Q&A: Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson

It’s been just three months since Dave Clawson was hired as Wake Forest’s coach, and the job of ironing out a depth chart and implementing a new culture is still in its infancy. But Clawson will take his first big step in evaluating his team when the Demon Deacons open spring practice this week. We talked with Clawson about the challenges the Deacons face and how many answers he can expect to find during the next few weeks.

Q: Your first couple months on the job had to focus on recruiting. Since signing day, how much of a feel have you been able to get for the players you already have on campus?

A: We’ve seen them in the weight room, done some of the offseason workouts and mat drills. But we’re certainly excited, and in the next five weeks, we’ll have a much better feel. We’ve watched our guys run, change direction, do football-type movements. But when you get to watch them play football, that’s a big difference.

Q: Wake loses its starting quarterback, leading rusher, top receiver, top tight end and nearly all its key contributors on the defensive line from last year. Does that make for an intimidating proposition this spring or are players embracing the opportunity with so many jobs up for grabs?

A: The whole thing this spring is really twofold: No. 1, you want to get in your systems, and No. 2, you want to see guys compete. If you’ve been a player here that hasn’t played much, between all the open jobs and a brand new staff, you’re going to have your opportunity. We’ll see who takes advantage and steps up. That’s what’s so exciting about the next five weeks for us. This interview, if it happens five weeks from now, I’ll have a much better feel for who we’re building the offense and defense around and key special-teams guys. Right now, they’re just kind of names on a board.

Q: Establishing your culture is always key for a new coach. How can you go about doing that this spring?

A: A lot of that is already occurring. It has to go with how we run the weight room, how we run the offseason program, the accountability we demand in terms of academics and off-field behavior. We’ve had three months to start establishing that culture, and there are certainly things that come up during the course of the day or week or months that give you an opportunity to reinforce that culture. And we’re doing that on a daily basis.

Q: You’ve said you want to build the offensive identity around the strengths of your personnel, but with so many big question marks entering spring, how do you begin to implement that game plan before you find answers?

A: We have a core offense, a core run game, a core pass game. Formationally, there’s a core of what we do. It’s a base install. Then how you develop and break away from that core, and what things you add, what becomes the things you emphasize, is really how you grow through the spring. So right now, we have a base offense we’ve installed the last five years -- here’s our core run game, these are our core protections, these are our core routes -- and as we install, we evaluate. As we get away from that core, which might be 60 percent of the offense, what do we do with the other 40 percent? That’s certainly going to be based on personnel and what we’re doing well and to take advantage of where we feel our strengths are and minimize where we don’t have strengths.

Right now, we’re saying we’re thin at tailback. We might come out of spring and say, holy cow, Orville Reynolds could be a big-time player, and [Dominique] Gibson has gotten so much better and improved and James Ward is going to have a role. And now you’ve got two guys coming in and Dez Wortham, who will be healthy. Next thing you know, you go from a concern to a position of strength. That happened last year at Bowling Green.

Q: In addition to the tailbacks, the quarterback position appears up for grabs. How do you view that competition heading into spring?

A: It’s primarily a competition between Tyler Cameron and Kevin Sousa. We signed two guys. Obviously the two guys here have a chance to get all the reps and take advantage, but we don’t have -- we’re just so thin at that position, too. Tyler didn’t play much last year and Kevin actually played another position. You can convert safeties to tailback or move a receiver. It’s hard to take a defensive tackle and make him a quarterback. That’s a harder position to fill from within, and that right there -- I don’t want to say I’m concerned, but the one thing at quarterback, you get a great one through competition and we just don’t have a lot of competition there in the spring.

Q: You’ve lost a lot of talent on the defensive line, but you return a number of starters on the back end. Is that something where those guys in the secondary are going to have to carry the load early on?

A: Our secondary is going to have to play well. You have two returning senior starters at corner, a returning senior starter at safety and a returning sophomore starter at safety. We lost a lot up front on defense, but we return a lot in the back end. Those guys are going to have to provide stability. We may have to put a little more pressure on those guys next year to allow us to grow up up front.

Q: If you project ahead five weeks, what is the best-case scenario for how this spring plays out for you? What are the most important things you need to accomplish?

A: No. 1, I just want to see guys play fast. Whenever you’re installing new systems, it makes guys think more, makes them process more. We’ve got to get through that as quick as we can. We’ve got to make sure guys understand our core systems moving forward. No. 2 is the offensive skill position -- quarterback to running back to receiver to tight end -- you’d like to come out of spring saying, "These are the three or four guys we can really count on to make plays." The third part is shoring up the defensive front.

But as the new head coach at Wake Forest, with a new staff, I think establishing a foundation and establishing the culture are probably more important than any individual position battle or scheme we’re going to run. We need to establish the Wake Forest way of doing things. That’s what I’m most excited about, and that’s the part of the program I enjoy the most, having been through this before. You start seeing little victories -- not necessarily on the scoreboard but behind the scenes in terms of strength gains or grade improvement, little signs guys are buying in. Part of that is just the attitude and effort we practice with. That’s what we’ve got to get accomplished and set in stone the next five weeks here.