Scouting the opponent: John Wolford leads potent Wake Forest offense in breakout year

John Wolford leads the ACC in several passing categories this year and has the Demon Deacons on the verge of their best regular season in a decade.
John Wolford leads the ACC in several passing categories this year and has the Demon Deacons on the verge of their best regular season in a decade.

The last time Duke traveled to Winston-Salem, N.C., for a football game, things were different.

Despite entering the regular-season finale on a four-game losing streak, those 2015 Blue Devils had locked up a bowl bid and were led by then-redshirt junior quarterback Thomas Sirk. The Wake Forest group on the opposing sideline was a measly 2-9, just hoping to play spoiler.

The only constant between that matchup and this weekend's meeting: Demon Deacon quarterback John Wolford.

When Duke returns to BB&T Field Saturday afternoon, the Blue Devil defense will have its hands full with one of the ACC's premier passers, who leads the conference in completion percentage, passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Although the 6-foot-1 senior has split time in the past with backup Kendall Hinton—who took the majority of snaps under center last September in Durham—Wolford has rebounded from a nine-touchdown, 10-interception 2016 season to put Wake Forest within one victory of its first eight-win regular season in a decade.

"He was really good previously when we've seen him," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "He's so accurate. He's got great hands, he's got a quick release, he's savvy, he's tough. He puts the ball every throw—whether it's bubbles and screens or he's throwing posts or an out-breaking route—he's got great velocity and touch on the ball. He also is a very good runner.

"The only thing is people look at him and see that he's not a big, tall guy, and he doesn't have to be because he does so many combinations of things so well."

Last Saturday against then-No. 25 N.C. State, Wolford did exactly what he's done all season, throwing for three touchdowns and 247 yards with an efficient 19-of-28 passing performance as the Demon Deacons pulled the upset against their in-state rivals. He also ran for 31 yards on eight carries, giving the Blue Devils' Atlantic Division foes a dangerous dual-threat quarterback.

"They're [run-pass option], so we can't really bank on them running it or passing it," senior safety Alonzo Saxton II said. "We just never know, so we've got to stay disciplined and play with our fundamentals."

Although Wake Forest has had to play without top wide receiver Greg Dortch since the the redshirt freshman suffered an abdominal injury four weeks ago against Louisville, Duke will have its own injury woes to worry about. Linebacker Ben Humphreys' status remains in doubt after missing last week's win vs. Georgia Tech, and safety Jeremy McDuffie is out for the season, with right knee surgery scheduled for Monday. The Blue Devils can expect that Dave Clawson and the Demon Deacons' explosive offense will attack them from the get-go Saturday.

Beyond just Wolford—who ranks second on the team in rushing with 56.7 yards per game and 10 touchdowns—Wake Forest has four other players with at least 30 yards per game on the ground, led by junior tailback Matt Colburn. And although Dortch still leads the Demon Deacons in receiving, Florence, S.C., native Tabari Hines has filled in nicely, racking up nearly 150 yards and three scores last weekend.

If Duke has any hopes of slowing down an offense that is firing on all cylinders, it will need a team effort similar to the fight the Blue Devils showed against the Yellow Jackets.

"We've got to do things good teams do and quit doing things that toss the ball game. I think there are probably more games lost than they are won week after week, and we have consistently now turned the ball over," Cutcliffe said. "The way you do it is you continue to practice, and we believe in the way we practice, and then bring it to the game field. That's what it takes to win any week. It doesn't really change week to week."

Similarly, Wake Forest's defense is an attacking unit that ranks near the top of the ACC in sacks despite having no real standouts. 

Defensive back Cameron Glenn and linebacker Grant Dawson lead the Demon Deacons in tackles, and six players have registered multiple sacks on the season. Redshirt senior defensive lineman Duke Ejiofor's 6.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss put him seventh and third in the conference, respectively.

Together, the Wake Forest defense is not the most stout unit Duke will have faced this season—since the start of October, the Demon Deacons have surrendered at least 24 points in every contest. But if the Wake Forest offense can control the clock, Daniel Jones and the Blue Devil offense may not have many opportunities to put points on the board.

With the added factor of an in-state rivalry, the intensity will only be ratcheted up another notch.

"Playing Wake Forest is only an hour away," redshirt senior center Austin Davis said. "We share a lot of the same territory, so you've got to make sure you're the winner of the state."

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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