WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- It was cold and muddy with sleet pelting the field as Wake Forest opened spring practice last week, vestiges of a long, dark winter still lingering. For the Demon Deacons, however, it was the dawn of a new era.
Players filtered out to the field early, the new normal under first-year coach Dave Clawson. The voices echoing amid the chaos were unfamiliar, but even the established veterans were eager to listen. The depth chart is thin in nearly every corner, but players moved fluidly through drills, finally putting three months of offseason study into action.
“It feels like someone just pressed the restart button,” senior Orville Reynolds said. “Now we’re just rebuilding the program, and it feels really good.”
The changes are ubiquitous, but for Wake Forest, a clean slate was necessary.
After a 4-8 campaign in 2013, longtime coach Jim Grobe resigned. Clawson arrived with a new staff, new scheme, and a new attitude.
Thirteen senior starters from last year’s team are gone, including the quarterback, tight end, leading rusher, leading receiver, an All-ACC defensive tackle and two other regulars on the line.
Even Reynolds, one of the few veterans remaining, is scrambling to recalibrate after shifting from receiver to running back, a move made out of necessity because Clawson simply didn’t have enough bodies to fill a spring depth chart.
“Right now, what’s most important is we need playmakers all over the field,” Reynolds said. “So every day I come out, and I can’t be comfortable. I’ve got to be ready for battle every day.”
That’s a mind-set Clawson has worked hard to instill during his first three months on the job.
With so few established starters on the roster and limited game film of his team to study, the pre-spring regimen at Wake was all about building a culture before Clawson gets to the dirty work of piecing together a game plan.
It started with the clocks. Everyone’s on “Deacon time” now, Reynolds said. It’s Clawson’s mantra that if players aren’t 10 minutes early for meetings, lifts, film study or practice, they’re late, and punishment is handed out accordingly.
The competition during offseason drills was ramped up, too. Mat drills were more grueling than ever, and the voluntary Saturday workouts in the weight room are now packed with players.
“Going in on Saturdays the previous season, you had 10 people working out,” linebacker Brandon Chubb said. “Now the whole team is in there.”
And then there’s the matter of the depth chart, which is effectively a blank canvas at this point.
Clawson doesn’t try to put a positive spin on the personnel limitations he’s faced with. If Michael Campanaro and Nikita Whitlock could get another year of eligibility, Clawson would do cartwheels to celebrate. Instead, the former Bowling Green coach is simply shuffling pieces to see where they might fit, and every practice brings new questions and, he hopes, a few answers.
But if Clawson understands the enormity of the job, the players also see the opportunity. It’s what’s motivated them to push workouts to another level, to arrive for practice prepared to work. So much change can be overwhelming, but the Deacons understand it was necessary.
“Everything is just completely different from literally every standpoint,” center Cory Helms said. “He’s basically making a 180 with this program. It’s a big change but everybody’s adjusting.”
Clawson’s approach has made the adjustment a bit easier, too.
At 46, Clawson is 16 years younger than his predecessor, and Chubb said there’s a youthful exuberance that his new coach has brought to the team. He’s quick to laugh and joke, building an instant rapport with even wary veterans. But when it’s time to work, Clawson is intensely demanding.
Grobe, who won an ACC title at Wake Forest in 2006, was renowned for maximizing his players’ potential. Clawson is asking them to dig even deeper.
“There’s a level we have to meet,” Reynolds said. “We’ve got to get to that. Whether we’ve got it in us or not, you better find it. I feel like he’s definitely pulling that out of us.”
Clawson said he believes in setting a high standard from the outset, and he sees the hard work his players have already put in as a good sign that the culture is taking hold in the locker room.
There’s still so much work to be done rebuilding a program so desperately in need of a fresh start. This spring, he’ll install a base offense and defense, but Clawson still isn’t sure who his playmakers will be. Coaches have pushed for new leaders to emerge, and Chubb is among the veterans still learning to be a louder voice in the locker room. The depth chart remains fluid, but Clawson is as optimistic as ever that the answers will appear.
“I’m more excited about this job now,” Clawson said, “than when I took it.”