Rebuilding Wake Forest braces for seasoned ULM

Aug. 27, 2014 @ 04:50 PM

Wake Forest is rebuilding with a new coach, a true freshman quarterback and new starters at a range of key positions.On Thursday night, the revamped Demon Deacons make their 2014 debut at Louisiana-Monroe before a national television audience.

"There's a lot of excitement in our program," Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. "The level of football being played out there on the practice field is significantly better than the spring, but Thursday will be a very good test for us."

The Warhawks may come from a smaller conference but are by no means the underdogs.

Just last season, ULM provided the Sun Belt Conference with a measure of bragging rights over the ACC when the Warhawks won at Wake Forest.

Now Louisiana-Monroe aims to celebrate a home opener with another such triumph. Odds makers have listed the Warhawks as slight favorites, and ULM coach Todd Berry is expecting a big crowd at Malone Stadium.

"This game is significant for a lot of different reasons," Berry said. "I am hopeful this game can bring our team and fan base together since we play on national television. ... I am hopeful that this place will be rowdy because I do think it impacts our players."

Like Wake Forest, Louisiana-Monroe also will have a new starting quarterback, but one with plenty of experience. Transfer Pete Thomas, who has played at Colorado State and more recently at North Carolina State, provides a Warhawks squad loaded with returning regulars with a seasoned signal-caller as well.

"This is the most mature team we've had," Berry said, "and I think maturity brings physical maturation and confidence."

Here are some things to know about Wake Forest's visit to ULM:

YOUNG QB: True freshman John Wolford is the new starting quarterback for Wake Forest. ULM defensive players have had to resort to watching his high school film to prepare for him. Warhawks defensive lineman Gerrand Johnson sounds impressed. "You can tell he's an athlete and a winner. Guys like that come around a couple times in a generation. To be honest, it's an honor to play against him. What he has done coming from high school and starting ... as a true freshman, the guy is good."

THOMAS' TIME: ULM's Thomas was a two-year starter at Colorado State before transferring to North Carolina State. He started six games for the Wolfpack in 2013, but threw nine interceptions while sinking on the depth chart. Because he had graduated, Thomas had the option to transfer again and play immediately in 2014. He won the Warhawks' starting job half way through fall camp.

LOST PRODUCTION: Players who accounted for about two-thirds of Wake Forest's rushing and receiving yardage a season ago are gone. Those who've left include four-year starting quarterback Tanner Price, top rusher Josh Harris and wide receiver Michael Campanaro. Dominique Gibson, the third-leading rusher last year with 138 yards, was the only returning player who gained more than 70 yards last season, but he's been suspended.

EXPERIENCED DEFENSE: ULM has eight starters back on a defense led by Johnson, who was named to the preseason All-Sun Belt first team. The Warhawks line up in a 3-3-5 scheme that has at least two starters back among the line, linebackers and defensive backs.

TURNAROUND SPECIALIST: Clawson aims to replicate success he has had at the FCS level and in the Mid-American Conference. He's won national FCS (formerly I-AA) coach of the year awards at both Fordham and Richmond. He then coached Bowling Green to three bowl berths in five seasons — not to mention an upset of then-No. 16 Northern Illinois in last season's Mid-American Conference title game.