Deacons face the unknown in opener against ODU

The Monarchs haven’t played a game since November 2019 after opting out of the 2020 season

Coach Dave Clawson enters his eighth season at Wake Forest looking to get the Demon Deacons back to its winning ways after going 4-5 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. (Adrian Kraus / AP Photo)

Wake Forest is excited about playing its first football game after a long offseason on Friday.

The Deacons’ level of anticipation, however, pales compared to that of its opening night opponent, Old Dominion, which is even more excited about getting back onto the field after multiple offseasons.

It’s been 641 days since the Monarchs played their most recent game, a 38-22 loss to Charlotte on Nov. 30, 2019.

The long layoff is the result of ODU’s decision to join UConn and New Mexico State as the only FBS programs to opt out last season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our team has been waiting a long time for this game,” Monarchs coach Ricky Rahne said. “They’re ready to go. I’m sure the next (few) days are going to seem like forever for the players. It’s going to go too quickly for our coaches.”

Aside from the urgency of game week, ODU’s staff has already had plenty of time to prepare for Friday’s opener at Truist Field. The game will be Rahne’s first since being hired by the Conference USA school nearly two years ago.

That newness, combined with the Monarchs’ addition of five transfer starters, has made the job of preparing for the game more difficult than usual for Wake coach Dave Clawson.

“It’s an interesting opener when you play a team who hasn’t played football in two years,” Clawson said Monday at his first weekly press conference of the new season. “There’s a lot of guesswork that goes into this.”

The Deacons and Monarchs were originally scheduled to meet in Norfolk during the opening week of last season before ODU made its decision not to play.

With no current video to scout, Clawson has had to rely on history to get at least some idea of what to expect from the Deacons’ first opponent. That includes watching games involving Penn State, where Rahne was offensive coordinator.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that ODU has not listed a starting quarterback on the depth chart it released Monday, leaving it up in the air as to whether Central Florida transfer D.J. Mack, redshirt freshman Hayden Wolff or senior Stone Smartt will be under center for the first snap.

The situation is at least somewhat like the one Wake faced in 2016 when it faced Tulane in the first game with its new staff.

“You had Willie Fritz, who had great success at Georgia Southern,” Clawson said. “Was he going to keep the Georgia Southern offense or is he going to adapt something new? Who is the quarterback? The gamesmanship of listing three quarterbacks … it’s not just what are they doing, but who are they doing it with? Whether it’s Smartt, Wolff or Mack, different parts of that Penn State offense will be emphasized.”

Regardless of the scheme and personnel employed by the Monarchs, Clawson said it’s more important for his team to execute its game plan and avoid the kind of mistakes that often make the difference in opening week games.

“We’re unsure what we’re going to see on offense and defense, but I know we’re going to have to play well and execute,” the Deacons coach said. “That’s the challenge in front of us. We have to make sure we take care of our execution and focus on us as we figure out what we’re doing. That puts the pressure on us as a staff to adjust appropriately.”

Wake returns a veteran team, especially on offense with the return of starting quarterback Sam Hartman, leading rusher Christian Beal-Smith and top receiver Jaquarii Roberson. Although the defense lost pass-rushing ace Carlos “Boogie” Basham to the NFL, there’s plenty of experience to go around there as well.

For the first time in recent memory, depth shouldn’t be an issue for the Deacons thanks to the presence of nine “Corona seniors” who decided to come back for the extra year of eligibility granted to all players by the NCAA to make up for a 2020 season disrupted by COVID-19.

“Our guys are excited to play. They’re excited to have somewhat of a more normal season,” Clawson said. “We had a good fall camp. Everybody has a good fall camp. We’re all undefeated now.

“Not too many coaches do their opening game press conference and say their camp was awful, so I’ll join in on the cliches and say we had a good camp. We’re going to see how good that camp was in the next 12 to 13 weeks.”