An Appreciation of AAF Breakout Star John Wolford's Senior Season at Wake Forest

If you watched John Wolford's 2017 season at Wake Forest, you probably weren't surprised when he took the AAF by storm in Week 1.
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John Wolford wasn’t supposed to be the main attraction of the Alliance of American Football’s first week, which also featured former collegiate standouts like Zach Mettenberger, Blake Sims and Mike Bercovici alongside questionable Jets draft picks like Christian Hackenberg.

But the Wake Forest product was the AAF’s breakout star taking home Offensive Player of the Week honors and earning praise for his 275-yard, four-touchdown effort as he led the Arizona Hotshots to a 38–22 victory in their first game. Wolford was spotted dropping dimes and got numerous shoutouts on Twitter, including one from former ESPN and Grantland writer Chris Brown, who speculated that he’d land on an NFL training camp roster come summer.

But what if Wolford has always been good? His time in Jets camp, where he couldn’t beat out Hackenberg for a spot (but was competing at a disadvantage given the Penn State product was a second-round pick while he was an undrafted free agent), didn’t go so well, but he put together a quality season in his final year at Wake Forest.

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Wolford led the ACC in adjusted yards per attempt in 2017, in a conference that included Lamar Jackson the year after he won the Heisman Trophy. Of course, Jackson also ran for almost 1,000 more yards than Wolford along with doing cool Lamar Jackson things. Wolford, meanwhile, led Wake Forest to a nondescript 8–5 season and a Belk Bowl victory.

At most schools, no one would be celebrating an 8–5 season and three-point Belk Bowl victory. By Wake Forest standards, however, they should have thrown a parade. It was only the seventh time in school history the Demon Deacons reached eight wins, and it was their second-best season ever by SRS (Simple Rating System), only bested by the 1946 campaign.

Now, it’s fair to wonder why 2017 was the only strong season under Wolford. He was definitely not good in his first three seasons, tossing more interceptions than touchdowns each year as Wake went 3–9 in two of them.

Perhaps it was because his opponents knew what was coming. After the 2016 season, it was discovered that Wake Forest TV/radio announcer Tommy Elrod had been giving the Demon Deacons’ playbook to opposing defensive coordinators. For his first three years, Wolford was up against teams that already had the book on him. It’s at least a little impressive that he managed to throw any touchdowns against teams that knew what was coming.

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In his fourth year, Wolford showed what he could do playing against less-prepared defenses. He torched a shaky Louisville defense while winning a head-to-head duel with Jackson, throwing for a career-high 461 yards while completing 28 of his 34 passes, throwing for five touchdowns and running for another.

Against then-No. 5 Notre Dame, Wolford threw for 331 yards and accounted for three touchdowns in a shootout loss. And in that wild 55–52 Belk Bowl victory over Texas A&M, he had another 400-yard game while slinging four touchdowns and leading a come-from-behind game-winning fourth quarter drive.

Wolford’s previous stint in the NFL was bizarre and short-lived. He was set to start a job at Teall Capital, a private equity firm, but the Jets signed him off the street and stuck him into a preseason Week 4 game against the Eagles. He went 8 for 20 for only 89 yards and threw an interception, and the Jets released him after 10 days on the roster.

It’s also possible, if hard to believe, that the Jets may not have been the best evaluators of talent. After all, Wolford was the highest-graded AAF quarterback in Week 1 per Pro Football Focus, and NFL teams will always be looking for the next Kurt Warner.