The Man Behind Hartman’s Debut

Warren Ruggiero is a guy who, regretfully, I never got to know that well while still gainfully employed as the Deacons’ beat reporter during Ruggiero’s first three seasons as Wake’s offensive coordinator.

I tried, because I found him to be an intriguing character so unimposing in stature and wholly unassuming in bearing as to to appear to have wandered on to the practice field out of idle curiosity instead of professional responsibility. Those who didn’t know better might think him a Graduate Assistant or one of the multitudes of underlings and/or aides all major-college football programs have running all around these days.

Think Radar O’Reilly of the M*A*S*H television series. To my twisted mind, that was Warren Ruggiero.

His countenance was one of contemplation so deep as to be mistaken for bewilderment. I occasionally saw him josh or cut-up with a player or another coach, but not often. He struck me as a seriously serious kind of individual.

And, at least in our dealings, he was terribly reticent. He was never discourteous or antagonistic. He just didn’t seem to want to give up much of himself, and even less of what the Deacons had in store offensively for the upcoming opponent.

I never detected one self-promoting bone in his body. If anything, I took him as a bit shy.

Dave Clawson always spoke of him in glowing terms, even during those first two seasons when Ruggiero was catching all manner of flak for coordinating an offense that had to rank among the worst in all of college football. Give him time and talent, Clawson would maintain, and everyone would see full well why he was hired as Wake’s offensive coordinator in the first place.

Well we all saw that last season, the fourth for Clawson and Ruggiero, when the Deacons set more records than most would know were even recorded. In perhaps no other realm than college football can one graduate so quickly from bonehead to brainiac.

And let the record show that Ruggiero’s acumen and expertise were on full display again last night in Wake’s season-opening 23-17 overtime victory at Tulane. And here I’m not talking so much about the offensive production, the three touchdowns and a field goal or even the 548 total yards.

The Wake world is today raving, and rightfully so, about the dazzling debut of freshman Sam Hartman at quarterback — he of the 31 completions on 51 attempts for 378 yards – the 10th most yards ever accounted for by a Deacons’ quarterback. Clawson and Ruggiero were expressing full confidence in Hartman when he out-battled Jamie Newman for the opening day start, and now we all can see why.

But let’s not forget that a year ago, Sam Hartman was starting his senior season of high school.

It was Warren Ruggiero, along with Clawson, who identified Hartman early enough on the recruitment trail to secure a commitment after Hartman’s sophomore season at Davidson Day. And it was Ruggiero who forged enough of a bond with Hartman as to shoo away all the johnny-come-latelies who began to flock around during Hartman’s round-about journey from Davidson Day to Oceanside Collegiate in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

And when Hartman enrolled last January, it was Ruggiero who had the charge of coaching him up to where, just eight months later, he could walk out on a Division-I field and do what he did at Tulane. Wake needed a quarterback with the graduation of John Wolford, and Ruggiero and Hartman needed only one game to prove that the Deacons have one.

Hartman is a true talent, and may even turn to be a preeminent one. But to do what he did last night, he needed all the help he could get.

And that’s were the acumen and expertise of Warren Ruggiero came in handy.

From Clawson’s perspective, it might have been the perfect result. The Deacons got the victory, and Clawson and Ruggiero got a teaching moment that Hartman won’t soon forget.

Yeah, Hartman’s knee might well have been down when he shoveled that harebrained pass into the belly of a Tulane defender for a play that could have easily cost Wake the game.

But that’s not the kind of play, as Clawson pointedly pointed out afterward, that a quarterback at Wake (or anywhere for that matter) can be excused for making.

“It was unnecessary and not a smart play,’’ Clawson said. “It was really a foolish, foolish play. We have to coach that out of him. You can’t do that.’’

Fortunately for Clawson he has, in Warren Ruggiero, just the coach to help him do it.

Few Known Knowns in Openers

College football would be a better game, and its coaches would certainly sleep much better in August, if the sport featured Friendlies.

Friendlies, as anybody who knows soccer can attest, are those games between opponents with nothing riding other than the opportunity to find out more about your team and what you need to work on before the rubber really meets the road and the won-loss record is chiseled in granite.

