Dave Clawson is the new head coach at Wake Forest, and he has brought with him a change in philosophy by implementing analytics. His teams are now more data-driven than ever before – making it difficult for other coaches to compete against them on the field.

“Dave Clawson has created college football version’s of Moneyball at Wake Forest” is a blog post that Dave Clawson, the head coach of Wake Forest, wrote about their new strategy.

Wake Forest is 6-0 entering their open date in mid-October, and Dave Clawson is furious.

He isn’t exactly enraged. Clawson, who is in his sixth year as the Demon Deacons’ coach, seldom gets angry. This is an important aspect of his coaching philosophy. There are no F-bombs, media rants, or emotional outbursts. Every day, Clawson wants to be the same man. So, no, he isn’t enraged. Perhaps agitated.

Wake was rated 16th at the time, four positions lower than any other unbeaten Power 5 school. The Demon Deacons dominated the Atlantic Division of the ACC, but few expected them to remain there for long. Then there were sophisticated metrics to consider. Wake Forest was dismissed outright by the algorithms. According to Clawson, the whole system is excessively narrow-minded.

“The formulae out there constantly put us down,” Clawson said. “I don’t believe it’s fair to our kids that what we do is undervalued because of some recruitment rankings from six years ago that bind them to a certain path. You’re a three-star once, and you’re a three-star forever.”

The Deacons are a 2.5-point underdog against 4-4 North Carolina on Saturday (noon ET on ABC and the ESPN App), and ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them a 50-50 chance of winning the division they presently control.

But, as Clawson pointed out, it’s not as if the algorithms messed up the arithmetic. They’re measuring the wrong things. Because it was created to appreciate their sheer might, the system adores Alabama, Ohio State, and Georgia.

Wake Forest, with its three-star recruits-turned-sixth-year seniors, unusual offense, and out-of-the-box coach — “the most advanced coach in America,” according to Jason George, the team’s director of performance — manages to pull it off.

“Moneyball” is Wake Forest’s nickname.

“We can’t win the race with lower skill,” Clawson remarked. “As a result, the race had to be changed.”

For the first time in school history, Wake Forest is 8-0. The ACC’s highest-ranked club is seventh in the Playoff committee’s first rankings. The Demon Deacons have now played in five consecutive bowl games. They’ve recently received a $20 million grant to help fund the construction of a new football facility, and they’ve set their sights on crashing the College Football Playoff despite having a roster full of players that none of their blue-blood peers wanted.

While coaches like as Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops have received praise for guiding young teams into unknown territory, Clawson’s little engine that might is mostly forgotten in the United States.

So, yes, Clawson is a bit irrational. He discovered a loophole that enables a school like Wake Forest to compete with the best in college football, but the system still doesn’t like the Deacons.

“Why are people astonished that we’re a decent football team?” Clawson explained. “This isn’t something that just happened. We’ve done well. We’ve been constructing. It doesn’t bother me, but I believe our guys are deserving of greater praise.”

Dave Clawson, according to Wake Forest’s director of performance, is “the most advanced coach in America.” USA TODAY Sports’ James Guillory


CLAWSON CAME TO WAKE FOREST IN 2014 following successful periods at Fordham, Richmond, and Bowling Green, and he understood the reconstruction would be challenging from the start. The football fields were almost non-existent. Clawson struggled to build out a depth chart because the roster, especially on offense, was so barren of quality. Wake Forest won a historic ACC title under Jim Grobe in 2006, but the program had been in decline for years before Clawson arrived. ESPN listed Wake Forest as the worst job in the Power 5 in the spring of 2015.

“Every job is difficult,” said Wake Athletic Director John Currie, who worked with Clawson at Tennessee and took over for veteran AD Ron Wellman at Wake in 2019. “Alabama is a difficult task. But what are the characteristics that make a job difficult, and what is it about a specific coach that qualifies them for that task? Wake Forest boasts a number of unique features that no other university in the nation can match. Then you look at Dave Clawson, who has all of the characteristics that complement our strengths.”

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Clawson has a dry, approachable manner and approaches challenges analytically. Last season, he took up residence in his workplace for weeks at a time to keep his wife safe from COVID-19. He is a voracious reader. This year’s team motto, “Good to Great,” was inspired by a book on corporate success by the same name that he read. He’s had offers from big-name colleges, but he’s turned down most of them, avoiding the yearly coaching-search rumor mill. He claims he has no desire to be a “famous coach.” He’s a gourmet who’s eaten at Michelin-starred establishments, yet he carries a name tag from his old restaurant job in his pocket as a reminder of simpler times. The Talking Heads are his favorite band, which seems appropriate. Clawson has the potential to be college football’s equivalent of David Byrne, the game’s coolest geek.

