The only ending to a season that senior running back Cade Carney has known at Wake Forest is hoisting a bowl trophy. Same goes for seniors Essang Bassey and Dom Maggio.
And those three, who stand to further etch themselves in the program’s history books this season, also represent one of the fundamental shifts for Wake Forest as it tries to solidify itself as a perennial bowl team.
The Deacons are running out of players who have experienced a losing season.
“That is a real concern. I bring it up to the team, but right now the only player on our team who ever played in a losing season is Justin Herron,” Coach Dave Clawson said after Saturday morning’s practice. “And there’s a handful of guys who redshirted during a losing season.
“But the majority of our football team, their only experience is going to and winning a bowl game.”
With this pocket of success — 22 wins in the last three seasons including successful postseason trips to Annapolis, Md., Charlotte and Birmingham, Ala. — Wake Forest has obviously reaped rewards. But every season brings departures and a fresh crop of new players, and the evolution of the program means defining traits of years past are fading away.
Such is the Catch-22 of building a college football program.
To talk to Phil Haynes or Ryan Anderson, fifth-year seniors last year, was to talk to players who credited their development to playing as redshirt freshmen in 2015, during a 3-9 campaign. They’re both on NFL rosters right now, their growth still traceable to difficult collegiate beginnings.
Before them, it was the development of players like John Wolford and Duke Ejiofor, enduring both of the 3-9 seasons that kicked off Clawson’s Wake Forest tenure before enjoying the seasons that ended with the Military Bowl and Belk Bowl victories.
Now the only players at Wake Forest who have known the struggle of a losing season are in their final seasons — Herron as a sixth-year senior and the fifth-year seniors who redshirted in 2015.
“Threatening them that, ‘If you don’t do this, then it’s going to be like four and five years ago and you don’t want that,’ no longer is something that’s relevant,” Clawson said. “I think that was part of our problem last year was there’s kind of this attitude of, ‘Hey, we won seven in ’16, we won eight in ’17, it’s just going to keep going, it’s automatic.’
“It’s never automatic.”
Last season’s 7-6 campaign was particularly rewarding to Clawson because of how closely it came to falling off the rails. Wake Forest was decimated, going into a game after its off week with one healthy linebacker and seeing 13 players suffer season-ending injuries.
Aside from the obvious frustrations that came from so many injuries, it was a problem that the Deacons’ younger players didn’t grasp how desperate the circumstances were.
“We wanted to be better, but we were kinda complacent,” redshirt senior receiver Steve Claude said. “And us, as a group, we didn’t get the younger guys ready, Coach said. … And the sense of urgency to get them ready wasn’t there because we felt like, ‘Oh, we’ve been to two bowl games, like, we don’t need to get those guys ready because we’ve done it already.’”
That’s why the phrase “Sense of urgency” has become a motto of the Deacons this season.
“That’s where you can’t always talk about the big picture, they don’t want to hear how it was,” Clawson said. “That’s where you get into creating little standards in your program that lead to winning habits.
“You can’t talk about, ‘Hey, you guys have never lost,’ but, ‘This is the standard of how we do things, these are the winning habits, these are the things that lead to winning, this is the process that leads to winning.’”
That’s being established now. It’s why for the past several practices, the second-string offense and defense have started every team segment — because players in the second- and third-team units need to prepare as if they’re starters.
Having reserves prepare as if they’re starters is a cliché that didn’t play out to the level it needed to last season, and it’s one that the Deacons are focused on remedying this time around.
“Late in the season, a couple of guys go down and we’re relying on kids that we didn’t think we’d have to rely on,” Carney said. “They’re good football players, but we just were not prepared to push them in a way they needed to be pushed to play that season. It bit us in the butt a couple of times when it counted, so we are bound and determined to not let that be the case this year.”
As Claude points out, it helps that the Deacons felt the sting of certain losses last season. Wake Forest was riding two wins when Boston College arrived and sliced through the defense. The Deacons thought they’d play Florida State and Syracuse closer and led both 10-0 early, but wound up with three-score losses.
Notre Dame didn’t stop scoring with a quarterback making his first start, and Clemson didn’t stop running until a 52-yard touchdown run by Lyn-J Dixon in the final minute of a 60-point win. For the fourth straight season, Wake Forest lost its final home game.
What also helps is memory. Carney might not have the first-hand experience of playing in a losing season, but he arrived to Wake Forest in January of 2016 and was quickly brought up to speed on the — here we go — sense of urgency for a team that had a combined 10-26 record in the previous three seasons.
“We were able to see that and we came into guys coming off a 3-9 season and they were just hungry as could be to be a good team,” Carney said. “We got to see what that looked like and I think we kinda carry that legacy, and it’s our job to carry that legacy to the young guys who come in and expect to win and come into a brand-new facility, all these things.
“We talk about how the stuff around us has gotten so much better, but the recipe doesn’t change one bit.”