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Q&A: Wake Forest's Dave Clawson on rebuilding, recruiting and more

By Chip Patterson | College Football/Basketball Writer

Dave Clawson wrapped his first spring practice with Wake Forest on Saturday.  (USATSI)
Wake Forest wrapped spring practice with the Black-Gold game on Saturday. (Provided to CBSSports.com)

It's an overcast April afternoon in Winston-Salem and Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson is finally getting around to setting up his office. A half-filled bookshshelf contains notebooks from Bowling Green and other previous stops, no doubt filled with program-building notes which will be used to rejuvenate the Wake Forest program.

Clawson welcomed CBSSports.com into his office, which still smelled of freshly delivered furniture, for an exclusive recap of spring practice. After going through recruiting, spring practice, player evaluations and the annual spring game on Saturday, it looks like Clawson can finally arrange his office, settle in and catch his breath (or so we think).

On if he's gotten a chance to catch his breath after spring practice.

No. And I don't think we will until probably signing day next year. I really think as a coach [you can't] until you go through a complete cycle of a signing day -- spring football, junior recruiting, summer camps, the season, then another recruiting cycle. Because the way recruiting is now people start so early, you're always trying to make up ground because you start recruiting guys two years ahead. I think the first half-a-breath will come after next year's signing day.

How rebuilding at Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green compares to Wake Forest, or how those experiences helped prepare him for this job.

Those were all, to some degree, rebuilding jobs. I guess there are certain standards that we have that we have to get out of the way, like how you attack the offseason program, the standards you have for the players academically, the social standards you have the players. I think those are things we have brought everywhere; we expect our players to go to class, we expect our players to be polite and respectful, we expect them to do the right things off the field, to not do drugs, and to behave and represent Wake Forest in a way that the school deserves. I mean this is a first class place.

Now in terms of the nitty gritty of the football, every place is completely different. Because every school's different. In recruiting, what your offense is and what your defense is is different, the type players you recruit are different, how you then design your systems and the things you emphasize on each side of the ball, to some degree, have you correlate with the school you're at. So I don't think you can have a cookie-cutter approach of "this is what we do on offense, this is what we do on defense."

I believe there's a formula to win everywhere, and what I've got do in the next year here is figure out what is the formula for Wake Forest to win.

The benefits of having offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero, defensive coordinator Mike Elko and special teams coordinator Adam Scheier join Clawson on the move from Bowling Green to Wake Forest.

What has helped in having your offensive coordinator, your defensive coordinator, your special teams coordinator all come with you is that we all speak the same language. You spend so much time trying to get on the same page with your language and your terminology, that's been kept to a minimum because of being able to bring all those three guys.

Another thing is practice planning. How a practice is orchestrated. We're out there day one and everyone is on the same page, you don't have guys running to the same spot in the drill. We've sat in a room together and planned practices for six straight years now. We know what we need, we know what we want, we know how this drill will run, we don't have to coach it to each other before we take the field. I think that's really helped a lot. The other thing is when the players see the coaches on the same page, I think that's an affirmation to them that these people have a plan.

How the players have reacted to the specificity of Clawson's plan.

I think the players recognize that we have a plan. We believe in our plan. It's worked at three other institutions. I think there's more confidence in not being a first time head coach. I've taken over programs before and gone through these phases. It still doesn't cut down on the amount of work you have to do. It's still, with all the technology and all that, this is still a lot of work and there are no shortcuts. The players have to be willing to put in the work and the coaches have to be willing to put in the work and it's the only way to be successful.

On the mood of the team when Clawson took the job.

I think the press conference day and the initial meeting is always a positive. It's a new beginning, especially here. So many people in that room hadn't played. We graduated 13 starters last year. When guys haven't played and they haven't had success, sometimes people want change just for change's sake, so that one's easy. I think what's hard is, OK, you're getting up early, we're working hard, we expect this detail -- that part of it isn't as easy. That's when you find whether there is buy-in or not.

