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Puzzle-solving begins as Deacons try to replace trio of Beef Boys

March 3, 2019

There’s a reason that Coach Dave Clawson, when he was the brink of diving into a position-by-position breakdown of Wake Forest’s football roster, chose the offensive line to highlight first.

Clawson acknowledged the quarterback battle between Jamie Newman and Sam Hartman, and then went to the group that’s tasked with replacing three senior starters.

“You know, everyone’s going to ask me about quarterback — but I really look at the offensive line as probably our No. 1, I don’t want to say it’s a concern,” Clawson said, “but … our offensive run game the last five years has gone from (averaging) 40 (yards per game) to 105 to 140 to 185 to last year, about 210-215. And those improvements were made with pretty much the same players every year. And now three of those big pieces of what we did aren’t here.

“Right now, the offensive line is sort of that puzzle. We’re going to give guys a lot of reps.”

Ryan Anderson, Phil Haynes and Patrick Osterhage formed the starting interior of the Deacons’ offensive line for the past two seasons. They’ve left the holes that Wake Forest has to replace.

The pieces with the most-stable footing are Jake Benzinger and Nathan Gilliam, two stalwarts who will be fifth-year seniors next season. But even their status is shifting.

Justin Herron won’t be up to speed in recovering from his torn ACL until fall camp. He’s expected to be the left tackle, and if he’s able to slide into that spot, it’ll allow Benzinger to move back to right tackle after taking Herron’s spot on the left last year. If that scenario plays out, it’ll allow Gilliam to return to right guard after he moved to right tackle last season.

It hinges, though, on Herron’s health and on the Deacons developing a third tackle.

“So then it becomes a competition of OK, if we put Nate at guard, who’s our next best player?” Clawson said.

Allan Rappleyea, a 6-5, 290-pounder who will be a redshirt sophomore next season, worked as the first-team right tackle this week. Mike Edwards and Orlando Heggs II, a pair of linemen who redshirted last season, didn’t practice this week but are expected to return before the end of spring practices.

Left guard is the spot formerly occupied by Haynes, and it’s probably the position that features the most competition. Je’Vionte’ Nash has taken first-team reps there thus far, while Loic Ngassam Nya is expected to also compete.

The surest spot where the Deacons have a replacement is center, where Zach Tom moves into Anderson’s spot. Tom played more than 300 snaps last season, starting one game and playing at least 20 snaps in five other games.

“We feel really good about him, although he hasn’t been a starter before,” Clawson said of Tom.