About this time a year ago, after Wake Forest’s 28-14 loss at Clemson, coach Dave Clawson breathed a sigh of relief, content in the knowledge that the Demon Deacons probably wouldn’t have to face the stars of the Tigers’ formidable defensive front again.
Then Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant decided to return for another season and another run at a national championship.
“They have four down linemen that I was hoping all would declare (for the NFL Draft),” Clawson said. “You are thinking there is no way all four of them come back and they do.
“What is scary is that even after those four, they have good players. They are good, they have depth and they play extremely hard. They’re talented and they play with a great motor. They can do that because they have depth and can roll guys in there.”
But the defensive front for No. 4 Clemson (5-0, 2-0 ACC) is far from the only concern for Wake Forest (3-2, 0-1), which has lost nine consecutive games against Clemson by an average margin of 22.9 points.
“We are playing one of the best teams in the country this week,” Clawson said. “We try not to talk about them.”
Yet Clawson can’t help himself.
“Their offensive line gets better every year,” said Clawson, whose team will attempt to knock off a Top 10 opponent at Wake Forest for the first time in program history. “At running back, they have depth. (Travis) Etienne, I thought last year might have been their best back as a freshman. He has gotten better and better. He is averaging over eight yards a carry.
“At receiver, they are loaded and play nine guys. Their starters are the best of the best in the ACC, but there are six other guys they can play and there isn’t a big dropoff.”
That may be true, but Wake Forest isn’t bereft of talent. The Demon Deacons rank second in the ACC and 17th nationally in rushing at 244.4 yards per game, so Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. ET matchup on ESPN will feature strength vs. strength — Clemson’s defense is No. 10 nationally against the run, allowing only 95 yards per game.
“Offensively, they’re a big challenge,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s almost like playing Georgia Tech again, but with a different style of play. They’re very unique. It stresses you and you’ve got to have great discipline. They know when you’re not fitting the gaps properly.”
The game also shapes up as a battle of freshman quarterbacks — Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the latter of whom is returning from a neck strain suffered last week against Syracuse that prevented him from playing in the second half.
Lawrence’s backup, redshirt freshman Chase Brice, came on and rallied Clemson from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to a 27-23 win.
“It is scary to think that out of the spring, he was probably fourth,” Clawson said. “But they had a transfer and then another transfer, and now he is second. He had to go in. Whoever their quarterback is, either Lawrence or Brice, they are in really good shape.”
Hartman has quickly if not quietly established himself as one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks. He’s third in the league in both passing yards with 1,185 and passing touchdowns with 10.
“This quarterback they have is a baller,” Swinney said. “He’s going to be a problem for a while. He has a really good feel for what they’re asking him to do.”
Wake Forest wide receiver Greg Dortch is one of the league’s top playmakers. The sophomore leads the ACC in receptions, receiving yards and catches per game.
“He is a really good player,” Swinney said. “He’s quick and has a ton of catches and also leads the league in punt returns. He’s dangerous.”
Clemson will counter with Etienne, a sophomore running back who has been on quite a roll. He’s coming off a career-best 203-yard game and has 487 yards on 54 carries in the last three games for an average of 9.0 yards per attempt.