My Take On Wake: Plenty of reasons for optimism entering 2018 for Deacons

December 31, 2017 GMT

Credit for this one goes to a Twitter comment and talking with Joe Giglio of the Raleigh News & Observer today, so, much appreciated for the conversations.

Here’s the sequence of tweets from the aftermath of the Belk Bowl:

What’s weird: Wake’s offense will lose its starting QB (Wolford) and TE (Serigne), but will “return” 11 starters when you consider Hines/Dortch and Colburn/Carney split starts 7/6 this year.— Conor O’Neill (@ConorONeillWSJ) December 30, 2017

And the guy that beat out Wolford multiple times— Joel Wilson (@JRW919) December 30, 2017

Also, yes.That’s an incredible amount of talent coming back on offense. https://t.co/3U1ZMdpmob — Conor O’Neill (@ConorONeillWSJ) December 30, 2017

Should be fun. Hope they can beat some of the big boys in the ACC next year.— Joel Wilson (@JRW919) December 30, 2017

I didn’t think much of that at the time. At 9:15 p.m. Friday, I was one of two people left in the Bank of America Stadium press box and it was time to put a bow on my story.

When I was leaving the Smith Center today with Giglio, I remembered seeing that tweet. And there was a question that needed to be asked.

Who, exactly, will be the “big boys of the ACC” next year?

Get this out of the way first: Clemson. That’s a monster, and they’re not going anywhere. Beyond that, who?

North Carolina State will return a bunch of talent, but not as much if quarterback Ryan Finley decides to bolt for the NFL. Louisville could be in the same position, and might need a new coach if a new athletics director is hired who isn’t a Bobby Petrino fan. Florida State already has its new coach, and he has a 47-51 career record. Boston College should have the ACC’s preseason Player of the Year in running back AJ Dillon, but the Eagles are on a similar trajectory as Wake Forest. Syracuse will have quarterback Eric Dungey back, but neither of his All-ACC targets. Duke might rediscover its magic of 2013, it might not. Pittsburgh played three quarterbacks this season.

Those are the ACC teams on Wake Forest’s schedule next year. Now ponder what the Deacons will have, barring any unforeseen developments.

• An offensive line that returns all five starters, including three who earned All-ACC honors.

• A backfield with Matt Colburn II, Cade Carney and Arkeem Byrd will get better with Christian Beal entering the fold.

• A slot receiver position that combined for 106 catches, 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns returns both Tabari Hines and Greg Dortch. Putting those two on the field at the same time would be electric.

• The other weapons at receiver are all expected to return — Scotty Washington and his 6-foot-5 frame, Alex Bachman and his quickness, Chuck Wade Jr. and his reliability. It’s worth noting that Sage Surratt’s name came up a few times this month, too, as a player who took advantage of extra practices.

• Hinton takes over at quarterback. In his spot start at Clemson, he threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 92 yards.

• The final damage for this season’s offense was 459 points, shattering the school record of 362 from 2007. And more than 90 percent of the players responsible for that should be back for the Deacons.

Things became rough for this team’s defense at times, because of injuries and other reasons. There were growing pains under new coordinator Jay Sawvel. Sophomore cornerbacks Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson had to improve as the season went on. The strength of the defense will be in the secondary, while interior linemen Zeek Rodney and Willie Yarbary have to become senior leaders. Justin Strnad could be a star at linebacker, but he’ll have a starter alongside him who’s inexperienced.

Wake Forest still won’t be seen as one of the big boys entering the season, because in the next seven months, some of these things will be overshadowed by shinier developments at other schools. The Deacons probably won’t be picked to finish in the upper half of the ACC Atlantic Division next year, despite returning so much talent from a third-place finishing team this year.

And one 8-5 season with a Belk Bowl victory doesn’t mean the Deacons have arrived as a top-tier ACC team.

But at this rate, Wake Forest is getting there.