Baseball has Friendlies. They’re called spring training. Pro football has Friendlies. They’re called preseason (don’t call them exhibition) games. Even college basketball has a form of a Friendly in those preseason scrimmages against another program where details are released to the media and general public only at the expense of some poor underling’s career.

But college football is different. The teams practice all August, show up for the opener, the National Anthem is sung, the whistle blows and boom, just like that, they begin going at each other with everything on the line.

Some teams carve themselves a certain margin of error by scheduling an opening opponent that really has little to no business giving them a real game. But there’s still more uncertainty there than most coaches would like, as Wake found out in 2012 with a 20-17 home victory over Liberty and two seasons ago with a 7-3 home win against Tulane.

Wake opens another football season tomorrow night at Tulane and I have no idea what to expect. And that puts me in good company with Dave Clawson and Willie Fritz, the head coaches of the respective schools.

We all can see the strides Clawson has made during his four seasons at Wake, and it’s hard to miss how Tulane has improved over Fritz’ first two seasons.

“This is a much deeper and much more talented football team than the one we played two years ago here at BB&T,’’ Clawson told the media on Tuesday. “That was a game we were fortunate to win. We really shouldn’t have won the game.’’

But as to just how much progress has been made won’t be known until the teams line up and start playing. There are just too many unknowns.

As much as I would love to relegate Donald Rumsfeld to the dustbin of history, I can’t help, in these instances, but recall what he said about the known knowns and the unknown knowns. And in that there are so many similarities between warfare and football, I’ll refer to the man who did so much to sabre-rattle us into a war vanity war the rest of the world was trying to warn us against.

The known knowns for Wake are the speed and talent at the skill positions, the size, strength and athleticism of the defensive front and, most of all, the experience, confidence and precision of one of the best offensive lines in the ACC. Clawson spent four years building that line block by block and the results should ensure that the Deacons, in Clawson’s fifth season, will be at least competitive.

But then come the known unknowns, the new faces at linebacker and in the secondary, a new kicker, and most glaring of all, a freshman quarterback in Sam Hartman who at this time last season was playing high school football.

I’ve expressed concern about linebacker, a strength in Clawson’s early days when All-ACC linebackers Brandon Chubb and Marquel Lee were roaming sideline to sideline. But Les Conor of Demon Deacon Digest and Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal have attended preseason practices and games and seem to be impressed with starters Justin Strnad and D.J. Taylor. And obviously Ryan Smenda, Jr., has made a splash or he wouldn’t be listed as second-team as a first-year freshman.

So maybe the Deacons will be OK, or even a notch above OK, there.

But even if I knew what to expect from Wake, I still wouldn’t have any idea what’s going to happen tomorrow night. That would require me knowing far more about Tulane than anyone other than the Green Wave coaches and maybe their immediate families are going to know – or think they know.

In did check out the Seven Key Storylines for Tulane Football 2018 in the New Orleans Times-Picayune published earlier this week, and found out that the Green Wave quarterback, Jonathan Banks, is a talented athlete whose career has been hindered by injuries, and that Fritz and his staff are looking for vast improvement from a defense that gave up 436 yards a game last season.

But the most inescapable of all the known knowns is that this is a really critical game in Dave Clawson’s fifth season as Wake’s head coach. The Deacons do return home to play Towson on Sept. 8, but then the schedule gets rocky really fast. The biggest game of the season could well turn out to be the visit by improved Boston College on Sept. 13, followed the next week by a visit from Notre Dame.

Wake should get a respite at home against Rice on Sept. 20, only to turn its sights to a home game against Clemson on Oct. 6 and a trip to Florida State on Oct. 20.

Only in his nightmares does Clawson allow himself to contemplate a losses against Tulane, BC, Notre Dame, Clemson and FSU leaving his Deacons at 2-5 with trips to Louisville, N.C. State and Duke remaining.

Maybe Wake will wax Tulane tomorrow night, drill BC in BB&T and head into the Notre Dame game feeling good at 3-0. It could happen. But if you’re looking for a prediction, you won’t find it here.

Now if the sport of college football featured Friendlies, I would probably have a better idea of what to expect. But if the sport had Friendlies, there’s no way you could call it football.

The terms are just too incongruous.

George Greer Makes the Majors

As parents, we endeavor to do the best we can for our kids.

When it comes to our son Nate, I can comfortably say that in at least one regard, I succeeded.

