Watching Wake play football on television is, for the most part, a new experience.
Over my 25 seasons on the beat for the Winston-Salem Journal, I rarely missed a game live, and almost all the times I did came in recent campaigns when the Deacons’ fading late-season record and pressing budget issues kept me off the road.
So I’m having to get used to watching games like so many of the rest of you, camped out in front of my TV. A guy doesn’t do what I did for so long without retaining at least some interest, and this fall I’ve watched as closely as I could every game but one.
I missed the Utah State game because of a gig. The sun was shining, the crowd down at Salem Square was plenty big and enthusiastic enough, and I was sharing the bill with a couple of buddies, Randy Carter and Mike Baron. So, in truth, I didn’t really miss missing the Deacons’ 46-10 of the Aggies stomping much at all.
Rest assured I’ll be watching with intense interest when the Deacons play Louisville at BB&T Field tomorrow at 12:20. I can’t help but be a bit curious about whatever repercussions might take place from an episode that I, at least in a small way, helped wrought.
A few days after the Cardinals rallied to beat Wake 44-12 in Louisville last November I received an anonymous email. The writer, who I later determined to be a professor at Wake, was wondering if I had heard anything about Louisville knowing the Deacons’ plays in advance of the game.
Naturally I asked around, and sure enough, both Athletics Director Ron Wellman and Coach Dave Clawson revealed four days later that the university was investigating a possible security breach in the program that – as we all know by now – led to the Deacon Tower seat of Tommy Elrod, the former Wake quarterback and assistant coach who had, for the past three seasons, had been the color analyst for the IMG Sports broadcasts.
Within a news cycle or two, all hell broke loose and a new term had made its way into the national sports lexicon. The scandal was then, and will forever be known, as Wakeyleaks.
Clawson, in Tuesday’s media availability, downplayed the impact of what took place last November on Saturday’s game, and I suppose that makes sense. There’s little he can gain from making a big deal of the Cardinals’ transgressions – at least to anyone outside the Wake locker room.
Besides, he has other issues to consider, as football coaches always do. The Deacons, after bolting to a 4-0 record, have lost three in a row, and really need a victory with games at Notre Dame and Syracuse and visits from N.C. State and Duke remaining in the regular-season.
My last days as an everyday working (if it could be called that) sportswriter were spent this August watching the Deacons go through their preseason paces. Wakeyleaks gave Clawson the pretext to do what he had been itching to do since he arrived at Wake, which was to close practices. But he remained, thankfully, accommodating enough to allow Les Johns of Demon Deacons Digest and I watch the team come together during preseason – one of the few pastimes I find worth getting up before daybreak to do.
I’ll be watching the Wake-Louisville game tomorrow with the same pressing question I had all throughout August. Are the Deacons’ missing Zack Wary, and if so, how much?
Everyone knew there would be an adjustment to defensive coordinator Mike Elko leaving for Wake Forest, to be replaced by Jay Sawvel. But over the first seven games, the Deacons’ defense has held its own. Or at least it had before being rolled for 28 points in the final 31 minutes of last week’s 38-24 loss at Georgia Tech.
The Deacons were playing without defensive tackle Zeek Rodney at Tech, and I thought they could have used him. Rodney was welcomed back with open arms after his one-season sabbatical for personal reasons, and he became all-the-more invaluable after Chris Stewart – who, lest we forget, started 10 games in 2016 – was asked to leave the program for the ubiquitous violation of team rules.
But the biggest question I had about the defense this August concerned the inside linebacker corps of Grant Dawson and Jaboree Williams backed up by Justin Strnad.
It only stood to reason there might be some dropoff. For all that was lacking on the offensive side of the ball in Clawson’s first two seasons, it bears noting that in his first 24 games as head coach, Brandon Chubb and Marquel Lee started every game at linebacker. And Chubb was named first-team All-ACC in 2015 and Lee, a season later after Chubb had graduated, was named second-team All-ACC.
Dawson, originally a walk-on from Reagan High School, is a wonderful story, one I enjoyed writing at least four or five times for the Journal. And Williams has continued to put on weight and develop over his four seasons in the program.
So far I’ve been impressed with the defensive front anchored by ends Duke Ejiofor and Wendell Dunn. And I really like the secondary, especially Jessie Bates (and who doesn’t love Jessie Bates?) at safety and Amari Henderson at corner.
But no matter how hard I looked in August, and no matter how hard I’ve looked since, I haven’t seen anybody in any way resembling Brandon Chubb or Marquel Lee playing linebacker for the Deacons. I didn’t even see it last Saturday, when Dawson made a career-high 14 tackles at Tech.
Injuries are a part of the game, but I have to think one that set the program back was losing Wary, a linebacker from Rogers, Ark. before the start of last season. At 6-4, 235 pounds, Wary reminded me physically of Dustin Lyman of Boulder, Colorado, one of my favorites who was a first-team All-ACC linebacker for Jim Caldwell in 1999. And I know, from talking to Elko and Clawson, that the staff was excited to see what Wary could do.
As fate would have it, though, Wary was ruled medically ineligible going into the 2016 season. Reasons were undisclosed, but Wary had missed games as a redshirt freshman in 2015 because of concussion-like symptoms.
Maybe Wary would have been a bust. Some highly-touted players are. But as he watches the Deacon defenders chase Lamar Jackson around BB&T Field, you can bet Clawson wishes Zack Wary was doing at least some of the chasing.
Offensively I’ll be watching to see if the Deacons remember they have, in Cam Serigne, the best tight end in the history of the program with eligibility remaining.