Most football coaches will say there’s little that can have a bigger impact on a game than a turnover.
The same can be said for their program as a whole.
Just 20 months after Jim Grobe coached his final game for Wake Forest, his successor, Dave Clawson has started his second season with just 24 players who took the field for Grobe. Of that number, 14 started at least one game for Grobe and only six (Brandon Chubb, Hunter Williams, Ryan Janvion, Dylan Intemann, Tyler Hayworth and punter Alex Kinal) started for more than half a season.
“Just talking to the guys in normal conversations, I always have to ask when I bring up something from the past, like ‘Wait, were you with Grobe or not?’” Chubb said. “It’s crazy. You don’t know because there’s so many of coach Clawson’s recruits and guys who didn’t play for Grobe.’’
Time erodes even the deepest mark a coach puts on a program, and often in surprisingly rapid fashion. The attrition rate that began under Grobe and continued under Clawson is remarkably similar to the turnover from the Jim Caldwell-era going into Grobe’s second season of 2002, or the number of players left over from Tom O’Brien’s run at N.C. State going into the second season (2014) of his successor, Dave Doeren.
When coaches leave, so do players. And sometimes coaches leave, in part, because too many good players already have. Those are facts of college football, making the desired intentions of every new coach to put his own stamp on his program easier than many might suspect.
“There’s more of a buy-in,” said Clawson, who went 3-9 in his debut season. “In year two, it’s still a transition year but there are more of the players on the roster now that came here to play for us. So there’s an instant buy-in with them.
“Of the vets, there’s a greater percentage of them who have bought in. There’s still a faction, I’m sure, that has not bought in, but every year that number gets smaller and smaller.
“So when you’re addressing the group at the end (of practice), you feel you’re addressing a group that is committed to the program, is doing things the right way and really wants to win.”
As a consequence, Wake Forest will open the season Thursday against Elon with one of the youngest rosters in college football.
By Clawson’s count, 76 of his 104 players (which includes walk-ons) who started camp were freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores.
The defense is actually seasoned by any standards; virtually every projected starter is entering his third, fourth or fifth season with the program. But few offenses will be as green this season as the one that takes the field against Elon, with Clawson predicting that more than half the starters could be freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
“We were left with some good players on defense,’’ Clawson said. “Really the starting defense, right now if you had to project, are all guys that we inherited.
“The offense, right now, with the exception of (tackle) Dylan Intemann and (guard) Josh Harris, none of those kids played before we got here. There was nobody left, and that is where the attrition killed us.’’
Grobe, going into his second season at Wake Forest, had 25 players who played in a game for Caldwell. Fifteen had started, but only six had started more than six games.
Doeren, going into his second season at N.C. State, had 24 players who took the field for O’Brien. Fourteen had started and nine had started more than six games.
The big difference from what Clawson faces and what Doeren had on hand for his second season at N.C. State is that the Wolfpack holdovers from the O’Brien regime were, by and large, more experienced.
The 14 players who started for O’Brien had a combined 146 career starts. The 14 players on the Wake Forest roster who started for Grobe had a combined 104 career starts.
“When you take head jobs, you don’t look at the roster,” Clawson said. “You look at the fundamentals there where you can believe you can build a good winning program that can sustain itself. And I still believe those things exist here. I’ve been through short-term challenges before for long-term gains.”
For the most part, even the experienced offensive players at Wake Forest are still rather new. John Wolford started all 12 games at quarterback, but as a sophomore, that’s his only 12 games of college football. His leading receiver, tight end Cam Serigne, is a redshirt sophomore who has also started 12 games in college.
At Wake Forest, as at most programs, young teams traditionally struggle. The Deacons’ best seasons have been forged by veteran rosters, when a coach has been able to keep the younger players improving through long, frustrating campaigns until they mature as a group together.
But an essential component for that formula is talent. And Clawson is convinced he has upgraded the level of talent through aggressive recruiting that, in time, will pay dividends.
He admits his only hope for 2015 is that the young players grow up fast.
“Talent gives us hope,” Clawson said. “We’re young but we’re talented. You have to have a minimal talent level to even have a chance, and I feel in that regard we’re in better shape than we were a year ago.”