Wake Forest rides untested QB into opener at Tulane
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As confident as Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson is about the experience on his roster and the program he has built, he won’t downplay the uncertainty that comes with opening a season on the road with a true freshman quarterback who wasn’t projected to start this season.
Clawson has to hope that Sam Hartman looks as good under center at Tulane on Thursday night as he did during his best moments at practice this month.
“Any time you start a true freshman quarterback, it’s a baptism by fire,” said Clawson, who is entering his fifth season at Wake Forest. “You can practice it, practice it, practice it, but until they get out there in a game and play for the first time, it’s always new and different.”
Wake Forest returns 14 starters from a team that finished 8-5 — including a Belk Bowl victory over Texas A&M — and hopes to contend in the ACC this year. Last year’s starting QB, John Wolford, has graduated, and his projected heir apparent, Kendall Hinton, is suspended three games for an unspecified violation of team rules.
“There is always a lot of anxiety with the first game,” Clawson said. “There are some areas where we have an idea of what we have and there are always things that get exposed.”
Tulane was inches away from a sixth victory and bowl eligibility last season, coming up short when quarterback Jonathan Banks was ruled down just short of the goal line as time expired in a loss at SMU. Yet replays that officials decided were inconclusive left doubt about whether Banks had rolled over a defender and into the end zone before he was down.
“Depending on your perspective, they were either an inch away or a sideline camera away from being a bowl team,” Clawson said. “They have had to live with that one inch for nine months.”
Frustrated as Tulane coach Willie Fritz was with that final play at the time, he saw the silver lining it presented as an offseason motivator.
“The guys have worked extremely hard since the last play last year,” Fritz said.
“The guys” include Banks, a former Kansas State redshirt who is back under center for his final year of eligibility. And the Green Wave has eagerly awaited the opportunity to start a new season at home in a nationally televised night game against a team from a power conference.
“It is a measuring stick,” Fritz said. “It is a big game for us without question.”
Some story lines surrounding Wake Forest at Tulane:
Wake Forest views its experienced offensive line — made up of three seniors and two juniors — as one of its biggest strengths.
“We have an awesome offensive line that we are super confident behind and they make things easy for us,” running back Cade Carney said.
That presents a challenge for a Tulane defensive front that likely will be composed of one senior and three sophomores — not to mention all freshmen among the top four reserves. Tulane also wants to improve against the run after allowing 5.3 yards per carry last season.
BANKING ON BANKS
Tulane’s senior QB improved as last season wore on, passing for 565 yards during the Wave’s last two games. Banks has his top three receivers back and is a dual threat who rushed for nearly 600 yards last season.
“If the basis for a good football team is a good, experienced play-caller, then Tulane has it,” Clawson said.
New Orleans’ hot and muggy August conditions will test both teams’ stamina — particularly with Wake Forest running an up-tempo offense.
“We’re probably going to get 80, 90 plays from them,” Fritz predicted. “They’re going to be running the same guys out there the whole time, going fast-paced.”
Wake Forest has its most explosive receiver back on the field. Greg Dortch, a redshirt sophomore, missed the final five games of 2017 with an abdominal injury that occurred during a four-touchdown performance in a victory over Louisville. Before his injury, he caught 53 passes for 722 yards and nine TDs.