Wake Forest’s time without star quarterback Sam Hartman turned out to be short. The question now for the 23rd-ranked Demon Deacons heading into Saturday’s trip to Vanderbilt is how long it takes their offense to find last season’s high-efficiency and prolific form.
The Demon Deacons (1-0) beat VMI last week with Hartman out due to a blood clot near the collarbone that had sidelined him indefinitely, leaving Mitch Griffis to earn the win in his first career start. But the school announced Tuesday that Hartman had been medically cleared to return and he was back atop the depth chart for the trip to face the Commodores (2-0), enough to swing the point spread
“We’re getting back our captain and one of our best leaders that we’ve ever had here, and a really good football player,” coach Dave Clawson said. “I think more than anything they’re just happy for him because they know how important it is to him.”
Hartman guided the Demon Deacons to 11 wins and a trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game last year, leading an offense that ranked among the best in the Bowl Subdivision ranks. Hartman’s play was also a key reason why Wake Forest cracked the top 10 of the AP Top 25 last year, too.
“We’re all juiced up for it,” linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. said.
The Commodores, off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 2018, rolled past Hawaii 63-10 in their opener. But coach Clark Lea wasn’t happy with how his Commodores cruised to the finish of last week’s 42-31 win against Elon and sees that as another area for growth.
“This is a great opportunity for us to go against the program that’s kind of set the standard here recently with respect to balancing being a great academic school and playing high-level college football,” Lea said. “For us, we’re still so young as a program and I think the first two games are indicative of this.”
Things to know about Saturday’s Wake Forest-Vanderbilt game:
This starts a tough stretch for Vanderbilt leading into Southeastern Conference play.
The Commodores are the only FBS team scheduled to play three straight games against teams that played for their conference title last season. Next up is a game against reigning Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois before opening league play against No. 1 Alabama.
Vanderbilt is among 11 teams with at least five opponents from the preseason AP Top 25.
Having a game in hand on the rest of the SEC certainly helps, but Vanderbilt currently leads the league by averaging 512.5 total yards while ranking third in scoring at 52.5 points.
Vanderbilt has scored 105 points, which it didn’t reach until the second quarter of its eighth game last season. The Commodores have scored 42 points in consecutive games for the first time since 2005.
Third-year quarterback Mike Wright, named the starter at SEC media days in July, has been a big key. He already has combined for 10 touchdowns, topping the nine he scored last season.
Smenda didn’t play last week because he was serving a one-game suspension after picking up his third targeting call last year in the Gator Bowl win against Rutgers. The fifth-year linebacker will make his season debut in this one and entered the year as the team’s leading career tackler (238).
Lea’s specialty before being hired by his alma mater was defense, and the Commodores have notched at least one takeaway in 11 straight games going back to last season. They now have 12 interceptions with six recovered fumbles in that span. Three fumbles have been recovered combined over the first two games.
Clawson was clearly irritated by the “awful” penalties from the opener against VMI, which included flags that negated an offensive and defensive touchdown. Wake Forest finished with seven penalties for 69 yards.
“In a lot of ways it’s an ideal opener,” Clawson said of the win against the Keydets of the Championship Subdivision. “We won the game and we got to play a lot of different people. And yet there were a lot of teachable moments that we have to get corrected as we step up the level of play.”