Everybody likes points, and there’s agreement accompanied by a chuckle from the Wake Forest football team’s offensive coordinator, Warren Ruggiero. We’re only a month and a half removed from the Deacons piling up 55 points in the Belk Bowl, the final act for a team that shattered the school record for points in a season — 459, blowing past 2007’s total of 362.
The season was rewarding for Ruggiero, who has been Wake Forest’s play-caller since he arrived in Winston-Salem with Coach Dave Clawson four seasons ago.
But it’s this time of year that Ruggiero really lights up for.
“The recruiting is the recruiting, game day is definitely very stressful, those things,” Ruggiero said. “The offseason is always probably one of the most enjoyable parts where you just get to coach and try and get your players better at what you’re doing and watching their improvement and … that’s really probably the best part of the job, to be honest.”
Wake Forest’s first of 15 spring practices will be Feb. 26, with the spring coming April 7. In the next 2½ weeks, Clawson, Ruggiero and the rest of the Deacons staff will review film from the 2017 season, go over what worked, what didn’t, why it did and why it didn’t, and what some of the focal points of spring practices need to be.
There will be individual work with players under the label of skill development. Players will meet with coaches to go over said film, too, “getting them better mentally with what they’re doing to prepare for spring,” Ruggiero said.
As little turnover as there is on Wake Forest’s offense — quarterback and tight end are the only positions that don’t return starters, and Kendall Hinton has started four games at QB — Ruggiero is approaching spring with a fresh outlook.
“Every football team is different and certainly, you’re always trying to get better. It’ll obviously be tough to top what we did last year, but you’re really just trying to find the ways — certainly we’ve created a system over the last couple of years that we feel has answers and we can be successful with at Wake Forest,” he said. “And then you’re trying to find out with maybe some of the different guys you have playing positions, what they do well and maybe what you might accent more going into the season.
“That makes that football team different.” Ruggiero said. “It’s a whole new challenge, and you’ve got to kind of wipe the slate clean and figure out what we can do with this football team to hopefully get it close to what we did last year.”
Sticking to the plan
Tabari Hines hauled in a 21-yard touchdown pass from John Wolford late in the first quarter of the Nov. 18 game against N.C. State, which put the Deacons ahead 14-7. That’s the play that put Wake Forest ahead of the school’s scoring record, and 95 more points followed as the season progressed.
Wake Forest has come a long way since scoring a combined 397 points in Clawson and Ruggiero’s first two seasons with the Deacons, and Clawson was asked to assess that growth after the win against the Wolfpack.
“I guess we got a little better, huh?” he said.
That’s the main point. Of course, there’s more.
“I mean, people for three years doubted our offense. I’ve worked with Warren Ruggiero for nine years, Warren Ruggiero is a really, really good football coach,” Clawson said that November night. “When we have good players, and the other thing is I forced our offense to play slow the first couple of years because we were so good on defense and we weren’t as good on offense. … That was my decision as the head coach, because I thought that gave us the best chance to win.
“That was not Warren’s decision, that was mine. This year with the offensive skill that we had, with the experience at quarterback, with the depth we had in the O-line, I thought that this was the year that we could take the training wheels off and go full speed. And that’s what we’re doing.”
That wasn’t the only time last season that Clawson mentioned that it was a measured approach to slow games down and win with defense. But it was the first time he made it clear that his directive to Ruggiero was to slow things down.
That went against what Ruggiero had done for more than 20 seasons as an offensive coordinator, and he trusted Clawson’s body of work to follow suit.
“I would say in my career as a coordinator, really since 1997 on, before I got with Coach Clawson, we’d always been an up-tempo, no-huddle offense,” Ruggiero said. “And then, when I got with Coach Clawson, certainly he’s a great manager of football teams, he’s won a lot of games. Really just knowing the team and what’s the best recipe to win.”
Ruggiero explained that was the case at Bowling Green, an evolution across five years of the offense being ahead of the defense in the group’s first season, which was 2009. By 2012, the defense was the stronger unit, and Ruggiero’s offense was tasked with finding ways to score enough points in an 8-5 season. In 2013, with both units able to control games, Bowling Green was 10-3 with a win over nationally ranked Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship.
“And then here, I think it was the same thing,” Ruggiero said. “We were pretty good on defense and we were not good on offense, and really just the recipe of just keeping games close and not turning the ball over and that allowed us to steadily improve and stay in games instead of — whereas if we played too aggressive early on, we might’ve lost some of those games by 40 points, you know?”
Wolford was easily identified as a film-room fixture, the senior quarterback who endured three seasons of being pummeled before leading the ACC in passing efficiency while breaking 10 of the school’s single-season or career records.
One of the examples Wolford followed was Ruggiero’s, as the 51-year-old is also the Deacons’ quarterbacks coach.
“I have the utmost respect for him for how hard he works and the type of person he is,” Wolford said. “He genuinely cares about his players and in the quarterback room we’re all like family.
“He’s first and foremost a great human being, regardless of how he is as a football coach,” Wolford said.
“But then if you want to look at it from a football aspect, smart, hardworking. Every morning I’d see him up there at 5 a.m. He just works, and he loves it.”
And this is the time that Ruggiero loves. It’s getting an early gauge on the Deacons’ identity for next season, teaching when there isn’t a finite amount of time for that like there is for a 13-week regular season and seeing who’s going to take a leap forward and replace Wolford or Cam Serigne.
Wake Forest might not score 459 points again nextseason. But the Deacons’ offense surged in 2017, and if there’s criticism of Ruggiero, he’ll only care if it’s coming from one person.
“I got one guy to please, and that’s my head coach. And when I sit with him every Sunday morning after a game and we talk about it and review what happened and where we’re at, what we need to do, he’s the guy that I’ve got to make happy,” Ruggiero said. “I guess the fans aren’t going to fire me, the head coach is, so that’s it.
“Certainly when I was younger all of those things kind of affect you. But I guess when you’re as old as I am, you just kind of keep your head down and I’m pretty much a … I live in a little bit of a hole anyway, so I just focus on my job and my family and that’s all I can do, is do the best I can do in those areas.”