Wake Forest sets sights on division title in 2018

Over the next few weeks, we'll be chatting with each ACC football coach to go over the highs and lows of 2017 and take a look at what's in store for spring practice and the season ahead.

Next up, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, who returns the bulk of an offense that proved to be one of the ACC's most explosive last year.

The way the 2017 season unfolded, was the step forward -- particularly on offense -- even something you saw coming?

Clawson: It was a huge jump on offense. I thought we'd get better. Certainly the step we made exceeded even my expectations. I thought we were capable of it, but certainly the second half of the year, we really found our identity. John [Wolford] played lights out, and the improvement on the offensive line was huge. The kicking game was probably a neutral for us, and we probably regressed a little bit on defense.

The simple fact that you had some guys who could make big plays -- that's not something you had before.

Clawson: Look at the year before I got here when they lost Mike Campanaro. We've built depth, we've recruited well. Greg [Dortch] or Tabari [Hines] or Scotty Washington stepping up. Alex Bachman and Cam Serigne had a great year. But the biggest thing was the improvement of the offensive line. Those guys allowed all that to happen. It's never one thing.

What's Greg's status for the spring, by the way?

Clawson: He's full go. He's doing workouts and he's full go for the spring.

He came on so strong as a redshirt freshman last year. What's his ceiling? What can he do better in 2018?

Clawson: Yeah, to be more consistent, to get more detailed, he can get stronger and faster. He's blessed with a very good natural feel for the game, exceptional quickness. But he can get stronger and faster and develop more detail, and you'd expect those things to happen from your redshirt freshman year to your sophomore year.

We've talked in the past that the differences between John Wolford and Kendall Hinton are probably overstated, in terms of their skill sets. So as the torch gets passed to Kendall for 2018, does the offense really change much?

Clawson: We're going to run our offense, but you certainly tweak or adjust it to the players involved. That's especially meaningful for a quarterback. We'll install our offense and make tweaks and see what Kendall is comfortable with. At the same time, we have competition at quarterback. We expect big things from Kendall, but Kendall has not stayed healthy. So it's not just what can Kendall do. It's who is the No. 2, what can they do, can they push each other and what's their skill set?

You mentioned some regression on defense. Was it youth, was it a new coaching staff?

Clawson: It's all of the above. We lost some really good players from the 2016 team. We lost four guys that signed NFL contracts and another guy that was one of the school's all-time leading tacklers. We got younger. What we did on offense affected what we did on defense. We played with tempo, so we had a lot more plays. And there was an adjustment that we had three new coaches, some different terminology. All of those factors contributed to us not being at the level we wanted to be at.

The fact so many young guys played last year, does that offer a little bit of optimism as you try to replace stars such as Duke Ejiofor and Jessie Bates now?

Clawson: We played a ton of freshmen last year on defense. We didn't on offense. On the D-line, whether it was Sulaiman Kamara or Boogie Basham, at linebacker Justin Strnad played a lot, Ja'Cquez Williams played a lot. At corner, Ja'Sir Taylor played a ton. Luke Masterson played at safety. Coby Davis was the starting nickel. I don't know, other than Greg Dortch and Arkeem Byrd, I don't know if we had another freshman on offense play meaningful snaps, which is why we played the way we played. It was the first time since I've been here that I thought the talent level on offense was a little better than defense, so the way we played, that was intentional.

The guys like John and Cam and Duke were sort of the foundation of what you were building at Wake. With them moving on, does this sort of feel like Phase 2 of the building plan?

Clawson: We only had seven seniors last year. We've got four fifth-year seniors on the offensive line. Every kid who got a handoff at running back or caught a ball at receiver is back for us. Defensively, we'll miss Duke and Jessie and Wendell [Dunn] and Jaboree Williams, but we had a lot of guys play a lot of football. I expect us to be better.

The luxury of depth is you've been able to redshirt a lot of players that, three or four years ago, you wouldn't have. Do you see some of those redshirts from 2017 making a big impact this year?

Clawson: Sage Surratt, Waydale Jones and Christian Beal on offense are all guys that can really help us this year. Three or four years ago, those guys would've played and maybe started, but because of our depth, we were able to redshirt them. Any one of those guys could break out. We have a defensive tackle, a defensive end, a couple linebackers -- all those guys will be more ready to play because we redshirted them.

Two straight years, you've improved your record, gone to a bowl, won a bowl. Is the next step really competing to win the Atlantic? Does that seem like a realistic goal now?

Clawson: We know it's not an easy goal, but it should be everybody's goal. The reality is, since we've been here, we've yet to beat Clemson and we've yet to beat Florida State. I certainly don't think we're the favorites, but we can play with people. I think we can win close games. And that has to be your goal. Is it realistic? I don't know. We'll find out with how we play, but that is our goal.