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College Football Preview 2022: 11. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Sam Hartman, Wake Forest

11. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

The offense will be elite again, but the defense will determine whether Wake challenges Clemson & NC State in the Atlantic

2021 Review
Wake Forest took advantage of a soft schedule over the first two months off the season to get off to a fast start, ending October 8-0. With the back-loaded slate, the Demon Deacons naturally had a difficult November, losing a shootout to North Carolina and a road tilt with Clemson. Fortunately, their biggest win of the year came on November 13th, as their 45-42 victory over NC State gave them the tiebreaker in the ACC Atlantic, becoming the first team in the division not named Clemson or Florida to secure a division title since 2008. However, the offense sputtered in the ACC Championship Game, a 45-21 defeat to Kenny Pickett. The Demon Deacons hoped for a huge victory in a Gator Bowl matchup with Texas A&M, but due to COVID issues with the Aggies, they settled for 5-7 Rutgers. It proved to be an easy win for Dave Clawson's club, securing them an 11-3 campaign. Those 11 victories mark the most Wake Forest has had since Jim Grobe's 2006 team, which won the ACC that year.

2022 Outlook
Offense: The explosive Demon Deacon offense was the fuel for the successful 2021 campaign. They finished fourth in the country in scoring offense, averaging 41 PPG, while finishing 11th in total offense. The architect of that scheme, OC Warren Ruggiero, is back to run the show in Winstom-Salem once again.

Ruggerio and Clawson have the luxury of a proven, veteran quarterback under center in Sam Hartman, who enters 2022 within 600 yards of becoming Wake's all-time leading passer. Hartman put up big numbers last year, with over 4,000 yards and 50 total touchdowns, but he has to improve as a decision-maker. Despite his vast experience, Hartman still tossed 14 interceptions and his play in big games wasn't quite up to par. If he can figure that out, he's without a doubt one of the best in the ACC and could become one of the top signal-callers nationally.

Wake Forest has leaned on a committee approach for several seasons under Clawson, and that's likely to be the case again this fall. While leading rusher Christian Beal-Smith is gone, the Demon Deacons feature a dangerous 1-2 punch in Justice Ellison and Christian Turner. Both were productive in 2021, but you wonder if both can reach another level this season. True freshman Demond Claiborne comes in as one of the gems of the 2022 Class and could also be bound for loads of action.

Quietly, Wake Forest is becoming quite the factory at receiver. In just the last few years, they've sent Sage Surratt and Jaquarii Roberson off to the NFL, and A.T. Perry should be next in line. Perry led the team in every major receiving category last year and is a legit Biletnikoff Award candidate heading into 2022. He'll benefit from a quality group around him, namely Taylor Morin, Ke'Shawn Williams, and a healthy Donovan Greene. Greene was expected to do damage last season before a preseason injury and may be the most talented pass-catcher on the roster. This foursome has a chance to be terrifying this year and could be one of the best in the entire nation.

The aerial attack also features a capable tight end in Blake Whiteheart, who had 15 catches for 185 yards a season ago. Don't expect him to be heavily featured in the passing game, but with so much talent on the outside, there should be ample opportunities underneath.

Much like the receiver corps losing Greene, the Demon Deacon O-Line lost a key contributor in last year's preseason when tackle Je'Vionte Nash was lost for the season. Nash is now healthy, bolstering an experienced and strong offensive line. Nash is likely to move across the line, from right to left tackle, with sophomore DeVonte Gordon set to handle his former position. At left guard, senior Sean Manginn was an All-ACC pick a year ago and will anchor the interior of the unit.

This offense has a chance to be special, with a host of important names returning, while Nash and Greene return from injury. Wake Forest won a lot of shootouts in 2021 and while they hope the defensive will be improved, don't be shocked if that's the case again. Fortunately, they have all the ingredients offensively to get away with that, and should be a thrill to watch all season long.

Defense: While the Demon Deacon offense smashed records, Wake's defense allowed 42 or more points on five separate occasions. They were at least respectable against the pass, finishing fifth in the ACC, but were gashed all year long on the ground, showcased perfectly by allowing 56 points to Army.

In response, Dave Clawson waded into the coordinator market and hired Brad Lambert to serve as the team's next defensive coordinator. Lambert comes over from the same role at Purdue, after he turned the Boilermakers completely around on that side of the ball.

The front seven has potential to be fairly decent, but there's a long way to go. The defensive line does return a pair of starters, but loses an important name, with Luiji Vilain departing after notching nine sacks in 2021. Sophomore end Jasheen Davis proved to be a disruptive force off the edge a season ago and looks like he will take over as the team's top pass rusher, although junior Rondell Bothroyd may have something to say about that. Up the middle, seniors Kobie Turner and Dion Bergan Jr. are the likely starters. Turner was an underrated get from Richmond, where he was a three-time All-CAA selection, and he should start right away.

