Opponent Outlook: Wake Forest on the rise

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko, arguably the biggest offseason addition for the Irish, came to South Bend from Wake Forest.

Elko left behind a team that finished 7-6 last season with a surging defense and a struggling offense. The Demon Deacons (5-3) have become a well-rounded team this season. The offense averages 31.3 points per game and the defense hasn’t slipped much in Elko’s absence.

Wake Forest can no longer be considered an afterthought with head coach Dave Clawson’s club recording big wins over Louisville and Boston College and competitive losses to Clemson and Georgia Tech.

What kind of challenge will Wake Forest present No. 5 Notre Dame (7-1) on Saturday? We caught up with Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal for a closer look at the Demon Deacons.

• Wake Forest beat Louisville last week and led by as many as 25 points in the third quarter. What did you learn about the Demon Deacons in that victory?

O’Neill: “We learned last week that Wake Forest has the ability to not only get ahead of an elite opponent, but to find ways to stay ahead of one. That hadn’t been the case against Florida State (a last-minute 26-19 loss) or Georgia Tech (a 38-24 loss in which the Deacons led 21-10) in the past month.

“That was a troubling trend for coach Dave Clawson, one that he was happy to reverse by jumping ahead of the Cardinals and staying ahead by at least two touchdowns for the last three quarters.”

• Notre Dame has made huge strides defensively with former Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko. It doesn’t seem like the Demon Deacons have slipped too much on defense without him. Did he making a lasting impact that still lingers with that unit?

O’Neill: “Elko’s impact at Wake Forest was huge and probably can’t be understated. He was very much a tactician-type play-caller that could out-scheme offensive coordinators into frustration. With the increase in the caliber of athletes at Notre Dame, it wasn’t hard for folks familiar with Elko to see this kind of immediate success.

“While Wake Forest misses him, it’s worth noting that there really aren’t any Deacons defenders in the rotation that Elko didn’t coach. There are three true freshmen who play meaningful snaps for the Deacons, which is to say they rotate in for nickel packages. Other than them, the standout players like Duke Ejiofor, Jessie Bates III and Zeek Rodney all were coached by Elko.”

• Wake Forest ranks ninth in the country in passing efficiency with quarterback John Wolford playing so well. Where has he improved this season that’s led to him completing 65.7 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions?

O’Neill: “It’s honestly not a factor of Wolford improving drastically, but that the players around him have done so. Wolford was beaten into a pulp in his first two seasons and somewhat less last year.

“But now he has an offensive line stacked with four redshirt juniors, he has a bevy of weapons in the passing game and a three-headed running back group that can pound away.

“Wolford has always had a decent arm, but he’s never gotten the offensive line play to keep him healthy or receivers who could consistently get open. Now that he’s got both, he’s thriving.”

• How do you expect the Wake Forest defense to fare against Notre Dame’s run-heavy offense? The Demon Deacons have allowed opponents to rush for nearly 184 yards per game. Would you consider that a weakness for Wake Forest?

O’Neill: “I don’t think Wake Forest has much to change schematically to face Notre Dame’s offense. I wouldn’t call rushing defense a weakness for the Deacons, but it hasn’t been as much of a strength as they thought it would be entering the season.

“Their two senior linebackers, Grant Dawson and Jaboree Williams, have been good at times, but more consistency in filling holes is needed. A lot of it has been feast or famine with defending the run — Wake Forest leads the country with 9.3 tackles for loss per game, but has given huge chunks too.”

• Wake Forest lost wide receiver Greg Dortch for the rest of the season following Saturday's game because of an abdominal injury. How will Wake Forest replace his production on offense? Dortch leads the team in receptions (53), receiving yards (722) and receiving touchdowns (9) by a wide margin.

O’Neill: “Losing Dortch for the season is a huge loss in the receiving game and return game — he also led all freshmen in the country with 1,290 all-purpose yards. He gave Wake Forest a big-play threat it had lacked for the past three years, which opened things up for every other contributor on offense.

“He’ll be replaced in position by Tabari Hines, a junior who started for the past two years and the first two games this year. He’s actually second on the team with 18 catches in a limited role since Dortch’s emergence.

“It also stands to reason that senior tight end Cam Serigne will be more heavily involved in the passing game, as had been the case in his first two seasons. He became Wake Forest’s career receptions leader for tight ends last week and can work the same area of the field as Dortch, just in different ways.”


Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (10) looks to pass against Utah State. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)