Wake Forest will need youngsters to shine again in ACC opener

Receiver Greg Dortch among the underclassman who helped Demon Deacons to opening win

Wake Forest Demon Deacons wide receiver Greg Dortch (89) celebrates a touchdown with his team during their 51-7 win over Presbyterian Aug. 31 at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM — Wake Forest’s 51-7 rout of Presbyterian on Thursday was little more than a glorified scrimmage.

And that’s exactly what coach Dave Clawson was hoping it would be.


Although the win will count on the Deacons’ record and represents a head start in getting them back to a bowl for the second straight season, the mismatch against an underwhelming FCS opponent was most beneficial for reasons beyond the result. Among them were the coordination it helped build among a coaching staff featuring four new members and the game experience it provided for a number of young players.

“When you play a game like that, that you should win, you just want to come out clean and not beat yourself,” Clawson said. “I thought we did that in the first half and the good thing was that we got to play a lot of kids in the second half.”

The most impressive of those youngsters didn’t have to wait until the score got lopsided and Clawson began emptying his bench to make an impression.

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Redshirt freshman Greg Dortch created a buzz on the season’s opening possession when he returned a Presbyterian punt 23 yards with a burst of speed down the near sideline. His second punt return was even more electric, a 29-yarder in which he pinballed off several would-be tacklers, changed directions and burst to daylight.

The 5-foot-9, 165-pound Virginia native also showed off his receiving skills by taking a short slant across the middle from John Wolford into the end zone from seven yards out, then losing his defender with a double move to get wide open for a 42-yard bomb from backup Kendall Hinton.

“We’ve not had a lot of explosive plays here that you throw the ball short and it becomes a long play,” Clawson said. “Greg can get behind people, he can double move people, even some of the six- and seven-yard plays he had on screens, those could have been one- or two-yard plays. He makes people miss and gets us positive yards. It was a really good debut for him.”

It would have been even better if not been for a holding penalty on the second half kickoff that nullified his 96-yard touchdown return.

“It’s all right,” he said confidently. “I’ll get another one.”

While Dortch’s breakout performance may have served to introduce him for the first time to both fans and the rest of the teams on the Deacons’ schedule, it was hardly a surprise to his coaches and teammates.

Or himself.

Asked if he was at all surprised by the way he played and the contribution he made, Dortch answered simply, “No.

“I’ve been working my tail off for this past year-and-a-half for this opportunity,” he said. “I’m thankful to the coaching staff for putting me in the position I was in.”

Dortch was hardly the only newcomer who took advantage of his chance to shine in the lopsided opening night victory.

Another speedy redshirt freshman, Arkeem Byrd, showed flashes of an explosiveness in the running game Wake hasn’t had in recent momory by leading the team with 75 rushing yards on just seven carries.

The majority of those yards came on a 51-yard sprint on which he appeared to be shot out of a catapult as he hit the hole on a trap play.

“He took off like a dart,” Clawson said. “That was really impressive.”

Though Wake’s second-leading rusher in the game wasn’t as flashy as Byrd, Isaiah Robinson’s 12-carry, 49-yard effort was perhaps even more encouraging since the redshirt sophomore who won the starting job in 2015 is coming off a leg injury that sidelined him all last year.

On the offensive line, sophomore center Nathan Gilliam drew praise from Clawson, as did redshirt freshman tackle Je’Vionte’ Nash. Defensively, sophomore linebacker Justin Strnad intercepted a pass in the first half, then made a key stop behind the line on a fourth-and-one play to keep Presbyterian from scoring late in the third quarter.

But it wasn’t just the youngsters who got a chance to get onto the field and showcase their skills. Returning to action after extended absences, quarterback Hinton and defensive tackle Zeek Rodney were among those that also got a chance to work out some kinks and regain confidence before the first real test of the new season — on the road Saturday against ACC Atlantic Division rival Boston College.

Rodney, who returned to school in June after taking a year off to address “personal issues,” had a sack and a tackle-for-loss in his first game in over a season.

Hinton, who suffered a season-ending knee injury the third week of last season, was even more productive by completing seven of his eight passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Known primarily for his running ability, the redshirt sophomore showed off a strong, accurate arm Thursday — highlighted by a perfectly placed 29-yard strike to Alex Bachman in the corner of the end zone just before halftime.

“It’s a good thing for this team when both of us are playing well,” starter Wolford said.

Especially since the level of competition is about to be raised, which is why as happy as Clawson was about the way his team started the season Thursday, he’s not about to get carried away over it.

“We’ve got 11 more games here that will be tough games,” he said. “It’s not only how you do in one game, but how do you sustain it for a 12-, hopefully 13-, 14-game season.”