One of the first lessons I learned as a pup starting out in the sportswriting business all those many years ago was to avoid cliches.
What I wasn’t told is that cliches are unavoidable.
In defense of cliches, if they didn’t contain at least a kernel or three of truth they wouldn’t have been repeated often enough to become cliches. And even if they didn’t, coaches quotes are the mothers’ milk of any beat reporter, and I never in my time met a coach would could avoid making a point in the same wording it had been made countless times before.
Dave Clawson is hardly the first coach to maintain that he wasn’t out to build just a team; his goal was, instead, to build a program. And he certainly won’t be the last.
Pay attention and you’re liable to hear the same words spoken dozens and dozens of times this preseason alone.
Four years into his stay at Wake, Clawson has proven he can build a competitive team. He proved it twice, in 2016 and 2017, with both teams closing winning seasons with resounding bowl victories.
The case can even be made that Clawson has proven he can build a program. He certainly did so at Richmond, and again at Bowling Green.
The looming question, of course, is has he done enough to build a program even at Wake Forest? My sense is that, yes, Clawson has indeed succeeded where so many who came before failed.
But those looking for confirmation may be holding out to see what happens in year five, which begins tomorrow morning with the first practice of preseason.
The personnel losses from last season’s 8-5 edition would be enough to send most of the gains from past rebuilding efforts swirling down the drain. Gone, of course, is quarterback John Wolford, the heart and soul of Clawson’s first four Wake teams. No one is irreplaceable, but John Wolford comes as close as any Wake player I can name since maybe Riley Skinner.
Others who left the college playing field for the last time after the 55-52 Belk Bowl victory over Texas A&M include tight end Cam Serigne, defensive ends Duke Ejiofor and Wendell Dunn, linebackers Jaboree Williams and Grant Dawson, kicker Mike Weaver and even safety Jessie Bates III, the first Wake player ever to leave college for professional football after his sophomore season.
I added them all up, and if my public-school education hasn’t failed me, that’s a total of 275 career starts right there.
Exacerbating the loss of Wolford was the off-season news that his heir apparent, Kendall Hinton, will be suspended for the first three games of the season for the ubiquitous “violation of team rules.’’ So whoever starts the Aug. 30 opener against Tulane – be it redshirt sophomore Jamie Newman or freshman Sam Hartman – will be starting for the first time since high school.
Before Jim Grobe, success was always frustratingly fleeting at Wake. The conventional wisdom was that a coach might be able to keep a core of players long enough to make a little noise for a season or two, but eventually the loss of those players would relegate the Deacons back to their customary spot at the bottom looking up.
The reasons I think the success Clawson has built can be sustained are three-fold.
First, he and his staff have recruited aggressively, and they’ve recruited well. What more proof do we need than the influx of such game-changers as Greg Dortch and Scotty Washington and Chuck Wade and Essang Bassey and Matt Colburn and Cade Carney, not to mention such potential game-changers are Newman and Hartman and Sage Surratt and Boogie Basham and Coby Davis and Christian Beal and Jeff Burley and Chase Monroe and Sulaiman Kamara and Mike Allen?
If the game-changers continue to change games and the potential game-changers prove they can as well, the Deacons won’t be lacking for ACC talent.
Second, Clawson and his staff have proven to me that they know what to do with talent good enough to compete with the teams on their schedule.
But my prediction that Wake is gearing up for its third straight-winning season – which has been done only once since the ACC began – is based mainly on the old slogan for the cigarette that helped make our fair burg famous.
It’s what’s up front that counts.
And up front on offense Wake has the fruits of Clawson’s unrelenting efforts to build from scratch an offensive line that is the envy of other teams in the ACC. It was a long, arduous process that I was there to watch, as Clawson and his coaches bit a whole bandolero of bullets in half while playing offensive linemen too young, too inexperienced and too overmatched physically to block those they had been assigned to block.
But over time – in this case three seasons – those young linemen, Justin Herron, Phil Hayes, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Osterhage and Jake Benzinger, grew and continued to grow into grizzled, physically imposing players with a very grand total of 123 starts among them.
The surest way to control a game of college football is with a dominant offensive line that allows a coach to dictate and not always be in a position of having to react. Rarely do you see a losing team with a strong offensive line, and I don’t expect to see one this season at Wake.