A Dark Cloud Gets Darker

College coaches are busy people. Regardless of the season, they rarely have time to waste.

So whenever the need arose to give Danny Manning or Dave Clawson a call in accordance with my duties as Wake beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, I made sure I asked at least two questions. If natural follow-up questions were in order, I’d follow up. But my main intention was to ask the two things that I – and the fans who followed Wake basketball or football – most needed to know.

What is your reaction to whatever it is I’m calling about? And what do you see as the impact on the program?

The tragic news that assistant basketball coach Jamill Jones, while in New York City, allegedly punched a man who ended up dead caught up with me in Boston, where my bride Tybee and I were visiting our daughter Rebecca and her beau/fiance Steve. For at least the hundredth time I was thanking my lucky stars that I retired last August and thus, was no longer responsible for chasing down the story

In incidents such as these, nobody wants to talk. Most good lawyers will maintain that in incidents such as these, nobody should talk — at least not on the record. The chances are far too great that they’ll end up saying something that, in time, they’ll wish they’d never said.

Best I can tell, no one has called Danny Manning for his reaction. If they have, I’ve seen no comments from Manning anywhere.

All of which is completely understandable.

Jones has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor assault. The New York Post is reporting that because the Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death of Sabor Szabo a homicide, that Jones might eventually be charged with murder.

The Post quotes Jones’ lawyer, Alain Massena, as casting doubt on that ever happening.

“I can tell you the reason why the charge is what it is now – the reason it’s the appropriate charge – is because the District Attorney’s Office and I obtained information that the public does not have,’’ Massena told the Post. “If we put all that information out there, I think it would put a different picture of that night. But our concern right now is to respect the fact that a family has lost a son.’’

The only official reaction from Wake Forest was to put Jones on leave and express the university’s heartfelt condolences to the Szabo’s family. And that will almost certainly be that until the facts emerge as to what really happened outside a Queens Hotel early Sunday morning of Aug. 5.

Police have said that Szabo banged on the window of Jones’ SUV, apparently mistaking the SUV for his Uber ride. The Associated Press reported on Aug. 10 that a person familiar with the investigation told the news organization that Szabo may have been drunk and knocking on car windows before Jones allegedly confronted him.

According to the AP report, police say that Jones got out of his vehicle, punched Szabo, and got back in his vehicle and sped off. Szabo was said to have fallen and hit his head, never to regain consciousness. He was taken off life support Tuesday.

The questions I have will remain questions until verifiable facts emerge. But one of the biggest is why did Jones, according to police, leave the scene? And why, if the incident took place in the early hours of Sunday, did almost five full days elapse before Jones turned himself in to police on Thursday?

Maybe there are reasonable explanations. I will certainly remain open to the possibility. But I can imagine that Ron Wellman, the director of athletics, feels the need to know the same answers before he and other officials at Wake decide Jones’ immediate professional fate and whether or not any additional actions might need to be taken.

Which brings us to the second question I always have in these circumstances. What will be the impact of all this on the Wake basketball program? I did see where Justin Bauman, the director of basketball operations the past four seasons, will expand his duties to include those of interim assistant coach.

I got to know Bauman well enough to think of him as a good man, and he’ll do the best job he’s capable of doing. But for the life of me, I can’t see how any impact on the Wake basketball program from all of this is going to be anything but decidedly negative.

There are plenty who love Wake basketball who are convinced that the program has been struggling under a dark cloud for many years now. Some even trace that struggle all the way back to another unspeakable tragedy, the death of Skip Prosser 11 summers ago.

The more cynical among the masses will maintain that little has gone right since Chris Paul punched Julius Hodge of N.C. State is a super sensitive area in the regular-season finale of the 2005 season – and then told us reporters on the scene that he did no such thing.

Obviously 13 seasons is a long time for a dark cloud to hover over any program. Unfortunately, for many reasons, the dark cloud has just this month gotten darker.

Much, much darker.

Wake Has a Lot on Line at Linebacker

Wake has waited a long time for Nate Mays to make a significant contribution to the Deacons’ football fortunes.

We’re all getting ready to find out if Mays – or make that Mays’ game – was worth the wait.

For all the attention being focused this preseason on the quarterback battle, and whether Jamie Newman or Sam Hartman will make their first college start in the Deacons’ Aug. 30 opener at Tulane, what happens at linebacker may end up having at least as big an impact on Wake’s chances at a third-straight winning season.

Brandon Chubb no longer plays linebacker at Wake, and hasn’t since his first-team All-ACC season of 2015. Marquel Lee no longer plays linebacker at Wake, and hasn’t since his second-team All-ACC season of 2016.

For that matter, Jaboree Williams and Grant Dawson are gone as well, having exhausted their eligibility last fall. Neither, as far as I heard, were ever mentioned for All-ACC honors, but they did both start all 13 games last season and finished second and third in total tackles.

There were a number of reasons Wake ranked 11th in the ACC last season with an average of 28.3 points allowed, and 14th by giving up 347.4 yards a game. The offense was explosive enough to obliterate the school record for points in a season, and thus Clawson wasn’t as bound and determined to keep the defense off the field as he had been the first three season.

But in watching Wake roll to an 8-5 season and second-straight bowl victory, I couldn’t help noticing the Deacons weren’t getting the same production at linebacker. That’s not as much a knock on Williams and Dawson – two gamers who gave their team pretty much all they had – as much as a recognition that Chubb and Lee were two of the best linebackers to ever play at Wake.

Now with Williams and Dawson departed, who steps up? The best bet, of course, is Justin Strnad, a redshirt junior who really came on last season – his first in the substitution rotation – but who, like Newman and Hartman, has yet to start in college.

