Yet Dave Clawson, in his sixth season as the Demon Deacons’ head coach, has been here before, with his team on an early-season high before reaching the teeth of the conference schedule. So has offensive captain Justin Herron — a lineman who is also in his sixth season, having been granted an extra year to play after he tore his ACL in the opener of his redshirt senior season a year ago.
“I tell the young guys, ‘Don’t pay any attention to the rankings. They don’t matter,’ ” Herron said after an early-morning practice this week. “The thing we have to do is keep a sense of urgency — every day. I really think this team is different. This group loves football more than the teams I’ve played on in the past. I think that’s going to make a difference.”
In 2016, after Clawson’s first two teams had each gone 3-9, Wake roared to a 5-1 start before finishing 7-6. A year later, the start was 4-0 before losses to Florida State and Clemson interrupted the joyride. That team recovered to finish 8-5, including a bowl victory over Texas A&M.
Now, the Deacons play their next three games at home against Louisville, Florida State (which is no longer Florida State) and North Carolina State. All winnable. Then comes a trip to Virginia Tech (3-2) and then . . . to Clemson.
“I think we all know, coaches and players, that we better not think past Louisville,” Clawson said. “What helps is this is an experienced team. We’ve got 23 fourth- or fifth-year players who understand that a fast start is just that — a fast start. I think that helps a lot.”
Clawson has been a head coach for 20 years and has experienced every kind of start there is, including his first season, at Fordham, when a bad start never got better and the Rams finished 0-11. He had been hired from Villanova as a hot-shot 32-year-old offensive coordinator who figured he had all the answers.
“In ’97 we went 12-1 at Villanova,” he said. “I had Brian Finneran and Brian Westbrook on that team. I drew up a lot of bad plays that still went for 30 yards. I didn’t understand that. I thought the success was mine, only it wasn’t.
By his third season, he’d figured it out and the Rams went 7-4. A year later they were 10-3 and reached the Division I-AA quarterfinals. One year later, he got the Richmond job. There, he was 3-8 his first year and 11-3 in his fourth. That success led to the one real glitch in his coaching career, when Philip Fulmer offered him the job as offensive coordinator at Tennessee before the 2008 season.
“I had never coached at that level,” he said. “I thought it would be good experience. Plus, the money was three times what I had been making. The contract was for three years so it felt like a smart, safe move to me.”
Except it wasn’t. Fulmer and staff were fired at season’s end. “It never occurred to me that a three-year contract didn’t mean much,” Clawson said. “Buying out the coordinators is pennies on that kind of budget.”
He was fortunate to be hired in 2009 as head coach at Bowling Green and, after another turnaround — 10-3 in 2013, his final season there — he was hired to succeed Jim Grobe at Wake Forest.
Grobe was something of a legendary figure at Wake, having won an ACC title and a trip to the Orange Bowl during an 11-win season in 2006. But his last two seasons produced losing records, and Clawson was hired to take his place.
“The thing is, we had a very good defense when I got here,” he said. “But my first year we had a true freshman quarterback, a true freshman tailback and a true freshman center.” He laughed. “I copied Dean Smith: Went to the Four Corners on offense; ran the play clock to one on almost every play.”
This, Clawson says, is his most balanced team, solid on both sides of the ball. Redshirt junior quarterback Jamie Newman has emerged as a star, as has redshirt sophomore wide receiver Sage Surratt, who has 34 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns.
Surratt is, in many ways, a typical Clawson recruit. He was the North Carolina high school player of the year in football and basketball as a senior at Lincolnton but was only rated a three-star recruit by the recruiting services.
“I like to recruit kids who play more than one sport,” Clawson said. “Because they don’t go to all the football camps, they tend to be underrated. Sage was like that. He’s not just a football player, he’s an athlete.”
Herron, the team’s old man, also has a basketball background: His father and two uncles played the sport at Villanova. “My dream as a kid was to play basketball at Villanova,” he said. “But I started to play football as a freshman [at Bullis outside Washington] and fell in love with it. When I told my dad I wanted to focus on football, he said, ‘That’s fine, but play basketball to stay in shape in the winter.’ ”
He did that and eventually grew to 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds. He chose Wake Forest because both he and his dad had a gut feeling about Clawson when he visited. “I felt like I could trust everything he was saying about what he thought Wake Forest could become,” he said. “When he left, my dad said, ‘That’s the guy you should go play for.’ That was it. Decision made.”
Herron redshirted as a freshman largely because he needed to lose weight — he’s 290 now. Then he tore his knee up 12 plays into the season opener last year.
“I was probably lucky,” he said. “It was only 12 plays, but I didn’t feel like I was giving my all. My mind just wasn’t into it. Every year there’s one guy who’s too focused on the next level. Last year, it was me. Now, I’m only thinking about right now, this week, this team. Whatever comes next year is fine.”
Herron will get his master's degree in liberal studies with a focus on business and film in December. He’d like to make movies of some kind whenever football’s over. He’s hoping the story of Wake Forest’s 2019 football season might be a worthy subject someday.
The prologue is over. Now come the plot twists.