WINSTON-SALEM – As enthusiastic as Dave Clawson was about taking over as the Wake Forest football coach last December, he also knew he was already way behind in one aspect: recruiting.
Clawson had six weeks total, and from Dec. 16 to Jan. 15, he and his staff were prohibited by the NCAA mandated “dead period” from doing in-person visits. He also knew he needed to land at least a few players who could contribute right away at key positions.
“Recruiting is about relationships, and we were certainly at a disadvantage,” he said. “We feel we are even playing catch up with the 2015 class.”
So with that short period to recruit, plus obstacles like being stuck in Atlanta during the snowstorm, it’s a bit amazing that Clawson’s first class has generated so much enthusiasm from the Wake Forest fanbase.
Part of it was Clawson’s aggressive approach: He made no excuses for Wake Forest’s size or academic reputation, embracing them as his staff targeted a short list of talented players.
“It’s not a situation where we have to take what’s left,” he said. “We can beat good schools on good players here. This is not a group where we’re a backup (school).
“We made the decision that these are the guys that we want, and if we don’t get them, we’ll just roll the scholarship over to next year. We weren’t going to reach on a guy we didn’t know enough about just to fill a spot.”
That included going right after players who had already committed to other schools. The Deacons closed strong, getting nine commitments in the final week, including five players who flipped from other schools (three in one day), a player who was offered by two SEC schools at the same time as Wake Forest and one of the top kickers in the country.
“If you just look at the opportunities that some of these players had, I think we finished extremely strong,” he said. “I also wholeheartedly believe if you give our staff a whole year to recruit it’ll even get better. I’m more optimistic about what can be accomplished here after the last month than I was when I took the job.”
Overall, the flipped list included: Justin Herron (OL, Rutgers), Kameron Uter (WR, Vanderbilt), Devin Pike (TE, Louisville), Rashawn Shaw (DL, Louisville), Travis Smith (QB, Toledo), John Wolford (QB, East Carolina) and Willie Yarbary (DL, Indiana).
“We saw opportunities to go after players where maybe some of these relationships were broken,” Clawson said. “If there was change in head coaches, a change in coordinators, a change in position coach, perhaps that would give a young man a reason to open his recruiting up.”
Despite Clawson and his staff being on the road so much, they clearly have already formed a bond with the current team that paid off in recruiting. Yarbary and Smith were among several who praised the unity between players and coaches and the family atmosphere.
“Wake Forest just blew my mind. Everything was first class,” Smith said. “The coaches were great, and the players I met were really buying into the program.
“They didn’t get recruited by them, and they already love those coaches and are buying into it. They told me they’re working twice as hard as they ever did with their old coaching staff. It really shows how good those coaches are to go into a new place with players they’ve never even met and get them to accept what you want them to do.”
The class was diverse by position and geography. Clawson said that since he didn’t know a lot about the current players, his plan was to sign a football team. He succeeded, adding 26 players who span every position on the field and who come from 12 states. Only four were from North Carolina, and all of them committed to the previous staff.
Clawson said that because of Wake Forest’s smaller recruiting pool, he would not hesitate to go across the country to recruit.
“We certainly think it’s a necessity to do a great job in our backyard,” Clawson said. “We want to get as many as we can, but we’re not going to dip the standard to stay in state, either.”
Key positions going into recruiting were both lines, quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
The Deacons signed five offensive linemen and four defensive linemen. The offensive line has been an issue for several years now, and while this group might all redshirt, two signees are already enrolled: Ryan Anderson (6-6, 280) and Nick Luedeke (6-5, 245).
Defensive line was a much bigger issue. Not only did all three starters graduate, but Clawson will move to using four in his new defense. Shaw (pass-rushing end) and Isaiah “Zeek” Rodney (tackle) are candidates to play right away, and Rodney could be a real sleeper. He dominated as a junior (26 sacks to be named defensive player of the year in South Carolina), but injuries slowed him as a senior.
At wide receiver, the Deacons lose all-everything Michael Campanaro, and only Tyree Harris and Jonathan Williams have distinguished themselves. The Deacons signed four players, at least two who could play this season: transfer E.J. Scott from Virginia and Uter.
Scott, who will likely will take over in the slot, caught 29 passes for a 13.4 average and three touchdowns in 2012. Uter (6-4, 215) will be a two-sport athlete, taking his 90-plus mph fastball to the baseball diamond.
The Deacons were woefully thin at quarterback after the departure of four-year starter Tanner Price. Clawson signed two players who will be right in the mix to start: Smith and Wolford. The only QBs in the program are sophomore Tyler Cameron, senior Patrick Thompson and redshirt freshman Michael Radford. Cameron and Thompson have thrown 37 passes, mostly in mop-up duty.
Smith (6-1, 210) was Mr. Football in Michigan and went 41-0 as a starter. Wolford set five Florida passing records, including the passing record held by Tim Tebow, and was a Parade All-American.
“Certainly quarterback is one of the more difficult positions to play as a true freshman, but you never say never,” Clawson said. “If that gives us the best chance to win, that’s what we’ll do.”
Running Backs Still Needed
Running back is a big problem area, and it could be the spot where Clawson fell short in this class. The Deacons are essentially down to one running back, Dominique Gibson, who was recruited as a safety. The only other back in the program, Dez Wortham, tore his ACL as a senior in high school, then tore his Achilles’ tendon during his redshirt year at Wake Forest. He won’t be ready until the fall.
Clawson joked to reporters that if anyone had any eligibility left, he’d give them some carries in the spring. He also said two players had been moved to running back: Orville Reynolds, who started as a running back before moving to the slot, and James Ward, a defensive back.
The Deacons recruited a big back, Isaiah Robinson (5-10, 223), and a small one, Tyler Henderson (5-9, 180). Robinson might be able to contribute right away, as he’s a good blocker and pass catcher all ready. Henderson has 4.4 speed, but because of his size, he didn’t receive much recruiting attention. He could eventually turn into a slot receiver.
While Clawson had plenty of success, the numbers suggest he might have gone a bit overboard. Even after several players left the program because of off-field issues (running backs Deandre Martin and Josh Wilhite, receiver Sherman Ragland and tight end Anthony Rook), this class will bring the number of players in the program to 93 – eight over the NCAA limit.
Clawson skirted the issue at his press conference, saying only, “When fall starts, we’ll have 85.”
Who else will leave? Usually some redshirt seniors will graduate, and perhaps a player who hasn’t found his way, such as former quarterback prospect Kevin Sousa, could transfer.
The ultimate short-term story of this class, though, might not be what it can do on the field in the fall, but the fact that it continued the momentum of enthusiasm that Clawson’s hiring built with the fanbase, which had ground to a halt under former coach Jim Grobe.
Donors are lining up to be part of the program. Clawson praised several for allowing the staff to use their planes repeatedly during recruiting, saying that it would have been impossible to cover so much ground without them. The program has raked in more than $5 million in donations, led by $2 million from Alan Fox to start a new sports performance center.