ACC Countdown: No. 13 Wake Forest

Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson is one of the bright spots entering 2014, as he highlights a secondary that returns all four starters.

From a talent perspective — especially on offense — Wake Forest is probably the worst team in the league. But the Deacons have a brand-new head coach in Dave Clawson and a defense that is actually pretty good.

Will that mean much in the Atlantic Division, especially when they can’t score points? Probably not, but it’s something to build on for the future for Clawson and company as Wake begins life without Jim Grobe.

Plenty of defensive players return from a group that was not bad a year ago, particularly most of Wake’s secondary — Ryan Janvion (who earned All-ACC honorable mention honors a year ago) and Anthony Wooding Jr., at safety, alongside Kevin Johnson (one of the best corners in the ACC) and senior Merrill Noel.

The Demon Deacons are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5, but with that kind of experience on the back end, their defense should make a pretty big leap. The only real issue is everything that Wake lost up front, led by the loss of excellent nose tackle Nikita Whitlock. In the new scheme, some of Wake’s linebackers will be converted to defensive end and the Deacs will likely have a bit of a transition to make there, but with an excellent linebacker in Brandon Chubb and some talent at that spot they should be in good hands.

Offensively, almost no one is back from a unit that wasn’t very good to begin with (close to last in the ACC in every major category), so expectations are going to be low for this group. Wake loses its starting quarterback in Tanner Price, its starting tailback in Josh Harris and its all-time leading receiver (and often Wake’s only offense last season), Michael Campanaro.

The quarterback competition in the spring consisted of last year’s backup Tyler Cameron against a converted wide receiver in Kevin Sousa. The offensive line wasn’t very good last year, and it loses two starters. In theory, that line can’t get worse. But with a lot of inexperience, that theory might be tested.

It may not even matter who the running backs are at this point, though Wake Forest desperately needs to find some offensive balance it hasn’t been able to find the last few years. Wide receiver Jared Crump had a nice spring game, though, and there’s plenty of potential in that group. Tailback Orville Reynolds might be able to take the next step, and he’ll need to as he’s one of the only backs returning with any experience.

Clawson is going to do all he can to adapt the scheme to the talent he has as he rebuilds the program, but unless one of the incoming freshmen quarterbacks is better than expected, there might not be much he can do this season.

Cameron was Price’s backup a year ago so, in theory, this should have been his job to lose. But he had a shaky spring and the QB-turned-WR-turned-QB Sousa, who is a bit more mobile than Cameron, seems to be the early frontrunner for the starting job. Clawson declined to name a starter after the spring because he says he wants the incoming freshmen (John Wolford and Travis Smith) to have a chance to compete for the job. That clearly means things are wide open, and the quality of play at that position could mean a difference of 2-3 wins when it’s all said and done.

Wake’s offensive line isn’t great, but there’s plenty of talent at wide receiver if they can find a quarterback capable of moving the football. That’s a big ‘if’ at this point.

Wake Forest is scrappier than expected.

Demon Deacon fans have seen a lot of bad football over the last few years, watching a team that won the ACC Championship in 2006 transition into one that is not competitive at all against the best teams in the league and too often lost to teams it was relatively equal to on the field.

The offense has been downright unwatchable at times, and it’s an offense that has lost some of its best pieces. The defense can only be so good for it to make a difference if Wake can’t get anything going offensively. If the Deacs can compete in some games they have no business competing in, and even win a few of those, that will give Wake fans more than enough reason for optimism, even if the record doesn’t show it. There’s plenty of young talent on this team and plenty more reason for optimism, as long as Wake can show some of that on the field and be competitive more often than it gets embarrassed as the program begins a slow rebuild under Clawson.

At Utah State, Sept. 13: Wake Forest could be 2-0 at this point. (It’s possible, anyway, since the Deacs do open the season at Louisiana-Monroe, a team they lost to at home a year ago.) But Game No. 2 is against FCS Gardner-Webb at home, and if the Deacs win that one, they’d have a decent chance at moving to 3-0 on the season and maybe even moving to 4-0 the next week when they host Army.

Even Clawson’s group doesn’t win a game the rest of the season, that would certainly be a sign of tremendous progress as Wake has struggled even with relatively easy non-conference slates in years past.

The Deacs’ ACC schedule is brutal — at Louisville, at FSU, and a crossover game against Virginia Tech — but it’s worth circling the first two games of a three-game homestand in October against Syracuse and Boston College. Wake Forest is not as good as those teams, but weird things happen in Winston-Salem. A 4-0 start in non-conference play, as unlikely as it may be, might mean bowl eligibility is on the line, which would be a major coup for Clawson & Co. in his first year. But a lot of it hinges on that trip to Utah State, which will probably be their toughest non-conference opponent.

Wake’s non-conference schedule is very manageable, but it will be so early in the Clawson era with so many young players finding their way that it’s hard to see Wake winning more than one conference game (especially since two are on the road). This team should get better as the year goes on, though. After playing four of its first six games out of the state of North Carolina, Wake plays four of its final six games at home and all six games in-state.

Wake will likely manage to sneak up on one ACC team during that stretch, but more than that is probably asking too much.