There was a lot to be seen at Wake Forest’s spring game, so we wanted to get all the details on the team and how it’s positioned for the upcoming season. We were lucky enough to talk with Conor O’Neill, Wake Forest expert and sports writer for the Winston-Salem Journal. O’Neill gave us his insight on what this year’s offensive line will look like, who might be a wild card, and much, much more. Check out more from O’Neill @ConorONeillWSJ, and visit our rankings page to see how the players from Wake Forest stack up.
Overall, how do you believe the offense will compare to the 2018 version?
This one is pretty straightforward, regardless of whether Sam Hartman or Jamie Newman is the starting quarterback.
Wake Forest’s offense is unlikely to change much, if at all, entering the sixth season under Dave Clawson and offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero. They want to be one of the fastest units in the country, and have been in the last two seasons. Their goal is to get 80-90 snaps per game in a no-huddle, up-tempo, spread-option offense that’s heavy in RPOs. Greg Dortch left early, but the slot receiver position should still be a highly productive spot with former QB Kendall Hinton providing plenty of explosiveness there.
That’s not to say it won’t be a balanced offense, as Wake Forest has averaged over 200 rushing yards per game last season (compared to the 39.9 rushing yards per game the Deacons averaged in Clawson’s first season, 2014). Cade Carney became the first 1,000-yard rusher since 2005 last season, and he’s back as a senior.
What do you expect from the QB position in 2019?
This is one of the top position battles in the ACC, and Wake Forest is in a prime position if Hartman or Newman wins the job.
Hartman’s biggest areas to improve in the off-season were the careless turnovers he committed early last season and to add weight. The turnovers issue was mostly corrected by the time he suffered a season-ending injury against Syracuse, and any lingering problems can likely only be addressed to a certain point before he proves he can protect the ball in game situations. For his weight, Hartman was up to 200 pounds for the start of spring practices, about a 15-20 pound increase from where he started last season.
For Newman, he’s a redshirt junior who really only has to prove that he can consistently perform at the level that played in three of the final four games last season. The wins at N.C. State, at Duke and in the Birmingham Bowl were Wake Forest’s three biggest wins of the season, and all Newman did in them was complete 62 of 96 passes for 802 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception, while rushing for 185 yards and three touchdowns. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, if those performances are replicated, Newman could be in line for a special season
How do you see the workload at RB being distributed?
With what I said above about Carney, and with the graduation of Matt Colburn II, it’s a logical jump to assume 2019 will see Carney take on a heavy workload.
But that’s just not the way Clawson wants the running back position to operate.
Under Clawson, the Deacons have always tried to have three interchangeable running backs, and that’ll be the case again. Carney will be the bell cow as long as he’s healthy – last season was the first time that he played every game, and he underwent shoulder surgery in the spring (he’s expected to be fully recovered by August).
Behind Carney will be redshirt sophomore Christian Beal-Smith and a No. 3 running back to be named later. Beal-Smith was the third running back last season and showed glimpses of success, and he’s faster and shiftier than Carney. But behind Carney and Colburn last season, opportunities were limited. The leader for the No. 3 spot coming out of spring practice was converted cornerback DeAndre’ Delaney, the team’s leading rusher in the spring game. But he’ll continue to be pushed by redshirt freshman Courtney McKinney, and the Deacons will get two more running backs in the freshman class with Kendrell Flowers and Kenneth Walker III, and Clawson made it clear in the spring that they’ll have ample opportunity to jump ahead of Delaney and/or McKinney.
How does the offensive line compare to the 2018 group?
This season’s offensive line picked up a huge boost with a season-ending injury to Justin Herron in the season-opening win at Tulane last year, as strange as that sounds.
That’s because Herron was granted a medical redshirt and he’ll return for his sixth season of eligibility, starting at left tackle. It allows Jake Benzinger, who slid over to left tackle after Herron’s injury, to move back to his more natural fit at right tackle. And to keep the parts moving, that allows Nathan Gilliam to move from tackle to his more natural spot at guard. Benzinger and Gilliam are both fifth-year seniors, so between them and Herron, there’s a wealth of experience in those three.
That leaves center and one of the guard spots as positions that will have new starters this season. Zach Tom seems cemented into starting at center. Which leaves guard, where Je’Vionte’ Nash, Loic Ngassam Nya and Sean Maginn will compete to start.
So, after losing a couple of fifth-year seniors in Phil Haynes and Ryan Anderson, Wake Forest’s offensive line is still an experienced and talented group.
What do you think the distribution will be to the WR/TE's?
This is probably the toughest question to answer, because it’s unclear how much of a hole was created by Dortch’s departure.
Hinton is unlikely to catch 89 passes, as Dortch did last season (in only 12 games). But Hinton will see the lion’s share of targets in the slot, so 50-60 catches would be a realistic number for him.
Scotty Washington is a wild card here. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2017 with 45 catches for 711 yards and three touchdowns, and at 6-5, 215 pounds, he’s an ideal target. But a preseason shoulder injury made for a slow start last season, and it persisted throughout the season that ended with him recording 20 catches for 243 yards and three touchdowns. If he’s able to return to form – he underwent shoulder surgery after the season and missed spring practices – he could match or surpass his 2017 totals.
Sage Surratt is likely the consistent option among the receivers. As a redshirt freshman, he put up 41 catches for 581 yards, both second on the team to Dortch. He started the season strong and finished strong, with a groin injury limiting him in the middle portion.
Beyond these three, it’s a hodgepodge of talented-but-unproven receivers. Steve Claude is a fifth-year senior with big-play potential on the outside. Jaquarii Roberson and Waydale Jones are redshirt sophomores who have shown flashes, but have yet to consistently prove they deserve first-team reps. Redshirt freshman A.T. Perry is a bit of a Washington clone, a raw 6-5, 190-pounder still learning, but he might have the highest ceiling of any non-starter.
At tight end, Jack Freudenthal and Brandon Chapman are both reliable targets. But they combined for 27 catches last season, which is a far cry from the roughly 45 catches per season that Cam Serigne averaged across the previous four seasons in becoming the most-productive tight end in ACC history. It’s unlikely Wake Forest relies on its tight end as much as it did when Serigne was lining up.
For our dynasty owners, who are some young players that stand out as future breakout performers?
The first name that comes to mind here is Beal-Smith, because he stands to have role significantly increased from last season to this season, and then again from this season to next season when he presumably will ascend to the role of lead running back (after Carney’s graduation).
Going deeper than that, as stated above, Perry shows promise of being a large target on the outside if he continues to develop. Wake Forest also brought in two four-star receivers as early enrollees, Donavon Greene and Nolan Groulx. Greene has a ready-made college football body, but might be stuck behind too many on the depth chart to have an impact before next season. Groulx is starting his college career as a slot receiver, though the staff wants him to learn all three receiver positions, as Alex Bachman did.