The job for first-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson this spring is both immensely simplistic and unbelievably big. For a team that struggled offensively throughout a 4-8 season in 2013, the Demon Deacons lost their starting quarterback, leading rusher, top tight end and their best all-around playmaker in wideout Michael Campanaro this offseason.
In other words, 2014 is a blank canvas offensively, and that means Clawson is on the prowl for players who can add any kind of a spark.
“How are we going to run the offense?” Clawson said. “Who are we going to feature? Are we going to be more of a throwing team or does somebody really step up and we find out we have a big-time player there? I always say it’s players, not plays, that really dictate who you are on offense, and right now, it’s a blank slate.”
Of course, for Wake Forest, erasing the blackboard and starting from scratch offensively might not be the worst idea. While Clawson joked that he wished Campanaro had another year of eligibility remaining to provide an offensive foundation, the truth is the Deacons were far too reliant on their senior receiver last season, and the numbers tell a gruesome story.
Wake was 120th-ranked offense in the nation in 2013 (by yards per play), but Campanaro was a bright spot. Since the start of the 2011 campaign, he’d been a fixture in the offense, but never was the significance of his role more on display than last season.
Wake’s offense with Campanaro vs. its offense without him was night and day.
Wake Forest vs. FBS opponents, 2013
On plays when Campanaro didn't touch the football, Wake Forest averaged 4 yards less per play than national champion (and fellow ACC Atlantic Division member) Florida State. Even if accounting for all plays in which Campanaro was the intended target in 2013, Wake averaged 7.7 yards per play, as opposed to 3.7 when he wasn't involved in the play at all.
Campanaro went down with an injury early in Wake’s Nov. 2 game against Syracuse -- a game in which the Orange defense pitched a shutout -- and didn't return. In the seven games against FBS foes preceding that injury, Wake averaged 4.8 yards per play -- a troubling number that would’ve ranked 109th nationally. But take Campanaro away, and the Deacons mustered just 3.41 yards per play the rest of the way. How bad is that? Only two other teams in the country averaged fewer than 4.2 yards per play vs. FBS teams last year -- Miami, Ohio (3.7 YPP) and Florida International (3.6 YPP). Not since Washington State in 2008 has any team come close to a number that bad over a full season.
It’s hard to believe one player could make that much of a difference, but Campanaro wasn’t simply the most productive player on a mediocre offense. He was the safety net. He played in just a little more than seven games, and yet he was still the seventh-most targeted receiver in the ACC in 2013, on the receiving end of 25 percent of Wake’s total passing attempts for the year.
“A lot of times in our last offense, we’d have a run, but we’d have it tagged with, ‘If it doesn’t look right, throw it to Camp,' ” said senior Orville Reynolds. “Now, as an offense, we all have to do our part.”
This spring, the safety net is gone. So, too, are most of the vestiges of last year’s dismal offense.
That leaves a sizable chasm for Clawson to fill, and the options at this point are limited. Reynolds has moved from receiver to tailback out of necessity. So, too, has James Ward, a cornerback last season. The receiving corps will consist largely of rising sophomores, and the quarterback battle is between players with a total of 24 attempts between them last season.
On the upside, there’s nowhere to go but up for Wake Forest, and Clawson is staying patient in his quest to identify playmakers on offense. In fact, just a year ago, he found himself in a similar spot at Bowling Green, when he moved Travis Greene -- a high school receiver and corner with one career college carry -- to tailback. Greene finished the season with nearly 1,600 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
So for Clawson, there’s hope. There just aren’t many answers at the moment.