Behind Enemy Lines: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Zach Lentz

Dave Clawson has done what few thought possible at Wake Forest: post 28 wins in his first five seasons.

Among those 28 wins were a number of critical victories, including wins over No. 23 Temple in the 2016 Military Bowl and a win over SEC member Texas A&M in the 2017 Belk Bowl.

A 37-34 Birmingham Bowl victory over Memphis marked the first time in school history that Wake Forest has won a bowl game in three consecutive seasons.

“It is amazing what Dabo (Swinney) and his staff have done down there," Clawson said. "The consecutive 10-win seasons, the fifth consecutive Atlantic Division title, they have 25 straight wins now. He and his staff have done a great job. It is the combination of great talent and being an extremely well-coached team. They do everything well."

Demon Deacons on offense

Warren Ruggiero begins his fifth season as Wake Forest’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after previously serving in the same role under head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green.

Ruggiero oversaw the development of an explosive Wake Forest offense that in 2017 set over 100 team and individual records.

The Deacons in 2017 set new standards for points scored (459) and total offense yards (6,055)in a season, while accumulating five of the top 10 offensive games in school history.

Under Ruggiero’s tutelage, quarterback John Wolford earned second team All-ACC honors and led the ACC in passing efficiency while setting school records for touchdown passes (29), touchdowns responsible for (39) and passing yards (3,192) in a season. Eight of Wake Forest’s 12 All-ACC selections in 2017 came from the offense.

This season, the Wake Forest's offense is making its mark in the national rankings. The Demon Deacons are 11th nationally in passing offense with 314.1 yards per game and 13th in total offense with 487.3 yards per game. As a team, the Deacons have been taking care of the little stuff: Wake is fourth nationally in fewest fumbles lost with two; third in fewest penalties with 3.9 per game and second in fewest penalty yards with 31 per game. Wake Forest is 11th nationally in third down conversions, turning 49.4 percent of its third downs into first downs.

But the Tigers will present a challenge the likes of which the Demon Deacons have not seen.

“Defensively, with Clemson every year you look at who they are going to graduate and you have a little bit of hope, and then you watch the film," Clawson said. "They are No. 1 in the ACC in defense. They are giving up 11.5 points per game. I think Carolina had 290 yards against them, which is the most any opponent has had. Only one team has scored in the 20s, and that was Carolina with 20. Across the board, these are all high-end players. They have done a great job. We are going to go down to a great environment. Our players are up for the challenge and we know what’s in front of us. 

"We are excited about it. We get this opportunity once a year against Clemson. Certainly, we did not play well a year ago. I think that game, as much as anything, flipped our season. After that game we had to do some real soul searching as a team and as a staff. I was proud, since then, of how our team has responded. Here we go and we get another shot at them. We are going to have to play well, but that is what makes it fun. We embrace the challenge and know how tough it is going to be.”


Demon Deacons on defense

Lyle Hemphill is in his second season on the Demon Deacon coaching staff after joining the program in January 2017.

Hemphill joined the staff after six seasons at Stony Brook, including the last four as defensive coordinator.

Under Hemphill’s direction, the Seawolves became one of the top defensive units in the Football Championship Subdivision. In 2015 Stony Brook led the FCS in both total defense (250.1 yards per game) and yards allowed per play (4.10). In 2016, Stony Brook was third in the nation in total defense (274.2) and a top 20 unit nationally in tackles for loss, scoring defense, rushing defense, red zone defense, pass defense, first down defense and blocked punts. He was named the FCS Defensive Coordinator of the Year in 2015 by FootballScoop.

The defense will be tested against this week, as the face, not only the best offense in the ACC, but one of the best offenses in college football.

“They are the No. 1 offense in the ACC. They are averaging over 45 points and 550 yards per game," Clawson said. "A lot of times you would say it starts with the quarterback, but you could say it is any one of their players it starts with. Obviously (Trevor) Lawrence is an extremely gifted quarterback. If he was immobile, he would still be great with his ability to stretch the field and make every throw, but he can also run the ball. It presents some numbers problems. If you load more in the box, then you are going against Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers. This might be the best collection of wide receivers that ever faced. 

"Travis Etienne, there are some great tailbacks in the league in Cam Akers and A.J. Dillon, but he is right up there. They are all great players. The difference with Clemson, and I said this a year ago, is how good their offensive line is. This offensive line that we are about to face on Saturday and the Notre Dame offensive line in ’17 are the probably the two best offensive lines we have ever played against. You have this really good offensive line, with an extremely gifted quarterback, a big-time tailback and three receivers and a tight end that are versatile. I think collectively, this is the best offense we have ever faced. We have a challenge on our hands.”

The Line: The Tigers are currently 34.5-point favorites

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