My question all along on Strnad concerned his size, and whether he was big and strong enough to plug the middle. But he has steadily put on weight, and is now listed at 6-3, 230, up from 225 pounds last season and 220 two seasons ago.

But let’s say Strnad turns out to be the real thing, and has a great season. That still leaves Wake one short at linebacker, unless some inexperienced player makes the kind of splash it’s tough to expect an inexperienced player to make.

The candidates are Mays, DJ Taylor and Jake Simpson. Mays is a redshirt junior listed at 6-1, 225 pounds who logged all of 65 plays in the 2017 regular season while making all of three tackles. Taylor and Simpson are sophomores who played as first-year freshmen, though neither did much to distinguish themselves.

Simpson, listed at 6-0, 215, played in 12 games last season, making five tackles. Taylor, listed at 6-1, 230, played in five games, making five tackles.

Clawson is too good a coach not to project, and he could see he needed help at the position once Chubb, Lee, Williams and Dawson were done. And it’s not like he didn’t address the issue.

One possible solution should have been Zack Wary, a rangy 6-4, 225-pound linebacker who showed real promise while playing in eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2015. But Wary’s career was sidelined by injuries that remain undisclosed, though anyone following the program knows that Wary was battling concussion-like symptoms from his time on the field.

All along I thought two prime candidates would be Jeff Burley and Chase Monroe, two linebackers who signed to significant acclaim before last season. But linebacker is obviously a physically demanding position, and the reports from preseason are that Burley and Monroe are expected to miss the 2018 season with injuries that – stop me if you’ve heard this before – remain undisclosed.

Clawson, for the record, said the battle is among Mays, Simpson and Taylor to start alongside Strnad. Les Johns of DemonDeaconDigest reported that Mays and Taylor were getting first-team reps the first week of practice. But it also sounds like Clawson might have a Plan B, which would entail at least occasionally rotating Ja’Cquez Williams, a 6-2, 210-pound redshirt sophomore into the mix from his position as backup to Demetrius Kemp at rover.

“I think there’s clarity in who the candidates are and who’s going to play,’’ Clawson told Les and Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal. “I think the battle is how much are they going to play.

“The four guys who are going to play inside for us are going to be DJ and Nate and Justin and Jake. How much they’re going to play, what the distribution is. . . we’re getting Ja’Cquez some work in there. Those are the guys that are going to play.’’

If you pull for Wake, you’d better hope they not only play, but play well. The season just might depend on it.

Missing Preseason Camp

For the first time in what seems like forever, preseason football at Wake is preceding without me.

That means I’m left to gather information the same way as most of you reading this, by perusing the steady stream of camp accounts from Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest and Conor O’Neill of my long-time haunt, the Winston-Salem Journal – and checking in to see whatever the regulars on the message boards are bandying about.

And from all I can glean, Dave Clawson and company are getting along just fine without me.

The one question I get most since retiring going on 12 months ago is “do I miss being a sportswriter?’’ — the only profession I held from the time I graduated from college in 1974. The short answer is no. The newspaper industry imploded over my final years, and I rode the wreckage from the top floor right down the sidewalk. And by then I was long-since tired of plane flights, hotel rooms, rental cars, long solitary drives home through the dead of night, not to mention the ever-encroaching set of restrictions placed on my ability to do the job the way I had done it for the first 30 or so seasons.

By the time I hit 65, I was ready to retire. I knew it, and so did anybody and everybody who had to deal with me over those final years. I’ve not regretted my decision one moment.

I don’t miss attending games. I attended enough games.

But I do miss seeing so many good friends one gets to know over a long career, though, truth be told, so many of them had already reached the finish line – whatever form that might take – before me. And there are days and assignments that I look back upon fondly.

Early August was always one of my favorite times. I really enjoyed covering preseason. I loved watching a coaching staff build a team block by block. I had great fun hanging out with Les and Steve Shutt, the media relations director, and members of his cracker-jack staff. And it was always a treat to meander down from our perch on the balcony of the adjacent indoor center to see what observations and pearls of wisdom Clawson might have from the session.

Often I’d chat a bit with a player or trainer or assistant coach, or maybe Dave’s daughter, Courtney, a bright, amiable young person I expect great things from once she graduates from Davidson.

There were the unavoidable issues we had to work through, to determine how much I had seen that I could report without ruffling the wrong feathers in ways that couldn’t be smoothed over. And I readily admit I chaffed from time to time at not being able to report developments – which most often took the form of injuries – that had always been on the record under previous staffs.

But that’s a whole other subject to which I will return in posts to come. What I will say, however, is that the changes had more to do with what was going on throughout the sport of college football than it did with one coach named Dave Clawson.

And besides, what we should never overlook is how lucky we are to have those daily accounts from Les and Conor.

By now, most college programs have closed almost all of their practices, preseason or otherwise. So any information that comes from those places consists of whatever the media-relations arm chooses to disseminate – that and, of course, the general flow of rumors, speculation and scuttlebutt that emanates from non-sanctioned sites and message board chatter.

Clawson, lest we forget, was burned badly by a turn-coat of a home radio analyst named Tom Elrod. And if I happened to interpret Clawson’s reaction as at least partly a pretext for doing what he wanted to do all along, that probably tells you just how hard-bitten I had become by my final days as a sportswriter.

What Clawson did, to his credit, was reach a compromise. Once game week arrives, practices are closed to the media. That’s a first at Wake, but, again, these are different times. I am thankful he thought enough of the local media – not to mention the fans – to keep preseason camp open.

Otherwise we wouldn’t have the on-site accounts from Les and Conor to chew over.

Though I would have one less thing to miss from my days as a sportswriter.