10 tackles per game in seven contests last year.

Even if Clawson fills these holes, depth will remain a question for Wake Forest this fall, which was essentially the team’s undoing last year, as injuries led to the 1-4 finish. The best way to improve a program’s depth is through recruiting, and that’s where Clawson and his coaching staff must continue to improve in order to keep Wake Forest football on its upward trajectory.

The Demon Deacons’ 2020 recruiting class finished 60th nationally and 11th in the ACC according to 247Sports, which sounds meager, but Wake Forest has at least been trending in the right direction. They have moved up one spot in the ACC every year since 247Sports ranked their 2017 class last in the conference.

That’s placing a positive spin on Wake Forest recruiting. In 2019, the Demon Deacons landed two 4-star prospects but then only 3-star players in 2020. As great of a developer as Clawson is, Wake Forest will plateau if recruiting doesn’t improve a little more dramatically year to year.

In just six seasons, Clawson is arguably already the most accomplished coach in Wake Forest history, and yet, the real hard part is just beginning. Success has come to the Demon Deacons, and now Clawson must prove it’s here to stay.