The Florida State Seminoles have started a perfect 7-0 on the season after their primetime win over the Duke Blue Devils. This Saturday, the Seminoles will travel to Winston-Salem to take on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Each week, as part of our Line of Scrimmage series, we’ll be speaking with members of the beat that covers FSU’s upcoming opponent, getting all the details from those who know those teams best.
Wake Forest is coming off a victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers that snapped a three-game losing streak. Through the first seven games, the Demon Deacons have battled injuries and experience to notch out a 4-3 record. Similar to last week’s matchup with Duke, Wake Forest has question marks of their own at quarterback headed into Saturday’s game as both starter Mitch Griffis and backup Michael Kearn missed the last week with injuries. Can the Demon Deacon offense control the pace of the game and keep this one close? We’ll discuss this and more with Cam Lemons of the Demon Deacons Digest.
Let’s start with the 40,000 feet view of the Wake Forest team. The Demon Deacons started out 3-0, winning the games that were expected before a turnover filled collapse against Georgia Tech, a close loss to Clemson, and then a third straight loss against a suddenly upstart Virginia Tech squad. They pulled off the win over Pittsburgh last week to move to 4-3 overall. What’s been the source of Wake’s problems so far this year?
I think the biggest thing has been just the inexperience —inconsistent outcomes every single not just game but down.
It’s just been a work in progress. And it’s felt weird because when we sat there and watched spring practice and fall practice, it kind of felt reversed. The defense was kind of hanging on by a thread while the offense was just cooking.
Now, you’ll have guys do well for two to three plays in a row and then you’ll run a simple inside zone and everything just falls apart. You have guys running into each other, you’ve got guys turned the wrong way, blocking the wrong way, wrong reads, drops — it’s felt like they lost their confidence for about three to four games and against Pitt, at times they started getting that back. Obviously, it’s just one game against a team that’s only won one ACC game. Overall, just inexperienced and confidence is at a low especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Mitch Griffis started the first six games before being replaced by Michael Kern. They were both out with injuries in the Pittsburgh win led by Santino Marucci. As we are recording it sounds like Griffis might be back Saturday. This is certainly not the play that Wake expected out of Griffis, who came in with high accuracy expectations but has struggled with six interceptions up to this point. What’s your thoughts on why Griffis has struggled and what can you tell us about the other potential quarterbacks we may see on Saturday?
Mitch has just been doing too much.
You saw it in spring camp and fall camp, where he maybe would hold on to it a little longer than he should, but no one had ever saw this coming.
A guy who completed 75-80% of his passes as a high schooler, had the highest completion percentage that any Dave Clawson quarterbacks has ever had in his years of coaching, especially at Wake Forest. You wouldn’t think there’d be you know, accuracy issues and turnovers and fumbles and all this stuff.
Granted, the rest of the offense has just not been good alongside him. But it’s been just night and day. You have a guy that just looks like he’s just lost and trying to do too much
In terms of Saturday, I’m a bit skeptical, Mitch will play. I’m a little bit skeptical. I know that he was at least on the sidelines on Saturday, which was a bigger step than what I thought would be. If he does play, I think the play calling will still be pretty similar to what it was on Saturday when which I think if Santino starts, which was — don’t do a lot. Santino threw the game-winning touchdown last week against Pitt, which was probably one of the better throws we’ve seen that for Wake Forest quarterback this year,
He used to be a safety, they moved him to running back at a certain point.
A lot of what he did on Saturday was predetermined — there wasn’t a whole lot of “we’re asking you to make reads,” it was “this is going to be a running play. This is going to be a passing play, you have one maybe two progressions, get the ball out.” And I think this is going to be something where on offense, they’re going to try their best to really take the air out of the ball and try to attack a lot on the perimeter.
And here’s the thing — if Santino is the starter, and he gets hurt, that’s the third string quarterback. You’re playing either a true freshman scholarship quarterback or you’re playing a true freshman walk on. So I think a lot of it’s going to be ball control, limit the mistakes and get out healthy.
At running back, Justice Ellison was the expected lead back with high potential sophomore Demond Claiborne lurking. But from go, Claiborne has really seized the reins of this backfield, though they’re both doing well. I know you touched on Ellison’s patience in the off-season but where do these backs differ? Or are they similar? And how do you expect the Deacons to deploy this duo on Saturday?
They’re actually pretty different in both the running and in the pass game. They like Justice Ellison more in pass protecting, but Claiborne’s explosiveness and speed is just unmatched. He’s really, really fast and explosive and the vision has gotten a lot better.
Meanwhile a guy like Ellison, he’s someone that gonna get some bursts — he’s not the fastest guy — but he does everything well. He catches the ball well, runs well, doesn’t fumble the ball. Problem with him right now is he’s been nursing a high ankle sprain. That’s been a little bit tough on him. He’s probably missed a total of two games in terms of his quarters and halves missed with just an ankle injury. So they really tried to lean on Clairborne to break the game open and that’s what he did on Saturday.