Additional proof, as if I needed any, came when I was watching the rampaging St. Louis Cardinals recently. There in the dugout, dispensing the kind of expertise it takes a lifetime to accumulate, was the man who taught Nate Collins how to hit a baseball.

He might have taught your son or daughter as well. He’s one of us, a man who has been living in and around Winston-Salem since he was hired to coach baseball at Wake in 1988.

His name is George Greer, and I’m proud to call him a friend. We’ve kept up since his run at Wake ended (after 608 victories and three ACC titles) in 2004. I’d bump into George around town from time to time and he and his wife Becky – a woman accomplished enough in her own field to serve as superintendent of the Radford City Public Schools in Virginia – have even dropped by our Open Mics down at Muddy Creek Cafe a handful of times.

Once they were accompanied by Allan Dykstra, the former All-ACC slugger who was living with George and Becky upon his return to the area to complete his degree at Wake.

And as much as I like George Greer, I wish his Cardinals would cool off a bit. They keep crowding my Cubs in the NL Central.

The Cardinals began rampaging in mid-July after they replaced manager Mike Matheny with Mike Shildt, a lifer in the organization who beyond being a regular guy everyone seems to like also had the good sense to promote Greer to the majors to serve, along with Mark Budaska, as co-batting coach.

So at the tender age of 72, only 50 years after he first joined the organization as a 17th-round draft choice out of Connecticut, George Greer is in the majors. What a wonderful story, told so well here by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Nate was good enough to help a Little League team win games, but he never made his mark in baseball. Just might have had something to do with genes.

He instead took up the drums and is living his life in music. No regrets there.

And there are certainly no regrets on my part concerning who I took him to for instruction on how to hit a baseball.

In my time at the Winston-Salem Journal, I covered thousands of minor league and college games and got to know countless coaches and managers in the game.

I feel comfortable in saying that no one I ever met knows more about the fine art of hitting a baseball than George Greer. Apparently that high opinion is shared by folks in the highest realm of the game. I’m so happy for my friend, and can’t wait for him to come back around this fall so we can talk about this latest chapter in his fascinating life.

Here’s hoping I won’t have to wait until after the World Series. As a Cubs’ fans, I just can’t make myself pull for the Cardinals.

Sorry George.

 

Shine a Light on Darkened Corners

The shutters are coming down around the Wake Forest football program with tomorrow’s practice. Preseason camp has given way to game week and, from this point on, practices will be closed.

If you’re like me (I know, a scary thought), then you’ve thoroughly enjoyed this month’s coverage by Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest and Conor O’Neill of my long-time haunt, the Winston-Salem Journal. Both have been all over their beat, filing one dispatch after another from the practices and scrimmages leading up to next Thursday’s opener at Tulane.

And it is to Coach Dave Clawson’s credit that they were there. The shutters on most college football programs – most especially those competing in Power Five Conferences – were never open. They might have been cracked a bit from time to time to give a fleeting glimpse or two, but for the most part, the Alabamas and Clemsons and tragically, Marylands, of the college football world are locked down tighter than Los Alamos in the 40s.

Last season was the first in my experience that practices were closed at Wake. The move was said to be in response to an insidious incident of betrayal, and as Conor laid out in My Take on Wake, Clawson has every reason to feel burned by Tommy Elrod, the turncoat ex-color man who will live in infamy for having told coaching buddies at rival schools far more than any loyal color man should tell.

But access at Wake football had become an issue before the term Wakeyleaks was ever coined.

O.K., I readily admit I was spoiled during most of my time spent as Wake beat reporter. Jim Grobe was the coaching exception to almost every rule I ever encountered as a sportswriter, and if I missed a practice from time to time Jim would want to know why.

None of which is to say I reported everything I saw. I recognized that my coverage might reveal plays or game plans or certain injuries that would provide an opponent with a competitive advantage.

So we would work it out and determine a time when I might write the story that would give me a jump on all the other news outlets while not alerting the competition too early.

Professionally, it bothered me not writing all I knew, but I’d also been around long enough to know that if I did so, then Jim couldn’t afford to have me at practice. The example that comes quickest to mind was in 2008, when Grobe, coming off a 26-0 loss at Maryland, changed in entire offense in a week’s time to have an I-formation ready for the trip to Miami.