I'm not telling you everybody did everything perfect, but I think there's a willingness to say "OK, if we want to win, we've got to do these things." I think when you have evidence of what you've done before and the fact that it does work in that every plaice we've been we've won a championship, I think that gives us some credibility with the players too.

On having former Wake Forest players speak to the team on Friday night before the spring game.

This is a thing I've done at other institutions. We are a little bit of an outlier in the BCS world. We are the smallest school in the BCS. This place is demanding academically. So our players, they have to work here academically, and there's a reason there's 11,000 or 12,000 people that apply here for 1,200 spots. It's not an easy school to get into and the work is challenging.

I want our players to see that when their football career is over, whether it's after college or if they're lucky enough to play in the NFL, that there is a reward for doing things the right way here at Wake and doing that work. If you just take our former football players, they are CEO's, they are state senators, there's people that have started businesses that are entrepreneurs that are ultra, ultra-successful. So when you bring former players back ... our players see that it's going to be worth it. Maybe that extra work we do or the accountability we have here because of how small the school is, there is a major reward for this if we do it right when we're done playing.

On Clawson's sell for Wake Forest on the recruiting trail.

I think the uniqueness of the school. We're not like every other school in the BCS and in some ways we're not like any other school in the BCS. We celebrate those differences. We brag about them, we don't hide behind them. Those to me are some of the reasons to come here.

If you look in the country right now, I think there's a handful of schools that you can play the highest level of football and compete for a conference championship and be in the College Football Playoff system, win a national championship and also get a nationally ranked top academic degree. There's not a lot of schools like us.

On the Northwestern unionization efforts and any possible involvement from Wake Forest players.

It has not come up. I think the NCAA is starting to be a little more proactive with that. Even with things like passing the meal thing. I think the NCAA is recognizing that student-athlete welfare is an issue and they're trying to be proactive with it right now. The perception is that they're reactive, but that stuff was in the works long before the union came up at Northwestern.

I think all NCAA athletes are probably paying attention to this and they all feel, to some degree, that they have some invested interest in terms of what happens. It came up once with a player that they asked about it and I shared with him what I know, which is what you read on sites like yours [CBSSports.com]. At this point I've been here four months, I'm just trying to get to know the players, put together a staff, get through spring football. I think as you get to know these guys better and you have more moments that things aren't as busy, those are discussions that I'm sure will come up.

On takeaways from spring practice, the spring game and the leaders on defense.

There's a lot of areas where we need to get better. What happened in the spring game is similar to what happened at the other two scrimmages. Right now we're better on defense than we are on offense. That was not unexpected. Last year I think we were the No. 32 defense in the country and we return the entire secondary, a starting linebacker [Brandon Chubb] and one of the outside linebackers [Marquel Lee]. You've got six starters back from the No. 32 defense in the country and you're missing every key skill guy to the No. 118 offense in the country. I expected us to be better on defense. I think the offense has improved every scrimmage, but we've got a long way to go. Our players are working, I think it's important to them and I believe we'll get better.

The two corners we have are very good players, Kevin Johnson and Bud Noel. Ryan Janvion and Anthony Wooding started almost every game last year. I think Desmond Floyd has a chance to be a very good open-side pass rusher for us. We've got to develop some depth on defense, but I think our starting guys are good players that have played a lot of football.

On the conference schedule debate and the challenges of playing in the ACC Atlantic with Florida State and Clemson.

I'm so new to the league. Am I the only new head coach in the league besides Louisville? [Yes] I don't know enough about it to have a real strong opinion. To me, things in football a lot of times are cyclical. Obviously we have two programs that are both in our division that had great seasons last year and are certainly known as very strong football schools. That probably isn't going to change in the near future, but if you want to be the best you've got to beat the best. If we're going to win the ACC we're going to have to compete and beat those teams.

On how the program can progress over the next 2-3 years.

Our goal is to win an ACC championship and to be in the College Football Playoff. If you set your goals any lower than that then you are setting yourself up for failure. Now, how realistic is that right now? I don't know, but we're going to make [that our goal] and work hard and get it. That's our ultimate goal and our vision for this program.

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