This is one of the more polished wide receiver corps in the ACC. I know pre-season, you felt this was the strongest in the ACC. This group has put up solid numbers. Wake has four receivers with nearly 250 yards or more. The ball is consistently spread around to Wake’s top guys, led by the 6’4 Jahmal Banks. What makes this group stand out in the ACC for you?
Like what you said, it’s the fact that the balls spread out. You can put anyone’s name there and say, hey, you know, this guy had 10 catches, 150 yards and two touchdowns and you’d go, “Oh, yeah, no, that makes sense.” There’s never really someone that you’re really surprised of.
Everyone complements each other very well. You have your Jahmal Banks — fast, 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, can go up and get it. Ke’Shawn Williams can just kind of break a five yard gain open for 35 yards. Taylor Morin can make contested catches.
Finally on offense, let’s talk the line. The Deacons lost experience with three starters gone from last year and have struggled so far this season as quarterbacks have been sacked 31 times and the line is allowing the rushing game to only average 3.5 yards per carry. What has led to the offensive line taking such a big step back?
Experience, definitely. Like I said, you’ll have a couple plays in a row where they’ll have eight, nine yards on runs and then it’s a second down and someone’s facing the wrong way or pulling the wrong way.
They’ve had to play probably four or five offensive tackles, it’s felt like no one has been comfortable.
Let’s jump over to the defense and stick with line play. The defense as a whole has 17 sacks with the defensive line responsible for eight of those. Jasheen Davis is leading the way with 4.5 of his own and the defense has allowed less than 4 yards per carry. What’s impressed you about this line so far and where might FSU have an advantage this weekend?
The defensive tackles were my second biggest worry going into the season. I was obviously very high on Jasheen Davis — he’s now in the starting role, can really pin his ears back and go.
I’ve been really impressed the fact that they haven’t worn down the way I thought they would have by this point. They are really, really athletic — Wake is usually a team that loves to stunt, if there’s three down four down, doesn’t matter. Whenever someone’s lined up, it’s probably not their entry point. And so it really gives the confusion to the rest of the offensive line.
But it does take a toll consistently going that fast and going as hard — if you’re on the field for 70-80 plays, no matter who you are, you’re gonna wear down so it’s a blessing and a curse of how athletic and their speed that they have.
I love how multiple they are — you’ll see them going into a four down front and then you’ll see three down with a linebacker standing up as an edge rusher and that’s been really fun. I think they found a nice way to hide depth issues. It’s just a matter of if someone does go down and I am holding my breath.
Moving back to the linebackers, senior transfer Jacob Roberts is leading the team in tackles with sophomore Dylan Hazen right behind him. The Deacons lost their defensive leader last season with Ryan Smenda going pro, but has this group taken a step back? PFF likes this group and it appears to be a really solid group for the Demon Deacons.
If you told me before the season Wake Forest would have four guys not available for the season so far, I would have told you the Wake Forest defense is giving up 45 to 50 points a game. It’s an area where they’ve been kind of torched over that last few years so credit to Glenn Spencer and new defensive analyst who’s a linebackers coach as well David Ellison, they’ve put they’ve invested a lot of money and resources into getting that linebacker room ready.
Jacob Roberts came in out of shape a little bit but really really came on as spring camp went out and then once they figured out how to play him, it really unlocked everything.
Dylan Hazen has been playing some of the best football I’ve seen out of a linebacker in a very, very long time. He got hurt against Pitt. We’ll see if he’s available for this game.
I don’t know what Glenn Spencer has told them or what he’s saying in the room. I need it for whatever I’m doing in my life because it’s really just changed how they’ve been composed.
And then there’s the secondary, finally healthy this year after several key injuries last season. Safety Malik Mustapha flies around and Dashawn Jones has been a ballhawk with three interceptions. How has this group performed in your opinion? And can FSU find success in any particular area?
Remember how I said defensive tackle was my number two worry on defense? Number one was corner. I was I was scared.
One thing that I think people are going to kind of get too caught up in is how many yards that Wake Forest is gonna give up, especially in the pass. I think they’re gonna give up on a ton of the yards because the way Wake Forest plays is they trust their tacklers. They just do not want to give up an explosive. So they’re gonna play a few yards off the ball and they’re really, really good tacklers.
So when it comes to Keon Coleman, they might press him a little bit, but I think for the most part, it’s gonna be a good test for Keon Coleman to show YAC ability. Can you break a couple tackles here and there? I don’t know how much Wake is going to go play on one on one and say “if you can’t get him, you can’t get him.” That hasn’t been their style all year.
I think they’ll they’ll have some respect for that. And especially with trying to contain Jordan Travis as well —they’re just like “you know what, let’s just try to keep everything in front of us and go from there.”
And last of all, thoughts on the Saturday matchup?
I feel defeatist saying this but — get out of there healthy. If you’re Wake just just go in there, do your best. I think there are some weaknesses on the Florida State team because I don’t know if they’ve been able to play a full four quarters, and that’s been weird for me.
If you can kind of take the air out of it and limit as much as you can, I think you have a shot here. But if you get down 14-0 in this game, 21-0 in this game, I don’t see a way that to come back.
I think they’re gonna try to pin their ears back see if they can get to Jordan Travis, go from there. Hold your breath. That’s about it.