While in past seasons Wake Forest’s bye week has seemed either too early or too late, this year’s is coming at the perfect time.
Dave Clawson’s team is 5-2, but it’s coming off a tough road trip to Florida State and needs to get some key players healthy.
The Deacons were without four starters at FSU, and all four of those players are back on the practice field: quarterback Kendall Hinton, center Josh Harris, tight end Cam Serigne and cornerback Amari Henderson.
So the Deacons will head into the stretch run with three clearly winnable home games against Army, Virginia and Boston College. The Deacons haven’t won more than six games since 2008 — the end of Jim Grobe’s three straight bowl appearances.
Here are three questions the Deacons need to answer in the last five games:
1. How much will Hinton be able to contribute?
It seems like a long time ago when Hinton played so well against Duke. He took over the starting job from John Wolford, but he didn’t last long against Delaware before injuring his knee.
Since then, Hinton has missed four games, with Wolford going 2-2 as a starter. Clawson came out and said that Hinton would definitely return as the starter, but he left himself some wiggle room by saying Hinton had to be 100 percent healthy. So potentially, he could return in a part-time capacity while getting his legs under him.
While Wolford hasn’t been bad, Hinton clearly makes the offense more dynamic. Defenses have to account for his running ability, helping to free up lanes for the running backs. His arm, while not as accurate, is better at stretching defenses.
But Hinton’s skills have come at a cost. He’s been banged up both of his college seasons and unable to stay in the lineup. There’s no guarantee that after he makes it back as the starter that he’ll stay there.
The Deacons face two teams back-to-back in November in Louisville and Clemson that are in the top 10 nationally in total defense. Will Hinton be able to take a pounding and still finish the season?
2. Can the Deacons solve their issues at the second cornerback spot?
Wake Forest’s defense has been solid all season, but when it’s struggled, offenses have been able to pass the ball. The Deacons rank 19th nationally against the run but 95th against the pass.
Most of those problems stem from one cornerback spot. Sophomore Dionte Austin started the season, but by Week 3, he was being phased out. The Deacons turned to redshirt freshman Henderson, who had been slowed by an injury during fall practice.
When Henderson’s injury bug returned against Florida State, Wake Forest plugged in true freshman Essang Bassey, who finished with eight tackles, two passes broken up and a fumble recovery.
Because of the struggles at the position, the Deacons have had to use safety, and that’s exposed the other cornerback, Brad Watson, as being very good, but not great. Watson has been left on an island often, and he’s been hit with some big plays.
The Deacons should take advantage of the fact that Army and Boston College don’t have a passing game, but Virginia has thrown for at least 240 yards in five of seven games. Henderson and Bassey will have to get better quickly.
3. Can the Deacons establish a real passing game?
For several years, the Wake Forest hasn’t been able to run the ball at all, so it resorted to a heavy emphasis on the pass. This season, though, the opposite has been true. The Deacons have been much more effective on the ground (78th nationally) than through the air (108).
Only once, in the NC State game, have the Deacons completed more than 16 passes or thrown for more than 185 yards. The most disturbing part of those numbers is that the receivers were expected to be a strength this season.
The reason for optimism here is the return to form of last year’s leading receiver, Cortez Lewis. After missing significant practice time with a foot injury, Lewis caught four passes in the first four games for 75 yards. In the last three games, he caught 17 passes for 203 yards.
Tight end Serigne, who caught 100 balls in his first two seasons, was having a similar resurgence before his injury. After catching six passes in his first four games, he hauled in nine in the next two before missing the FSU game.
While Tabari Hines and Chuck Wade have been solid in the slot, the Deacons haven’t received any production from their other outside receiver spot. Sophomore Alex Bachman and redshirt freshmen Scotty Washington and Steven Claude have combined to catch 16 passes through seven games.
At some point, the Deacons could get Jared Crump back, although he’s missed a season and a half with knee issues. Crump caught 32 passes in 2014 as a redshirt sophomore. He was in line to man one of the outside receiver roles this season when he had more knee issues in fall practice. The original timeline was four weeks, but Crump hasn’t seen the field yet.
The Deacons’ attack has seemed to be bubble screens and deep throws, and they’ll have to do a better job working the middle of the field to succeed down the stretch.