Imagine a dry-erase board with all sorts of notes scribbled all over it. Now imagine just taking a big cloth and getting rid of everything on there so you can start over. Welcome to Wake Forest Football 2024, the dry-erase board edition.
That may sound a bit glib. But after a 4-8 season in 2023 which also saw the end of the seven-year postseason streak, it is the clearest path for head coach Dave Clawson to take. When the 2023 season ended on Thanksgiving weekend in Syracuse, Clawson said he needed some time to do some soul-searching. He needed to evaluate what they had been doing with the Demon Deacons football program and if all of it was still the best path. That included a look at systems and strategies he had created.
A New Plan Takes Hold
The solutions delivered by the search, and brought to the media Wednesday, made it clear. In the new world of college football, in the adapt or get left behind era, Clawson is choosing the former. He is choosing not to be irreversibly entrenched in ways that may not bring the answers they once did.
That’s not to say there has been a complete revolution at Wake Forest. There are still academic and financial hurdles that will never allow for the program to be in the same discussion as teams in the top four in the country every year. But Clawson said Wednesday there are some changes afoot.
The change begins with the recruiting class signed on Wednesday. Clawson called the day efficient. The class is ranked 51st in the country by the 247Sports composite, and 11th in the ACC. If those numbers don’t impress you, it’s because you have not fully embraced the who and what of Wake Forest recruiting. On the surface, they are not impressive numbers. But that is tied for the highest ranking (with the 2015 class) in the Clawson era at Wake.
The Nuts and Bolts of the Recruiting Class
And then there is the granular look. All of them signed their letters of intent by midday Wednesday and of the 19 high school signees, by our count, at least 14 will be early enrollees and ready for Spring camp. The names that pull the class rankings up are receiver Jeremiah Melvin from Fayetteville, NC, and Jeremy Hecklinski, the quarterback from Marietta, GA. Melvin is a four-star recruit, who at 6-5 fits the prototypical Clawson wideout. Hecklinski has been solidly committed to Wake Forest since December of last year, going so far as to essentially ward off other schools from even pursuing him.
The high school signees have some of everything; linebackers, defensive line, defensive backs, and offensive line. Name a position and there is a recruit there.
And then comes the portal recruits. Wake has had a few grad transfers in the transfer portal era, and most have been productive assets. But this year is different. The immediate need is greater at some positions, and Clawson had more resources to work with. In today’s college football that translates to, “We had NIL money to spend.”
Money Talks and Other Things Walk
While the specific dollar figures are tightly held by the collective, the best estimation is that the program had double the amount at its disposal as it did in December of last year. That gives Clawson more recruiting options both in the portal and in getting some of his current players to stay put.
“It allows you to keep your players, which is really your primary goal,” Clawson said Wednesday. “We’re much better with our ability to keep our own players, guys that we know, that fit our program, that fit the way we do things, that enjoy it here and like it here and want to stay here.”
That doesn’t mean you get to keep everyone. No team does. Clawson said it was clear he was not going to be able to keep both slot receivers, Ke’Shawn Williams and Taylor Morin. He told them the first to recommit would get that commitment back from the program. The same was true at the running back position where Justice Ellison has left for other pastures while Demond Claiborne returns. And there were players for whom it was clear they had played their last game at Wake. They were graduating and the high school recruiting process had them being supplanted in the pecking order at their position.
And then there is what the portal delivers. In this case, the high-profile “get” is quarterback Hank Bachmeier. He spent his fifth year at Louisiana Tech but is best known for the four years he was at Boise State. He is a career 63% passer who has thrown for nearly 9,000 yards with 51 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. At 6-1, 210 pounds he is a pro-style quarterback with a big arm.
This gets us to one of the new sections on the dry-erase board. There is going to be a quarterback competition in the Spring. No one is ordained, including returner Michael Kern, who started the last three games of the 2023 season.
“The message is, it’s an open competition,” Clawson said. “We did not get the quarterback play a year ago that we’re accustomed to here.” He said bringing in a grad transfer with just one year of eligibility remaining was always the plan. It adds experience and depth immediately while not stunting the future development of younger quarterbacks. The intent is still to grow Hecklinski or redshirt freshman Charlie Gilliam. Clawson committed to giving all of them first-team reps at points throughout Spring camp.
Spring Camp, Anyone?
And it is just not at the quarterback position where we are going to see new notes on the dry-erase board. The plan is to take a fresh look at all positions. “You have to adjust and adapt to college football, and we have to do that,” Clawson admitted. “I think the days of guys waiting for two or three years for their turn, that’s harder and harder to do. We’re going to let all these freshmen compete.” Clawson acknowledged it is easier to do that at certain positions. There is not much of a track record at most schools of freshmen offensive linemen being physically ready to compete at the highest levels. Still, it is the dawn of a new day in Winston-Salem.
It’s clear that part of the introspection time Clawson had at the end of the 2023 season led to these changes. “Right now, I’m a 4-8 head football coach. And our two coordinators are 4-8 coordinators. And our players [the returning ones] are 4-8 players. So we all have to own that and we have to make everything competitive.” Clawson called it a, “Very healthy exercise,” to reflect back on how you got to be 4-8 after the seven-year run the program had.
So, while the new era starts with a cleaned-off dry-erase board, just maybe the little notation of 4-8 stays in the lower corner as a reminder. But as the new world order begins in Winston-Salem, the rest of the board appears to have been wiped clean.