Wake Forest University will take on the University of Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday, and from the outside looking in, a Demon Deacons run to the title game seemed unlikely. Certainly, the sportsbooks pegged it as such. 247 Sports ranked the school’s recruiting class dead last among the 14 ACC members twice within the last five years (they finished 11th, 12th and 13th in the other years), and the program presumably operates with fewer resources than some of its competitors (as a private institution, we don’t know exactly how much WFU spends). Perennial national title contender Clemson also plays in the Atlantic Division. But a down year from the Tigers (at least by their standards), combined with Wake Forest’s unique approach to roster construction and resource allocation, resulted in a 10-2 season and enabled the program to capture its first division title in 15 years. “[Head coach Dave Clawson] has been thoughtful and creative in identifying and maximizing the advantages that we have at Wake Forest,” athletic director John Currie said. “His disciplined, diligent and measured approach to finding the student athletes for Wake Forest is the foundation for the championship-contending program he has built.”
JWS’ Take: Despite the program’s relative success (see: winningest program among the big four schools in North Carolina this century, six straight seasons with a bowl appearance), Wake Forest football lacks the profile that some others within the conference enjoy. Currie acknowledged that leaves his team with ground to make up. “I don’t know that we beat Clemson for recruits very often, if ever,” he said.
Understanding that the school is rarely going to win battles for the highest-ranked recruits, Clawson has taken a scientific and efficient approach to roster construction, which some observers have likened to Billy Beane’s famed “Moneyball” approach. The head coach and his staff use data (think: verified testing results, verified measurements) and analytics to systematically identify players they believe could develop into four- and five-star talents with a year in the system, and are intelligent enough to run a more complex scheme. “Warren Ruggiero’s offense might be more complicated than some, and that’s part of how we offset size and speed disadvantages that we may have. It’s a smart, schemed-up offense,” Currie said. Ruggiero, Wake’s offensive coordinator, is a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in college football.
For Wake Forest, a program that relies on strong player development, finding student athletes who want to be students as much as they want to be athletes is critical.
Players who value getting a degree from the school are more likely to stick around if they don’t play immediately or as much as they would have liked. Brandon Huffman (national recruiting editor, 247 Sports) said Wake Forest’s 10-win season is “clearly the result of good evaluations and good development. But [the coaching staff] has also done a good job creating a strong culture there. You are not seeing a huge amount of guys going into the portal like you are at a lot of other [programs], because guys realize there is an academic reason why they picked the school,” he said. “And [when] they do lose a guy, it tends to be later on, once he has graduated rather than a guy picking up and leaving in the middle of his freshman or sophomore year.”
That relative stability over the last four years has led to an experienced roster in 2021, which has resulted in victories. “We’re a developmental program,” Currie said. “We can succeed because over time we have players that have been in the program, been in their position, for three, four, five years. They’ve developed physically, they’ve gotten stronger, and they know the schemes and techniques we run because repetition builds on itself.”
Since all college athletes were given an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic, every team is a bit older in 2021, but Wake has a particularly mature roster, led by a fourth-year player at quarterback, Sam Hartman. That experience, Huffman said, lends itself to winning college football games, “especially when it comes in the trenches.” WFU starts three fifth-year players and a fourth-year player on the offensive line. The defensive line features a sixth-year player (a redshirt senior) and a graduate transfer at tackle, while a fourth-year player starts at one of the end positions.
That’s not to say the program hasn’t experienced departures. Michigan State running back and Heisman candidate Kenneth Walker III played for the Demon Deacons in 2019 and 2020.
Wake Forest’s calculated use of its finances cannot be ignored when discussing the team’s run to the conference championship game. “We are efficient about how we allocate resources. That’s really where you might apply the Moneyball [analogy],” Currie said. For example, “over the last year coach Clawson has operated without a full-time administrative assistant. Why? His former administrative assistant retired during the pandemic, and he felt it was in the best interest of the program to hire a sports scientist. So, he took some of the money that would have gone to paying a new administrative assistant, and some money he had from savings he had from another departing staff member, and we hired a highly experienced sports scientist, Jason George.” George, the team’s director of integrated high performance, has been integral in helping lift a seven- or eight-win team to double digits this season, Currie said.
Just to be clear, while Wake undoubtedly has fewer resources available to it than college football’s blue bloods (and many of the public universities in the ACC), it is by no means a starved program. “There has been over $100 million invested in football facilities over the last six or seven years,” Currie noted.