I watched him do it, and didn’t write about it until filing a My Take on Wake just minutes before kickoff. Wake’s first 22 plays were running plays, and the Deacons opened the game with a 66-yard march for a touchdown before eventually succumbing 16-10.

So I was lucky to have the opportunity to cover Grobe, and I was lucky that Clawson replaced him. Wake is lucky to have Dave as well. He’s a razor sharp, engaging guy who is as good at what he does as anybody I know.

But generally speaking, no sub-species I’ve ever encountered takes itself more seriously than football coaches, and the sadly avoidable fatality at Maryland during off-season workouts has sparked a backlash to the gestapo-type secrecy that shrouds most college programs.

You might have seen the articles by Dan Wolken in USA Today and/or by Sally Jenkins in the Washington Post. Sally was scathing in her indictment of “crude, knuckle-dragging stupidity’’ at play at Maryland, but when 27 football players keel over dead during conditioning drills over the past 17 seasons, then her main points, at least to me, are inescapable.

So, yes, I was fortunate to cover Wake at a time practices were open. But the point should be made that Wake was smart, and fortunate as well, to be able to open practices.

First off, many programs that opened practices would be swamped by far more media types then they could accommodate, much less keep track of. Wake opens practices and two reporters, Les and Conor, care enough to show up. Clawson and Steve Shutt, the media relations director, know Les and Conor, and they can lay out the ground rules they can expect to be followed.

Second, by opening practices, the coverage of Wake football is far more extensive and detailed. I’ve already mentioned how much I’ve enjoyed the preseason coverage and how much I know about the team getting ready to kick off against Tulane next week.

There’s a buzz in the air about Wake football, much of it stimulated and fanned by what we’re reading daily from Les and Conor.

And last, and certainly not least, I can bear witness that the neanderthal practices that permeated the program at Maryland – and we can only surmise at other programs as well – did not take place at Wake. Of the hundreds of practices I attended, I never saw one incident of what I would describe as abuse.

I saw coaches driving players hard. I heard loud language. I saw exhausted players running post-practice wind sprints. But I also came to know, and like, Brandon Hourigan, the hyper-intense Deacons’ strength and conditioning coach, and I could see the bond he developed with players even as he was exacting the best he could get from them.

Again, I never witnessed one incident of what I would describe as abuse.

I couldn’t make that claim if I wasn’t there.

Dave and I did lock horns a couple of times. Again, it got back to my frustration of not being able to write what I knew. I was never able to build the same lines of communication I had with Grobe and his staff to the point I could take care of my job without hurting his.

In hindsight, my problem was not as much with Dave as it was with the stupidest policy in the history of the ACC – the so-called “injury policy,’’ which, because it was never enforced was universally ignored.

Dave’s point was why should he give out information that his rival coach is going to keep under wraps? His point was well-made. My point was why should there be a policy in the first place it it was not going to be enforced?

It took the ACC long enough, but finally it came around to the same conclusion. The conference announced last month it won’t even ask member schools to report injuries.

There is a serious issue about gambling in college sports, though, and those people whose job it is to know about an injury are going to know. Eventually the matter will have to be addressed.

But the best resolution to this whole matter, in my mind, is the one Sally Jenkins laid out in her piece. The NCAA should do what the NFL does. There are good reasons that it has been 17 years since an NFL player died of heat exertion, and one of them is that practices are, at least for the most part, open to outside observers.

If the NCAA were to follow suit, look who would win. The players would win because fewer would die. The fans would win because they would have more coverage to get and keep them fired up about their team. And the media would certainly win because they would be allowed to do their job the way it should be done.

And who would lose? The gamblers would lose, and so would the football coaches who have yet to understand one basic tenet of their sport.

Football doesn’t build character. Football reveals character.

Tarzan

Anyone who didn’t know better might think I’m living through a second childhood.

On the contrary, what’s really happening is I’m re-living my first and just concentrating on the better parts.

There were few better parts of my childhood than Tarzan and Popeye, and thanks to the greatest channel on television, good old Turner Classic Movies, I was able to get up early enough on Saturday morning this summer to catch a twinbill. And in that the festivities didn’t start until 10, I didn’t even have to strain myself to do so.

First there would be a Popeye cartoon, a real classic with that irresistible theme song and the doors opening and shutting on the poop deck across the credits. What Popeye and Bluto saw in Olive Oyl, I didn’t know 55 years ago and I don’t know now.