Clawson’s unique approach suited at Wake Forest, which is the smallest school in the Power 5, an academic powerhouse, and a football rarity.

Warren Ruggiero, Wake Forest’s offensive coordinator, likened Clawson’s approach to Steve Jobs’: “You can’t look at the competitors and claim to be able to outperform them. You must examine the competition and declare that you will do things differently.”

Clawson’s first two years at Wake Forest were difficult, with both seasons finishing with a 3-9 record, but he saw improvement. The scout team’s freshman offensive lineman started to hold their own against the first-team defense. John Wolford, the true freshman quarterback he tossed into the fire in 2014, endured the storm. His early recruiting classes, which were mostly made up of raw talent, came to resemble ACC-caliber athletes.

“Finding players that can still grow and become as excellent as those four- and five-star athletes is the key to our success,” Clawson said. “They don’t have any physical deficiencies. It’s just been a year of growth. I really feel that after a year of growth in our program, many of our guys will be four-star athletes.”

Wake has had as many first- and second-round draft picks as Texas since 2015, and two players Clawson signed out of high school (quarterback Sam Hartman and tailback Kenneth Walker III, who transferred to Michigan State last spring) are among the top ten betting favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in 2021. They’re three-star players according to the algorithms, but Clawson knows better.

Wake’s offensive strategy in Clawson’s early years was to eat up as much time as as in the hopes of winning a low-scoring game, which they achieved frequently: 6-3 (in double OT) against Virginia Tech in 2014, 3-0 against BC in 2014, and 7-3 against Tulane in 2016. However, as the talent grew, Clawson and Ruggiero developed a new approach, a Frankenstein’s monster version of the triple option that uses a delay at the mesh point between the QB and running back that almost allows a fan to get off the couch and grab a beer before Hartman decides whether to pull the ball or hand it off. The strategy has continued to generate incredible results, including a 70-point outburst against Army in Week 8 despite the Deacons only having the ball for almost 17 minutes. College football is sometimes referred to be a “copycat” sport, but Wake Forest’s approach is unique.

In 2016, everything started to fall into place. Wake Forest attended a bowl game. A year later, the Deacons went 8-5 and won the Belk Bowl against Texas A&M. Another victory at the Super Bowl in 2018. For the second time in three years, Wake Forest won its first five games and ended with eight victories.

Despite the fact that Clawson had converted the worst job in America into a perennial winner, few people outside of Winston-Salem were aware of it.

Most coaches would be searching for the first ticket to a more high-profile post after hearing all of this, but that has never been Clawson’s goal. Clawson spent a year as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee between his stops at Richmond and Bowling Green. Phillip Fulmer’s tenure as head coach was coming to an end, the coaching staff was new, and the squad was in horrible shape. Clawson became a focus of fan ire, and after signing a three-year contract, he and the whole staff were fired at the conclusion of the year.

Clawson acknowledges that the experience was unpleasant, but that he learnt from it. Clawson values the patience he has received at Wake Forest and believes in the school’s culture.

It would be good to get some recognition for his accomplishment, but he understands that this is a double-edged sword.

Clawson, 54, said, “I’m extremely content where I’m at.” “In our industry, you don’t feel the need to look if you’re content and enjoying where you’re at.”

Sam Hartman, the quarterback, is one of the top ten betting favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. Rich Barnes is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.


HARTMAN DID NOT EXPECT HIS JULY PREDICTION TO RECEIVE MUCH ATTENTION. Hartman and Wake’s squad leaders had been talking about their preparations for the 2021 campaign for months at this time, the natural conclusion to the “Good to Great” motto.

“It would be a letdown if we didn’t win 10 games this year,” Hartman remarked.

Wake had made significant improvement under Clawson, but 10 wins? What’s up at Wake Forest? The program has only had one 10-win season in its existence, which dates back to 1908. The Demon Deacons faced two preseason top-10 opponents and competed in a division dominated by Florida State and Clemson for the previous decade. With a 4-5 record and three consecutive defeats, the 2020 season came to a close. The goal of ten victories wasn’t just a pipe dream. It was completely irrational.

A rundown of the most talked-about instances during Clawson’s Wake Forest career as of 2021:

  • Wake Forest and Virginia Tech went to overtime deadlocked at zero in 2014, and Hokies coach Frank Beamer’s response to a last-second field goal became a viral meme.

  • In 2016, a former Wake assistant coach turned radio commentator was revealed as a spy, secretly passing over precise play concepts he had seen in practice to opposition coaches. The controversy occurred during the height of Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks prominence, and it earned the title “Wakeyleaks” in the process.

