Future looks bright for Wake Forest

The Gator Bowl and ACC Atlantic Division champs remain a good bet in 2022

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson gets a Gatorade bath after the Demon Deacons defeated Rutgers 38-10 in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 31 in Jacksonville, Florida. (PJ Ward Brown / North State Journal)

Wake Forest beat Rutgers 38-10 in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Eve to cap an 11-3 record, matching the best season in program history.

The Demon Deacons won the Atlantic Division, advancing to their second-ever ACC Championship Game and first since Wake won the league in 2006.

The Deacs were able to break Clemson’s stranglehold on one of the ACC’s two divisions, becoming the first Atlantic team other than the Tigers to play in the title game in seven years. Wake was also the first Atlantic Division team outside of Clemson or Florida State to play in the game since 2008.

Was Wake’s year a one-time magical season, or can the Deacs expect to again compete for the league title and a major bowl bid?

Sam I am

The biggest thing Wake has going for it heading into next season is the return of Sam Hartman.

Hartman emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, completing 58.9% of his passes for 4,228 yards — the fifth-most in ACC history — and 39 touchdowns. He averaged 8.3 yards per attempt and was second in the nation in big plays — passes of more than 30 yards. Hartman also rushed for 11 touchdowns and ran the Wake Forest RPO offense like a master. He joined Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson as the only quarterbacks in ACC history to be responsible for 50 touchdowns in a season.

Hartman could have left for the NFL Draft following his fourth season in Winston-Salem, but he instead announced on Instagram that he’d be back, posting, “One more year.”

Other attrition

Hartman will be missing one of his top targets next season. Wide receiver Jaquarii Roberson announced he was leaving for the NFL and opted out of the Gator Bowl to prepare.

Roberson finished with 17 receiving touchdowns, seventh-most in Wake Forest history. His 1,078 yards this season were also third-best in school history.

Wake lost another offensive weapon when running back Christian Beal-Smith entered the transfer portal a few days after the Gator Bowl. Beal-Smith led Wake with 604 yards and seven rushing touchdowns this year and has 1,871 yards and 14 scores in his career.

Despite those losses, Wake looks loaded at both spots heading into next year. A.T. Perry had a breakout season as a sophomore, setting the school single-season record with 14 touchdowns. He also produced the second-most receiving yards in a season in school history.

Wake should also get back Donavon Greene, who missed 2021 with an injury. As a redshirt freshman in 2020, he had 582 yards on 29 catches, including a two-touchdown, 170-yard day against North Carolina.

The running back cupboard also looks stocked heading into 2022. Justice Ellison rushed for 541 yards this year with seven touchdowns and averaged 5.1 yards per rush. Christian Turner added 506 yards and five touchdowns.

Young and strong

The offensive line should return intact. None of the 10 players listed on Wake’s two-deep were seniors, and the group included five true or redshirt freshmen.

The team will add Je’Vionte’ Nash to the mix. Nash, a veteran of 38 games for the Deacs and the team’s starting right tackle in 2020, missed the entire 2021 season due to injury.

Changes at the top on defense

While Wake Forest’s offensive machine looks like it will keep right on running, the defense could have a new look next season.

Lyle Hemphill, a member of Clawson’s Wake staff since 2017 and the team’s defensive coordinator since 2018, left the Deacs to take a job at Duke, making the rare move to a conference rival, where he won’t have a coordinator position.

When Wake struggled in the first quarter against Rutgers, Clawson joked, “I was going to fire our defensive coordinator, but that was me.”

Clawson, an offensive coach for most of his career, will bring in a new coordinator who will inherit a Wake defense that ranked in the top-10 nationally in takeaways this season.

The biggest losses for Wake’s defense on the field look to be linebacker Luke Masterson and corner Ja’Sir Taylor, both super seniors this year.

The team returns plenty of talent, however, including linebacker Ryan Smenda and safety Nick Anderson. A total of six defensive starters and nine backups were underclassmen this year.

Mr. Automatic

Nick Sciba rewrote the record books as Wake’s kicker for the last four years, becoming the all-time leading scorer in school history and the second most accurate field goal kicker in NCAA history.

Thanks to the extra year afforded by last year’s pandemic-impacted season, Sciba is expected to return next year to add to his legacy.

The transfer portal and the prospect of the draft could change the picture of Wake’s roster quickly, but at the moment things appear bright for the Deacs heading into the year after their breakthrough season.