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New coach Dave Clawson faces tall challenge of making Wake Forest competitive in Year 1

New Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson has a pretty quick sense of humor.

The way this season is shaping up, he's going to need it.

On paper, it looks like it will be a tough year for the Demon Deacons. They're facing the difficult one-two punch of adjusting to a new coaching staff and filling the significant holes left by last year's seniors.

Wake Forest has been a universal pick to finish last in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic Division, and when the league's formal preseason predictions were released, Clawson provided a bit of deadpanned levity.

"Were we picked to win it? Were we unanimous first? We were?" Clawson quipped. "The bull's-eye is on us."

Well, not really.

Expectations are low for Clawson's first group of Demon Deacons, who must replace the school's career receptions leader (Michael Campanaro), a four-year starting quarterback (Tanner Price), the team's top rusher (Josh Harris) and perhaps the defense's most irreplaceable player (nose tackle Nikita Whitlock). About two-thirds of the team's total offensive yardage last year is gone.

It doesn't help that the Demon Deacons share a division with defending national champion Florida State, Orange Bowl champion Clemson and league newcomer Louisville. Or that their permanent crossover game comes against resurgent Duke.

Hired last December to replace Jim Grobe, Clawson has spent the offseason trying to get the remaining players faster, stronger and better.

He'll get his test on Aug. 28 at Louisiana-Monroe.

"We can win games this year. The formula might have to be a little bit different but our job is to find a way to get in games against good teams and find a way to get to the fourth quarter ... and find ways to pull them out," Clawson said. "It's not a huge margin for error this year. I get it."

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5 things to watch in Clawson's first season at Wake Forest.

CLAWSON'S PEDIGREE: Clawson is known as a program-builder — and his new school sure could use a bit of rebuilding. He reconstructed the programs at Fordham and Richmond of the FCS, earning Division I-AA national coach of the year awards at each school. Then he helped Bowling Green — which earned three bowl berths in his five seasons — upset then-No. 16 Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference title game before accepting the challenge of building a winning program at a tiny, private school with high academic standards that wants to compete at college football's highest level.

NEW QB: The new coach is asking a new quarterback to lead the offense. John Wolford will become the first true freshman QB to start a season opener for the Demon Deacons since 1974. Clawson says Wolford "gives us the best opportunity" to win games.

REPLACING CAMPANARO: When Price was in trouble in the pocket, he could always count on Campanaro to get open. With Campanaro in the Baltimore Ravens' camp, this year's quarterback — whoever it is — won't have that luxury. Tyree Harris, who had 23 catches for 225 yards last season, is the only returning receiver who caught more than 19 balls.

REYNOLDS WRAP: It's time for Orville Reynolds to start resembling the player Grobe raved about during his freshman season three years ago. After playing some receiver the past couple of seasons and catching two touchdown passes in 2013, Reynolds returned to his natural position of running back. "It's difficult for me to imagine us having a really good season if Orville Reynolds doesn't have a great year for us," Clawson said.

THE ROAD AHEAD: None of Wake Forest's six road games resembles anything like an easy win. The Demon Deacons open at Louisiana-Monroe — which won 21-19 last year — and make a tricky trip west to face Utah State and dangerous QB Chuckie Keaton. They visit Louisville and Florida State in back-to-back weeks, head east to play a North Carolina State team that looks improved under second-year coach Dave Doeren and finish up at Duke — which has won two straight in the series.

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Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joedyap

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