WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Coach Dave Clawson hopes his Wake Forest players are all grown up now.
The Demon Deacons have been among the nation's youngest teams during Clawson's first two years at the school. All those freshmen and sophomores on his first depth chart in 2014 are now juniors and seniors, and he's hoping they can take a noticeable step forward after consecutive 3-9 seasons.
It's tough to be patient in the ACC's Atlantic Division, where Clemson and Florida State look to reload every year with five-star recruits, but Clawson hopes the growing pains the past two seasons will finally start to pay off.
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''I believe there's a way to win everywhere,'' he said. ''I think the process of how you do that isn't the same everywhere. We believe in our process at Wake Forest. I think this year we will take a nice step forward and become a much more competitive team that wins more games.''
Wake Forest, which has the smallest enrollment of any school in a power conference, ended last season with 27 players on the final depth chart in either their first or second year in the program – with one at every position on offense – and had only five players who were in their fifth year at the school.
Those numbers are a little better this year – six sixth-year players, 13 seniors in all and 15 redshirt juniors behind them – and it's a big reason why Clawson says this is his best team there.
Wake Forest returns nine starters on offense, including four offensive linemen, and some welcome depth at the skill positions. Clawson says he has at least five running backs and seven receivers who can contribute.
''Now they're a year older, a year stronger, understand the system better,'' he said. ''That's when guys make the big jump, is that second year playing. We're going to have a whole bunch of guys on offense that hopefully collectively make that jump together.''
Clawson wants some clarity at quarterback, where he said ''it really became a juggling act all year'' with injuries to both John Wolford and Kendall Hinton. Wolford's more dangerous with his arm, while Hinton has better feet, and Clawson says they will split reps during camp. He said he believes in both, would prefer that one steps up and claims the job but adds that ''it's hard to imagine we go through a year where we don't need both of them.''
Wake Forest has one of the ACC's best tight ends in Cam Serigne, a redshirt junior who needed just two years to tie a school record at his position with 100 receptions. Clawson says two years in his strength program has changed Serigne from a receiver who plays tight end into a model tight end, calling him ''a complete football player.'' That should help a rushing offense that has ranked last in the ACC in both 2014 and '15.
The measuring stick comes Sept. 10 when the Demon Deacons visit Duke, an instate rival that's a model for the program Clawson is trying to build. Wins figure to be scarce in a division with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, so a victory over the Blue Devils might be necessary if Wake Forest is to win six games and reach its first bowl in five years.
Wake Forest has a manageable opener Sept. 1 against a Tulane team breaking in a new coach.