2021 season: 11-3, 7-1 in the ACC (1st in the Atlantic Division)
Head coach: Dave Clawson (9th season)
After seven middling seasons under Clawson, with the Demon Deacons winning more than seven games just twice, 2021 was the long-awaited breakout in Winston-Salem, N.C. A school-record-tying 11 wins, the Atlantic division title and a dominant Gator Bowl win has led to national buzz, as Wake Forest comes into the fall ranked No. 22 nationally.
But Sam Hartman, the gunslinging conductor of the Demon Deacons’ high-octane offense, has been out indefinitely since Aug. 10 with a “non-football related medical condition”, per the program. Earlier this week, Clawson officially ruled Hartman, one of only 16 quarterbacks in college football history to account for 50 touchdowns, out for Wake Forest’s opening weekend date with Virginia Military Institute, telling reporters Aug. 29 that “Sam has not been cleared yet. We feel like he’s progressing well, but it’s a medical decision that will be made by doctors.”
In Hartman’s absence, redshirt freshman signal caller Mitch Griffis gets the nod and his undersized frame and grand total of 15 collegiate pass attempts is the elephant in the quarterback room. The presence of an inexperienced starting quarterback means one thing: the rest of the roster will have to pick up some of the slack, at least until Hartman returns.
That likely starts with halfback Justice Ellison, who averaged 5.1 yards a pop on nearly 10 carries per game to complement fellow backfield members Christian Beal and Christian Turner. Beal transferred to South Carolina in the offseason, giving Ellison and Turner a larger slice of the pie, and apparently, Ellison has taken the most advantage by virtue of him being top dog on the depth chart to open the season.
Ellison, and Griffis, for that matter, will be aided by an offensive line that brings back four of five starters, including tackles Je’Vionte Nash and and DeVonte Gordon.
In the receiver room, 6-foot-5 wideout A.T. Perry comes off a 71-catch, 1,293-yard season, and his catch radius and knack for reeling in the long ball will make him the featured perimeter target. Perry will tag-team with Donavon Greene, who is fully recovered from last summer’s ACL tear and has a career average of 19.8 yards per reception.
Defensively, things are a little different. The Demon Deacons gave up 413.6 yards per contest last season, and those defensive struggles were the primary reason for last year’s 58-55 shootout loss to North Carolina, a setback that knocked Wake Forest out of the playoff picture. Six starters return defensively, so growth could be in the cards, but the Demon Deacons will in all likelihood have to score points, points and more points once again to give themselves a chance.
Currently, Hartman not suiting up for Week 1 is the obvious main story for Wake Forest, but Clawson has said that he expects the Charlotte native to return at some point this year. Whether Griffis is up to the challenge of holding down the fort until then remains to be seen, and it is not as if the Demon Deacons can coast through September and October. A Sept. 24 visit from Clemson, trips to improved Florida State and Louisville and a Nov. 5 duel with No. 14 N.C. State define the slate for year nine under Clawson.
Can Wake Forest keep the magic going and return to Charlotte? The odds might be long, but never count out a team that lights up the scoreboard.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.