  • Tyler Cameron and Matt James, two former Wake Forest football players, were on “The Bachelorette” and “The Bachelor.”

  • ESPN’s College GameDay visited Wake Forest for the first time in last season’s opener. Of course, it happened in the midst of a worldwide epidemic. Fans were not permitted. That night, the game was broadcast on a drive-in movie screen.

The Deacons also made news off the field. Even when it was winning, Wake was a quaint footnote in tales about Clemson, Florida State, or North Carolina.

“The story is always about what [our opponents] aren’t,” Clawson said.

Clawson, on the other hand, had already persuaded his players that they were capable of more within the program.

“We’re pleased of going to bowls,” Clawson said, “but if that’s your sole aim this year, we’re selling ourselves short.”

Clawson had seen improvement throughout a terrible 2020 season that was turned upside down by COVID-19. Jaquarii Roberson has developed into one of the top receivers in the ACC. Caelen Carson and Nick Anderson, both freshmen, have emerged as powerful supporting players. Wake’s offensive strategy was mastered by Hartman. Clawson saw depth emerging in practice. The offense and defense swapped blows in scrimmages, with neither side falling too far behind the other.

Although the 2020 season didn’t seem to be on the verge of breaking through, Clawson knew his squad was near.

“We got together as a staff and said, ‘There’s so much uncertainty in the world with the epidemic and social justice,’ so we’re going to make our offices and meetings and football the two to three hours a day that our players look forward to the most,’” Clawson said. “‘Whatever we do, we have to establish an environment here where we can still train them hard while still making this aspect of their lives joyful.’ The most important [on-field] aim for 2020 was to get to 2021 without jeopardizing our football program.”

Wake Forest was ready to reveal the machine it had created beneath the COVID-19-imposed shroud by the year 2021. Hartman’s prophesy may have been disregarded by the rest of the world, but the Deacons were convinced.

Hartman said, “I want to win an ACC title.” “We’re big-time football, and we’re making a message that there’s no shock within this locker room.”

This year, Wake Forest’s motto has been “Good to Great.” Brian Bishop/Icon Sportswire photo


CLAWSON WAS CONSIDERING THE TEAM’S “Good to Great” moto this spring when he received a call from an old acquaintance. When Clawson arrived at Fordham in 1999, he took over as the team’s strength coach from Jason George, and the two remained close even when George left to pursue a career in the NFL. George had just departed the Houston Texans and was in need of a change of scenery. The statistics, science, and psychology that went into enhancing a player’s performance were his favorite aspects of being a strength coach. He want a position where he could concentrate on those things.

It was a stroke of luck. Wake Forest had begun hot almost every year, but injuries and a lack of depth had always derailed promising seasons. Clawson was dissatisfied and wanted someone to come up with a better strategy to prepare players for the rigors of an ACC season.

After the conversation, Clawson informed his AD, “I believe we’re on the verge of having a great football club, and I think this person can help us get there.”

George originally came in as a three-day consultant, returning with a thorough strategy for improving training loads, practice efficiency, and data analysis. Currie was sold, and George began full-time work as Wake’s new director of integrated high performance in March.

The way Wake prepares for games was drastically altered as a result. The squad had been utilizing Catapult wearable performance trackers, and George learned how to read the data and create customized routines for individual players. George and Clawson devised a new strategy for Wake’s operations.

“When we’re physically exercising our athletes, we’re doing it for a reason,” George said. “We aren’t training them; we are just running them around. We’re more efficient in combining all of those things into a practice plan the more ways they receive their physical training integrated with technical skills, tactical decision making, and psychological cognitive work at the same time.”

George is described by Clawson as “an translator” who readily speaks with players, coaches, and the strength and conditioning staff. George discovered a coach in Clawson who was ready to stretch the limits of what a traditional strength coach’s work should include.

“Having a contact with him and putting the practice plan together from two different views and finding a decent middle ground is the finest part of my day,” George said. “I can’t simply go in and say, “I believe we should do this.” Dave is an intellectual man, so I can’t just say, “I think we should do this.” I need to have my firearms ready to go, as well as the facts to back it up.”

It all fit into Clawson’s three-pronged strategy for getting his club to the next level. He wanted his players to remain in good shape. He needed to provide more depth. He had to persuade his stars that playing less snaps would be beneficial to them in the long term. George’s data provided answers.

