WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina — As a freshman at Wake Forest last year, quarterback John Wolford won the starting job.
Now, he's fighting to keep it.
Coach Dave Clawson is "not going to show favoritism because I played last year and I automatically get the spot," Wolford said. "I understand that, and I think that's going to make me a better player in the long run and it's going to push me throughout this whole process."
Wolford's initiation into the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014 was a rough one. He was the first true freshman to begin a season as the Demon Deacons' starting QB since 1974.
The lasting image of that year might be Wolford running for his life behind an offensive line that struggled. Wake Forest finished with the nation's least productive offense, averaging 216 yards, and its rushing attack ranked next-to-last in the Bowl Subdivision.
But a closer look at the stats showed noticeable improvement as the season went on.
Wolford, who threw at least one interception in each of his first seven games, was picked off once over his final four. He capped the year against Duke with his first three-touchdown performance, and finished with 11 TDs to 13 interceptions and a 58 percent completion rate.
"I think it made me a better player in the long run," Wolford said. "You come out of high school, you're used to winning, you're used to putting up big numbers and you get to college and it's a completely different game.
"But I didn't look at it as a negative, I looked at it as a positive — I progressed as the season went on and each of those reps in games are something you can't simulate in practice," he added. "It was rough at times, but I think I did a good job of not getting down on myself, keeping perspective on what we're working towards and at the end of the season I was playing a lot better than I was at the beginning."
Part of the reason why Wolford kept his cool was because he went through something similar in high school.
He was thrust into the starting lineup in 2010 as a 14-year-old freshman at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Florida. He matured into a quarterback who led his team to a 10-0 record as a sophomore and a first-team all-state selection as a senior who became Northeast Florida's career leader in touchdowns — surpassing Tim Tebow.
"He got bigger and stronger — the normal maturation process," said Mark Thorson, Wolford's high school coach. "His intelligence for the game was at a really high level when he got here. ... Every game, every practice, you could see the improvement.
"He was an extra coach on the field," he added. "We could have given him a script and he could have run that offense in a lot of ways."
They're hoping for similar progress at Wake Forest — both for Wolford individually, and the team as a whole after last year's 3-9 finish, which included a 1-7 mark in ACC play.
The Demon Deacons are walking that fine line between wanting to win immediately and — with only a handful of seniors on the roster — building for the future.
"This season is just as important as any season coming up, and we can't look at it as, 'All right, we'll get better this year, we'll win six games, games go to a bowl and then the year after that, we'll win nine games,'" Wolford said. "We've got to approach it as if we're going to be a championship team. The younger guys have to play older and act older, and practice older in order for us to be good now.
"And I think if we're able to do that, we can set our expectations higher. If we're not willing to do that, then we can assume that we're not going to be good for 2-3 more years," he added. "It's all a matter of us making that happen sooner than later."
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