It's the linebacker corps that will determine whether this Wake Forest is bound to take a step forward or not. Senior Ryan Smenda has been a staple in the program for years now, and finished second on the team in tackles a season ago, but may have to reach another gear for this rush defense to improve. Junior Chase Jones returns alongside him in this 4-2-5 scheme, but the lack of depth is the primary concern, especially considering some of the rush-oriented teams that lie on the schedule. 

The secondary may have been respectable last fall, but there are three major contributors now gone. Luke Masterson, Traveon Redd, and Ja'Sir Taylor were three of the real leaders of this group in 2021, leaving a massive void. That doesn't mean there isn't talent, but the Demon Deacons will need new faces to emerge.

Sophomores Caelen Carson and Gavin Holmes are the projected starters at cornerback, but senior Isaiah Wingfield should also be heavily featured. At the ever-important "Rover" position, Wake Forest is hoping junior Chelen Garnes can step up in a big way; he played in seven games in 2021 after transferring in from Navy.

The two safety spots are likely to be manned by two of the trio of Nick Andersen, Malik Mustapaha, and Coby Davis. Andersen was one of the best defenders on the team during the shortened 2020 season, but was a disappointment a year ago. If he can regain his old form, he has a chance to be an All-ACC talent. Mustapaha is a prime breakout candidate after flashing significant upside last season.

Lambert has his work cut out for him turning around this unit after the frustrations they suffered through last season. There's potential to be better, but they have to be more disciplined and physical at the point of attack. I think the Demon Deacon defense will improve, but by how much will determine their ceiling in 2022.

Special Teams: It's difficult to find better kickers in the world of college football than Nick Sciba. He went 23-25 on field goals in 2021 and finishes as the second-most accurate kicker in NCAA history. Redshirt freshman Matthew Dennis is the favorite to replace him, and will have awfully big shoes to fill. Ivan Mora will handle punter duties once more, but is still recovering from an injury sustained in the Gator Bowl win.

Bottom Line: Dave Clawson's program has not only become extremely consistent, they've evolved to legitimate ACC Title contenders. The offense has serious talent at every level and a strong offensive line leading the way, but Lambert will have to turn around the defense if the Demon Deacons are to defend their Atlantic Division Title, particularly with Clemson likely to rebound. The season likely comes down to their meeting with Clemson on September 24th, and the late October-early November stretch. Even if they don't upset the Tigers this year, there's still potential for 9-10 wins on the regular season if they take care of business the rest of the way. If the defensive issues show up once again, this is more likely a team with a ceiling right around eight victories, which has been more of the norm under Clawson than what they accomplished a season ago. Either way, the Demon Deacons should still be a tough out in a fascinating division and earn a trip to their seventh straight bowl game.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Dave Clawson began his head coaching career at Fordham all the way back in 1999. He's spent nearly his entire career on the East Coast, beginning with Wake Forest in 2014. After back-to-back 3-9 campaigns to open up his time in Winston-Salem, Clawson has led the Demon Deacons to a bowl game every single season. Offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero has been a longtime Clawson assistant, going back to their time together at Bowling Green. He does have some head coaching experience, coaching for two seasons at Glenville State in West Virginia. On the defensive side of the ball, Brad Lambert was brought back as coordinator after spending 2021 with Purdue. He was head man at Charlotte from 2011-2018 and has familiarity with Wake Forest, serving as LB coach and DC from 2001-2010. 

Recruiting Breakdown
The smallest Power Five school in the nation in a state with several other major universities, Wake Forest has natural disadvantages when it comes to recruiting. Instead, they focus on players that fit their culture and develop them the right way. The 2022 Class ranks 71st in the 247Sports composite and is highlighted by a pair of four-star prospects, both on offense. Wide out Wesley Grimes was a quality pickup from inside the state who may not play much in 2022, but has a bright future. Tailback Demond Claiborne comes over from the talent-rich "DMV" area and may contribute right away. The defensive recruits are headlined by strong-side defensive end Eli Hall, a three-star who had a bunch of interest from other Power Five schools. Cornerback Zamari Stevenson also comes in and may have an opportunity to see snaps fairly quickly with how thin Wake Forest is at the position.

2022 X-Factor: Nick Andersen, S
The Wake Forest secondary may have been the strength of the defense in 2021, but with so many heavy losses, Nick Andersen is going to play a crucial role in determining their success. Andersen was one of the breakout stars of the ACC back in 2020, notching 63 tackles and four interceptions, but his encore was underwhelming. Essentially every single defensive category he regressed in, and wasn't the playmaker he was in 2020. If the Demon Deacons are going to improve on this side of the ball with Brad Lambert, they absolutely need more from Andersen. He's never been the most athletic player on the field, but his instincts and feel for the game were his strengths; hopefully another full, normal offseason can be what he needs to get back on track.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3 ACC)
Offensive MVP: WR A.T. Perry
Defensive MVP: LB Ryan Smenda
Breakout Player of the Year: S Malik Mustapha
Impact Freshman: RB Demond Claiborne

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