The last phase was to persuade the team to support the strategy. He looked up the phrase “Level 5 Leadership” in his business books once again. The concept, according to Clawson, is that greatness is the result of an apparently contradictory combination of desire and humility. He required his finest players to aspire to something larger while accepting a reduced position. This group was prepared to take on the world after 2020.

“I believe there have been occasions in the past when we congratulated ourselves on reaching six victories or being unbeaten in September. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this group “Clawson explained. “We didn’t go out to be 5-0, 6-0, or 8-0,” Clawson said. “We want to be a fantastic football squad.”

The Deacons are undefeated eight games into the 2021 season, and the ACC Atlantic is theirs to take. Hartman’s projection of 10 victories now seems to be modest.

Dave Clawson wants Wake Forest to be more than simply an academic powerhouse, but also a football powerhouse. Grant Halverson/Getty Images photo


CLAWSON HAD JUST FINISHED A LATE BREAKFAST ACROSS FROM WAKE’S FOOTBALL FACILITIES THIS SUMMER WHEN HE WAS STOPPED ON HIS WAY OUT THE DOOR BY A STUDENT. The lady got lost on campus on freshman move-in day. She was accompanied by her little sister, and she hoped the lovely guy in the Wake Forest pullover might point her in the right direction.

Clawson pelted the lady with questions as the group rushed past one building, cut across a courtyard, and darted down a path toward the bookshop.

What country did she come from? (This is San Francisco.) Clawson was also familiar with a sophomore from San Francisco and advised the lady to check her up. They’d almost certainly become pals.)

Which high school did she attend? (He went to her rival school to recruit.)

What was her field of study? Was her sister also planning on attending Wake Forest? Do you know whether she had any additional siblings?

Then there was the big question: did she enjoy football?

The lady had never seen a game and had no idea who Clawson was.

Of course, she pledged to keep an eye on the squad this year, but the experience didn’t exactly make her feel like a celebrity. This is the crux of Clawson’s quandary at Wake Forest. It’s a place where he can sell the program to every new freshman who walks onto campus — “His favorite things are coaching football and talking about Wake Forest,” Currie said — but changing a narrative requires a megaphone, and he’s always heard the same refrain since arriving seven years ago: Wake was a great place to go to school, but…

But there’s the talent. The amenities, on the other hand. However, there is a history. Wake Forest was fantastic, but only in the ways that mattered to a football program.

“We wanted to replace the word ‘but’ with ‘and,’” Clawson said. “It’s a fantastic school with fantastic facilities, and you can win at football and have the best of both worlds.”

There are two possible endings to this tale.

Wake Forest defeats North Carolina on Saturday, followed by Clemson, NC State, and Boston College in a parallel reality. The Demon Deacons win the ACC title. They’ve gone undefeated, and Clawson has finally forced the rest of the world to deal with a software that refuses to fit into any of the system’s mass-produced boxes.

Wake Forest loses in the other game — this week or next, it doesn’t matter. The defeat will be received with anticipatory shrugs from a universe eager to return to a world where the Demon Deacons are good for memes and a once-in-a-while thrilling battle with Syracuse.

In that case, it’s possible that Clawson’s tenure at Wake Forest will come to an end. The experiment will have completed its task. The establishment will come out on top. Finding a position inside the system is simpler than fighting it. In this circumstance, there would also be potential for vindication. Clawson has shown he can bring a small-time school back to life, but what if he moved up for a larger office, more lavish facilities, and a classic offensive plan headed by a five-star quarterback? What if he tried everything and still came out on top? In the coming months, there will almost likely be suitors prepared to wager he can.

Currie said, “I feel Dave Clawson could develop a fantastic program anyplace.” “There isn’t a doubt in my mind. I’m delighted he’s established such a strong program at Wake Forest.”

Built. In the past tense. The project isn’t over, but Currie believes Clawson has completed the foundation and transformed the program into one that expects to win every year. Yes, this season has the potential to be a turning point for Wake Forest, and there are greater initiatives in the works for the future, but the groundwork has been laid. Wake doesn’t have to win to establish itself.

That’s the kind of conclusion Clawson may like, one in which the Deacons’ season might finish with a title or without, and it won’t define them because there will be other opportunities.

“This year, we aim to do a lot more,” Clawson added. “But there’s a lot more we want to achieve next year, and the year after that, and so on. We’re not happy with the results.”

All those “buts” turn into “ands” until a new football complex is built, more prospects are interested in the program’s unconventional approach, and freshmen know Clawson and pester him with questions about the depth chart rather than directions to the bookstore. And, despite all of the years of little steps upward, the college football world will look at Wake Forest and wonder, “Well, how did we get here?” to quote Clawson’s favorite band.

It’s the same as it’s always been.

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