The Clemson Insider recently caught up with John Dell to get some insight on Wake Forest ahead of Clemson’s game against the Demon Deacons. Dell covers Wake Forest football for the Winston-Salem Journal.
Dell hit on a number of topics during the following question-and-answer session, including quarterback Sam Hartman’s incorporation back into the offense, the defense’s performance under the direction of a new coordinator and more heading into Saturday’s game at Truist Field.
Note: This interview was edited for clarity
Given the anticipation surrounding this game between a pair of ranked teams in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, what kind of crowd and environment are you expecting Clemson to be walking into Saturday?
I anticipate about 33,000 or 34,000 people to be there. There are about 1,000 tickets left (as of late Wednesday afternoon). So there’s definitely some excitement with Clemson coming in. And I kid people that Clemson is bringing their varsity (team). They’re not bringing their JV.
Sam Hartman had a medical scare that required surgery last month, but now he’s back leading Wake’s offense. How has he looked in the two games he’s played?
I kind of joked that these first three games were the exhibition season for Wake Forest before Clemson came to town. But they faced a little adversity with Sam missing about a month of the season – preseason and the first game – with that blood clot in his left arm. He had surgery on it, and it was kind of a big stroke of luck that the vascular surgeon here at the Wake Forest medical center (Dr. Julie Freischlag) is like one of the best in the world at doing this. She kind of helped him move along a lot quicker, and he’s looked pretty good. I know last week he wasn’t happy because he threw three touchdown passes, but he had two interceptions. And they didn’t move the ball as well as they would’ve liked and of course had to scramble to beat Liberty. But I know he kind of rebounds really well after a game where he doesn’t play well, so I expect him to be at his top form on Saturday.
How is the offense different with a multi-year starter like Hartman at the controls than with the other quarterbacks on the roster?
I think what sets (Hartman) apart is what they do with that funky offense with the run-pass option, kind of putting the ball in the breadbasket and seeing what the defense is doing. He’s really good with that. They don’t do it as much as people say, and I think (Wake Forest coach Dave) Clawson pointed that out at his recent press conference. They’re not doing that every play where they kind of let the defense dictate if Sam throws it or he gives it off to the running back.
But Sam just has a full grasp of the offense. He’s a redshirt junior and actually could come back again next year, but I think this is his last year. He’s thrown for 10,000 yards and, in school history, is the leading passer. He even passed Riley Skinner. He just looks so comfortable running this offense, and he’s got three, four or five outstanding receivers and a really good tight end in Blake Whiteheart. So he’s got a lot of weapons, and I really think this offense that he has this year is even better than last year’s when they averaged more than 41 points per game.
Speaking of that extended mesh point Wake Forest likes to implement, Clemson’s defensive front had a lot of success last season disrupting it. Do you anticipate Wake’s offense trying to use it as much this year considering the front seven they’re going up against?
I’m not sure exactly what kind of look they’re going to give, but I know for a fact that Warren Ruggiero, the offensive coordinator, in these first three games, did not show much. They were pretty vanilla in all three games. I don’t know if they have anything special planned, but it’s a pretty well-rounded offense. They were a little upset last week that they couldn’t run the ball very well. They weren’t very balanced, and I think that’s something they’re trying to get for this week. But against a Clemson defense that’s always good, it’s not always easy to be balanced between the run and the pass. I think it will just be dictated by how the game goes as to what you might see from Wake’s offense.
Switching to defense, how is Wake’s different under first-year coordinator Brad Lambert?
Well Brad was there during the Jim Grobe era when they won the ACC in 2006, so he’s been around. I think they’re playing well and playing a little better than last year. One of the things is the linebackers are a little better, and (defensive end) Rondell Bothroyd, that’s the guy that kind of stirs the drink. He’s really good on the defensive line. Kobie Turner is another guy, a transfer from Richmond. He’s done very well on the defensive line. I think the linebackers are playing a little better. And wait until you see Malik Mustapha. He’s a hard-hitting defensive back and had a great game last week against Liberty. He’s definitely somebody you notice in the defense. So they are playing a little bit better. They created four turnovers against Liberty last week, a good offense. And that pretty much won the game for them. So they are better I think defensively than last year.
It’s a little bit of the same scheme, but I know they’ve kind of moved some parts in and out. They lost Coby Davis, a real good nickel back. But they’ve got some guys to replace him. He’s out for the year, but other than that, they’ve stayed relatively healthy.
One stat that jumps off the page for Wake’s defense is holding offenses to a 20% conversion rate on third down. That’s seventh-best in the country. How are they doing it?
I think one of the things is they’re having success on first down. And I think that kind of leads to them on third down where it’s third-and-8 or third-and-9 instead of third-and-2. I think they’re doing a little bit better out of the gate on that. And I think you and I can kind of be honest, this is going to be big-boy football on Saturday. I think the other three games by each team have been like, all right, let’s see what we can do. And I know coaches don’t like to hear that, but I think this is definitely going to be a true test for both teams to see kind of where they are right now.
If there’s someone outside of the usual suspects who could be an X-factor for Wake on Saturday, who is it?
I kind of lean toward Blake Whiteheart, the tight end. He’s a really good combination of a blocker and wide receiver. They really haven’t thrown to the tight end much, and I know there are a few plays in some packages with the tight end. Blake is such a good receiver, and he’s just elevated his game every year. I just think he might be the guy on offense to, all of a sudden, have seven, eight, nine catches or something. I just think one of these games, he’s going to break out.
So how can Wake make this a more competitive game than its four-touchdown loss at Clemson last year?
I know (Clemson quarterback) D.J. (Uiagalelei) has lost some weight, and I know he’s looking a lot better. I know Clawson was raving about him. Clawson also said that they couldn’t tackle him last year, and I’m like, well, he’s 40 pounds lighter so maybe they can’t tackle him this year either. But I just think if they get him off his read, I think he struggles a little bit if his first guy isn’t open. I’m no football expert, but if his first guy is covered, then I think he kind of freelances a little bit. And I think that’s where at least Wake can stay with them. I don’t think he’s as good throwing on the run as obviously Trevor (Lawrence) was. I don’t know if anyone was better than him. I just think if they can get him off his first look, then Wake’s got a chance to maybe disrupt that offense a little bit.
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