SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The quantity of injuries sustained by Wake Forest’s football team still doesn’t measure up to last season — though, if the regular season went another week, the numbers might be about equal.
The quality of the players injured, however, is the story of the second half of Wake Forest’s season.
“We lost Nasir Greer, Kenneth Dicks, Nate Gilliam and Jamie Newman,” said Coach Dave Clawson, running the gamut of players lost to injuries in the first half of Saturday’s 39-30 overtime loss at Syracuse.
“As it happens in a lot of years here, we get thin at the end. But you know what? Our kids competed hard and we played well and we gave ourselves a chance.”
Indeed they did. Wake Forest ended the regular season at 8-4, but not without a second-half surge from an 11-point halftime deficit that felt like it should’ve been at least 20.
The Deacons twice fell behind in the fourth quarter and twice came up with game-tying scores, first Sam Hartman finding Kendall Hinton for a 2-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal, and then Nick Sciba drilling a 43-yard field goal on the final play — in the same quarter that he missed a field goal to snap his NCAA record streak of 34 successful attempts.
Hinton getting stripped at the 4-yard line was the worse-than-imaginable worst-case scenario, a particularly painful pill to swallow given whatever storyline you choose from: how much the Deacons overcame in the game, how much they’ve overcome this season or how much Hinton has overcome in his career.
This was gutty stuff for a reeling team that was playing without arguably three of its four best offensive players (Newman and wide receivers Sage Surratt and Scotty Washington) and three of its four best defensive players (Greer, linebacker Justin Strnad and rover Luke Masterson).
To add an injury to the other injuries, defensive tackle Rondell Bothroyd was lost with about nine minutes left.
But the next-man-up approach can take a team only so far, regardless of facing a juggernaut like Clemson or a playing-for-pride Syracuse.
“We haven’t had a lot of injuries this year, it just seems it’s been a lot of our really good players,” Clawson said. “It’s not the numbers of a year ago, but you know, you’d certainly argue that we’re down four or five of our top 10 players.”
And that’s where a degree of this season will forever be left unfinished for the Deacons. Clawson poured offseason hours into researching injury prevention, and it appeared to work. Through the Deacons’ 5-0 start, Wake Forest was probably as healthy as it had ever been in his six seasons to that point. Players like Hinton, Tyler Williams and Jaquarii Roberson even got healthier in that stretch as their returns boosted depth.
But it’s been a slow burn since then to put the Deacons right back into a familiar spot.
In 2017, Greg Dortch’s punctured small intestine was a freak injury. But key players missed games that season due to injuries that weren’t in that “freak” category; among them were John Wolford, Jessie Bates III, Duke Ejiofor, Phil Haynes and Cade Carney. The only one of those who isn’t currently drawing an NFL paycheck is the one who’s still on the roster.
In 2018, injuries became the predominant storyline — until the rally in Raleigh, the destruction in Durham and the Birmingham Bowl thriller. Twelve players were lost to season-ending injuries, which only partially describes the triple-digit number of total games missed from players on the two-deep depth chart.
The finale this year featured a doubled-up injury report that again reared its head — already missing the players who have been out for the past several weeks, the starting quarterback, right guard and safety who Clawson called “Mr. Fix It” were added to the heap.
Now the Deacons enter a bowl game needing to refocus their sights on what can be, not the goals that faded.
“I think we’ll really take this loss to heart, learn from it,” junior cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor said. “And I feel bad for whoever’s about to play us in a bowl game because this one hurt us, and we’re going to build off of that and use this as motivation to come out even harder in our next game.”
Wake Forest entered November at 6-1, and after opening the month with a blowout of N.C. State, it received the first College Football Playoff ranking in program history.
And that takes us to the question at hand: Is it always going to be the case of who’s missing for Wake Forest?
“I don’t know,” a candid Clawson said. “Um, there’s not an easy solution. … I think for us to be competitive, our redshirting philosophy works. When you do that, you reduce the roster to begin with.
“But fortunately for us, Donavon Greene is redshirting and look what he did today.”
What Greene did was catch seven passes for 172 yards. He took a simple slant 75 yards for a touchdown, and that was the second-best catch behind a dazzling helmet-aided snag on the touchdown drive that tied the game with 4:12 left.
All of it was bonus work for Greene, who didn’t play until two weeks ago at Clemson. The freshman from Mount Airy will play in the bowl game, his fourth game of the season, and then he’ll be a redshirt freshman entering next season seemingly oozing with potential and now with a dose of confidence based on the past two games.
“So it’s — we’re going to have a hard time ever taking a lot of injuries and maintaining,” Clawson added.
Greene represents the defining catch-22 for Wake Forest: to redshirt or not to redshirt?
That’s the question, and it’ll be asked, answered and adjusted roughly 20 times each season.