But whatever hold she had was enough to have the two rivals beating the fool out of each other until Popeye finally ate his spinach and put an end to the carnage.

The best part was Popeye’s mutterings, which was a big reason he always put me to mind of another iconic figure of my childhood, manager Casey Stengel. Beat reporters who covered the Stengel’s Yankees couldn’t understand what he was saying either half the time, so they just called in Stengelese.

So every Saturday I’d be listening really closely to get off on Popeye’s Popeyese, which never failed to lay me out.

Then would come the main course of my Sunday morning feast, a full-length Tarzan feature. The run began at the beginning, all the way back to 1932, with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan the Ape Man. Yeah, I know there were earlier adaptations to Edgar Rice Burrough’s literary creation, with one even starring the yet-to-be-discovered Boris Karloff in the role of native chieftain up to all kinds of villainy.

But to me, Tarzan started – and in many ways – ended with Johnny Weissmuller in the lead role. Weissmuller was a five-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, and needed to be to out-distance all these angry Hippos riled up by Cheetah and, of course, swim down and kill those countless crocodiles intending to do Jane or Boy grave harm.

If you’ve seen Tarzan and a crocodile thrashing around in the water once, then you’ve seen it dozens of times. Close inspection reveals I’m being literal here. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer did the first six Weissmuller-as-Tarzan features, and RKO did the other six, but neither studio seemed to have the least bit of problem running the same footage over, and over, and over again.

My favorite episodes were the first six with O’Sullivan as Jane. The older I get the better O’Sullivan’s Jane looks in what is so often so close to the altogether.

But in the most scandalous (for the time) scene ever in Tarzan, it wasn’t O’Sullivan herself in the altogether. Instead it was another Olympic swimmer named Josephine McKim, a body double if there ever was one, frolicking nude underneath the water with Tarzan in the feature Tarzan and His Mate.

Those great kill-joys of history, the Hayes Commission, actually censored the scene for years until TCM came along and restored the movie to its original form.

Growing up in a mountain town far from the cultural centers of our state, it failed to register just how politically incorrect the depiction of the African natives was in Tarzan movies. It’s a debate that still rages today, as we could see in 2016 with the release of The Legend of Tarzan.

Did the studios actually become self-conscious about their portrayal? It certainly appears so with the later introduction of tribes of white natives in strange costumes doing all the things black natives did before. Who were the white people in the middle of the African jungle? Where did they come from?

Only on retrospection did I realize what heroes the elephants were in so many films. Not only did Tarzan and Jane train one elephant to hang around and pull the vine that raised the rigged elevator up to the tree house, but time and again an elephant would tenderly lift a grievously injured Tarzan and carry him out of harm’s way – often into the care of the Great Apes that raised our hero from childhood.

But being so big, the elephants really came in handy when Tarzan would let out his infamous yodel and have a herd of the beasts come rampaging through the village just as the natives were getting ready to do their worst to Jane or Boy.

In one episode, Tarzan Finds a Son, Cheetah and his chimpanzee pals actually ride the elephants to the rescue. Great stuff.

Tarzan, as mentioned, was never quite the same after Johnny Weissmuller got too old to rock a loin cloth, and had to gravitate to Jungle Jim. I really didn’t care much for the first replacement, Rex Barker. I liked Gordon Scott better, and can see why Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) was considered by many to be the best Tarzan movie of the post-Weissmuller era.

So for weeks on end, starting this spring, I would roll out of bed on Saturday all fired up to hunker down to another Popeye/Tarzan doubleheader. I even got into the habit of checking out the TCM schedule to see which episode was scheduled.

Then one sad Friday night I looked to find a Clint Eastwood movie, Every Which Way But Loose, in the usual 10 a.m. slot. It couldn’t be, I told myself. Surely it had to be a mistake.

But alas, I woke up on Saturday with no Popeye, and no Tarzan. To combat the withdrawal, I actually rented a double-feature Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan Finds a Son, from Netflix, and watched them last weekend.

Whoever said all good things come to an end is obviously not a fan of TCM. Unless I miss my bet, it will be only a matter of time until they start recycling all those Tarzan movies back over again.

My only hope is they pair them with a classic Popeye cartoon.

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.