2023 Preseason Opponent Preview: Wake Forest

In 2021, Wake Forest tied a program record with 11 wins and made an ACC championship appearance but fell to Pittsburgh. Heading into 2022, Sam Hartman was back for what felt like his 10th year as the Demon Deacons quarterback. After starting 6-1, with their only loss to Clemson in double overtime, Wake fell apart, finishing the season 2-4.

Looking at 2023, Sam Hartman, who is Wake Forest’s all-time passing leader with 12,974 yards and 110 touchdowns, hit the portal and is now at Notre Dame. Whether they can win without Hartman will be Wake’s biggest storyline for 2023. Wake Forest has had only three winning seasons in the ten years before Hartman arrived. They still have some talented pieces on this roster, so there’s no guarantee they will fall off a cliff, but Hartman certainly leaves big shoes to fill.

Mitch Griffith (71.6 PFF) steps in at quarterback with only 56 career passing attempts. Griffith got his first start last year against Virginia Military Institute before Hartman returned from injury. He threw for 288 yards and 3 touchdowns, but keep in mind that VMI was a 1-win FCS team that was blown out six times last year. Griffith’s biggest sample size against a Power 5 team was Louisville, with nine attempts for 39 yards. He threw for 1 touchdown, 1 interception and was sacked twice in 13 dropbacks. Hartman also had running ability topping 300+ yards in 3 of his 5 seasons. So far, with limited sample size, Griffith doesn’t appear to be on that level yet, with 2.6 YPC on seven carries.

Wake Forest has another big pair of shoes to fill as they lose 1st-team All-ACC WR AT Perry, who put up back-to-back 1k-yard seasons. Perry led the team in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns the past two years. The loss of Perry and Hartman is going to be tough to replace. They also lost TE Blake Whiteheart (64.5 PFF), who started 12 games last year.

However, Wake still has a depth of talent at the receiver position and brings back four receivers who topped the 500-yard mark last year. Donovan Greene (70.6 PFF) was their #2 with 642, Jahmal Banks (77.8 PFF) was #3 with 636, Taylor Morin (78.1 PFF) was #4 with 575, and Ke’Shawn Williams (74.8 PFF) had 553 at #5. They also added Tennessee transfer Walker Merrill, but he only had 8 receptions for 116 yards last season.

Wake Forest used a two-running back system last season with Justice Ellison (77.3 PFF) and Christian Turner. Ellison led the team in rushing yards with 707 (4.16 YPC) and is back for 2023. Meanwhile, Turner had 516 yards but led in rushing touchdowns with 7. However, Turner and their #3 RB Quinton Cooley (246 yards, 3 TDs) both hit the portal. Ellison will be the primary back with three inexperienced backups.

The offensive line is a similar story losing some of their more talented pieces with 2nd team All-ACC OG Sean Maginn and two 13-game starters departing. (OT & OG) However, the two returning starters, C Michael Jurgins (66.7 PFF) and DeVonte Gordon (72.2 PFF), were All-ACC honorable mentions last year. They also have OT Spencer Clapp, who did not start but played over 350 snaps in 2022. Wake has three experienced players to build around, but losing three quality starters up front will be hard to replace.

Wake Forest has been a team that has relied on their offense a majority of the time, often winning high-scoring shootouts. While they still have talented pieces to work with, they only return 38% of their yardage from 2022 and lost a lot of veteran impact players. Its not crazy to think this offense is going to take a step back in 2023 unless Mitch Griffith has some kind of breakout season.

2023 Wake Forest Football Schedule

As we just discussed, Wake Forest’s offense has typically been its strength and last year was no different. The Demon Deacons finished 16th in scoring offense but 81st in scoring defense. Wake has not finished in the top 70 in scoring defense since 2016 when, now Duke HC, Mike Elko was their DC.

In the trenches, Wake loses 5 of their top 6 players who combined for 46 starts, including 3rd team All-ACC DT Kobe Turner, who wasn’t listed as a starter but played in all 13 games. They bring back DE Jasheen Davis (74.9 PFF), who started the final 5 games and led the team in sacks (7), and Kendron Wayman (69.0 PFF), who started the bowl game. Wake did add a Villanova transfer with 11 starts, but this group took a big hit to its depth and experience.

At linebacker, Wake lost their team leader in tackles, Ryan Smenda, who finished last season with the third-highest number of tackles in the ACC at 117. Wake also lost a pair of NBs that started 12 games last year. Unlike on the defensive line, they get some production back for 2023 despite all the losses. Their #2 tackler Chase Jones (69.5 PFF) and Eldrick Robinson, who was OFY after 2 games last season but started nine at Georgia Southern in 2021, are both back. They also added a 3x All-Conference FCS player from NC A&T. 

Despite facing a 1 win FCS team and three teams that finished 99th or lower in passing offense, Wake Forest passing defense was 115th in the country last year. Besides losing a CB who led the team in PBUs and two depth pieces, Wake brings back the other three starters. They should be more experienced this year, but Wake historically has struggled to acquire a lot of defensive talent. 

If they have a year like they typically do on defense and the offense isn’t there to bail them out, it could make for a long year hence their win projection only being at six games

Wake Forest has done impressively well the past few years, considering they are the smallest Power 5 school in the country. They have found success running their “slow-mesh” offense which is one of the weirdest and most frustrating offenses to watch. The Demon Deacons are on a three-game winning streak against FSU and get the Noles at home this year. However, as much credit as Wake deserves for winning 11 games a year ago, a lot gets attributed to Sam Hartman. It’s always challenging to replace the leading passer in school history, especially when you pair that with big losses at WR, RB, and on defense. We have learned you can never count Wake out, but I think the losses will be too much to overcome.

I did a podcast episode last year detailing how Wake Forest was one of the most experienced teams in the ACC while FSU was the least experienced. Those tables have now turned for Wake Forest. FSU will get Wake during a tough stretch of games too. They could start 4-0 with their toughest game being against Vanderbilt, but then it’s, at Clemson, at VT, home vs. Pitt and FSU, then back on the road for a short week matchup with Duke on the Thursday night after FSU.

While FSU cannot overlook the Demon Deacons, I think the Noles will get revenge this year and snap that 3 game skid.

Thanks for reading! Go Noles!

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