Wake Forest Demon Deacons — 2020 Syracuse Football preview

Syracuse running back Dontae Strickland
Syracuse running back Dontae Strickland (4) rushes against Wake Forest. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will continue its 2020 ACC schedule on November 7 against Wake Forest.

Wake Forest head coach David Clawson has led the Demon Deacons to unprecedented success in recent years.

In 2019, Wake Forest played in its fourth consecutive bowl game (a loss to Michigan State in the Pinstripe Bowl) after finish the regular season 8-4, a first for the program. It was also the first time Wake Forest had notched four consecutive winning seasons since Peahead Walker (1937-50) was the coach.

Among other notable accomplishments included sweeping the Carolinas (NC State, Duke and UNC) for only the fourth time in history and landing in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2008.

The Deacs lose plenty of talent on the offensive line and return a defense that was only mediocre, but if younger players can fill into critical roles, Clawson’s squad could be in a position to go to the postseason for the fifth straight year.

LOSING SOME OFFENSIVE TALENT

The Deacons won eight regular season games largely on the strength of a powerful offense, which finished 15th in the FBS in total yardage. Dual-threat QB Jamie Newman was a huge part of that success, throwing for 2,800+ yards and rushing for another 500+ on the ground.

But Newman is off to play at Georgia, meaning that Clawson will turn to Sam Hartman, who has plenty of experience from starting as a true freshman in 2018. Hartman wasn’t perfect as a starter (55.3 completion percentage and eight interceptions), but now has three years in the Wake Forest system and should be markedly improved.

Hartman’s top target will be Sage Surratt, who was leading the nation in receiving yards through nine games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Despite missing the final four games of the season, he finished with 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns.

» Related: Previewing Syracuse’s matchup against Georgia Tech in October

Wake Forest is also high on Donavon Greene, who played in 2019’s final four games, with 13 receptions for 249 yards and two touchdowns. He was particularly effective in the season finale against Syracuse, catching seven passses for 172 yards and a score.

There is some question surrounding the running backs. Cade Carney exhausted his eligibility and with Newman off to Georgia, a majority of the Deacs’ rushing attack from last year is gone.

But Clawson will likely turn to Kenneth Walker III to pick up the rushing load. He’s coming off a season where he rushed for 579 yards and a score. He’ll have some support with Christian Beal-Smith (304 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns) and Kendrell Flowers returning. The Deacons also have a pair of talented incoming freshmen in three-star running backs Ahmani Marshall and Quinton Cooley.

REPLACING THE CORNERS

Newman leaving for Georgia was the top offseason headline for Wake Forest, but the departures that may make the most impact is in the defensive secondary.

All-ACC cornerback Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson are gone, taking a combined 80+ starts with them. Ja’Sir Taylor, who has started five games, is atop the depth chart, but there isn’t much experience behind that. Redshirt junior Tyriq Hardimon may get the starting role, having appeared in 16 games so far in his college career.

That means that Wake Forest will need to rely on its defensive line, which returns all four starters from 2019. They’re led by First-Team All ACC performer Carlos Basham Jr., who finished second in the ACC in sacks (11) and TFL (18). At the other end spot, redshirt sophomore JaCorey Johns is coming off a season where he made 11 starts and 692 snaps.

The Deacs also return Ryan Smenda Jr. and Ja’Cquez Williams at the linebacker positions.

A FIFTH STRAIGHT BOWL?

The Deacons are in the hunt for a fifth straight bowl game, and despite a loss of talent, Clawson’s team appears poised to meet that mark. Wake Forest should open the season with plenty of momentum, with its first three games against Old Dominion, App. State and Villanova.

Still, a non-conference game against Notre Dame in the fourth game will be tough, and its Coastal crossover game against Miami is no cakewalk. But during the last four years, Clawson has had at least three ACC wins each season, and it’s hard to bet against him at this point.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2597 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also worked for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChengWes.