Deacons OK being Atlantic Division’s underdog

Despite steady improvement under coach Dave Clawson and an 8-5 record last year, Wake Forest is still flying under the radar

Senior defensive lineman Willie Yarbary (48) will be among the veterans on the Wake Forest defense in 2018. (Jeremy Brevard / USA TODAY Sports)

CHARLOTTE — Perceptions can be changed, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

The Wake Forest football team was reminded of that Monday when the ACC’s preseason poll was announced and, as is often the case, the Deacons were picked to finish sixth in the seven-team Atlantic Division.

It didn’t matter that they won eight games in 2017 with the league’s highest-scoring offense or that they’ve vastly improved both their talent and depth over coach Dave Clawson’s four-year tenure. Even after going toe-to-toe with an SEC opponent in a Belk Bowl victory against Texas A&M, the Deacons clearly have more work to do before those outside the program finally begin to take it seriously.

“I remember one of my defensive line teammates last year, Wendell Dunn, said that people think of Wake Forest as ‘Little ‘Ol’ Wake Forest.’ But we have the highest expectation for ourselves,” senior defensive tackle Willie Yarbary said at the ACC’s Football Kickoff media event last week.

“Regardless of what other people think and say, we know who we are, and we have to keep showing people we can compete with anyone. That just takes time.”

No one understands that better than Clawson.

Having already turned programs at Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green around before being hired to lead Wake out of its doldrums, he knows from experience that sustaining success is just as important — and in many ways more difficult — than achieving it for the first time.

Especially when the margin for error is as thin as it is at the nation’s smallest Power Five school.

After eight straight losing seasons, including back-to-back 3-9 records in Clawson’s first two campaigns in Winston-Salem, the Deacons have been to bowls in each of the past two years.

“I think there’s more of a confidence level, but our players know how hard it was,” Clawson said of the steady progression. “Our players didn’t walk off the field after beating Texas A&M saying, ‘We’re world-beaters.’ That game could have gone either way. The NC State game could have gone either way. The Syracuse game could have gone either way. The Appalachian State game could have gone either way.

“We had some really close wins last year where if we have one more turnover, miss a field goal or don’t get the red zone touchdown now we’re here having finished 5-7 or 6-6. We’re better. We’re improved. There’s no question our talent level and depth is better, but I can’t get up, pound my fist and say, ‘Boy, we’re great and we’ve arrived.’”

That talent and depth will be tested this season as the Deacons look to replace four-year starting quarterback John Wolford on offense, and NFL draft picks Jesse Bates III and Duke Ejiofor on defense.

Compounding matters is that Wolford’s heir apparent, part-time starter Kendall Hinton, has been suspended for the first three games, forcing the Deacons to start the season with either redshirt sophomore Jamie Newman or true freshman Sam Hartman.

Clawson said he isn’t as concerned about the situation as some might be.

“That’s why you recruit and why you build depth,” he said.

Whoever ends up taking the first snap, he’ll have plenty of experience around to support him. The Deacons return eight starters on offense — including a veteran offensive line, potential 1,000-yard rusher Matt Colburn and explosive playmaking wide receiver Greg Dortch, now fully recovered from a punctured intestine.

And despite some significant losses on defense, there’s still enough talent remaining on that side of the ball to put together a representative unit.

No matter what others might think about this Wake team, senior offensive guard Phil Haynes said he and his teammates are highly motivated to build on the momentum of the past two seasons and keep their program headed in the right direction.

“We can’t be satisfied,” Haynes, a preseason All-ACC pick, said. “We want to keep feeling this way so we’ve got to keep working, keep getting better every day.”

It’s an approach that might someday help the Deacons finally earn the respect they believe they deserve. Until then, defensive lineman Yarbary thinks it could be to their advantage to have others continue looking at them as “Little Ol’ Wake Forest.”

“I think people still think some of the games were a fluke and we had redshirt seniors who contributed, so now that they’re gone it’ll go bad again,” Yarbary said. “I try not to let that bother me. I don’t worry about it.

“We’re very confident. That’s what people know now. That’s the standard. That’s what it takes to get to where we were. We’re just trying to continue to build and stay on the winning track.”