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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Behind Enemy Bylines: Wake Forest Demon Deacons

The Vanderbilt Hustler caught up with Cooper Sullivan, Sports Editor of the Wake Forest Gazette, to preview Vanderbilt’s upcoming matchup with Wake Forest.
Arianna Santiago
CB Jeremy Lucien and DB Jaylen Mahoney celebrate in the rain at First Bank Stadium, captured on Sept. 10, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Arianna Santiago)

The Vanderbilt Commodores (2-0) are coming off of a 47-13 victory over Alabama A&M. The Commodores struggled mightily in the first half, sporting an ugly 12-3 lead before pulling away late. Vanderbilt is looking to start 3-0 for the first time since 2017, and to do so they must go through Winston-Salem and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in their first matchup against a Power 5 team this season. Kickoff is at 10:00 a.m CDT.

Wake Forest is hot off of a double-digit win over the Elon Phoenix. Quarterback Mitch Griffis looked solid in his first start without former Demon Deacon Sam Hartman on the roster, and the offense put up 37 points on the Phoenix defense. Wake Forest will look to defend their 45-25 victory from last year in Nashville in the back half of a home-and-home series.

To preview the matchup on Saturday, the Hustler spoke with Cooper Sullivan, Sports Editor of the Wake Forest Gazette.

Vanderbilt Hustler: Obviously the big story of the offseason was Sam Hartman transferring to Notre Dame. I know Mitch Griffis had some snaps last season while Hartman was dealing with his heart issue. How do you foresee him taking the reigns this season? 

Cooper Sullivan: So, a lot of the people outside the program had questions of whether  Mitch Griffis would take that next step and fill Hartman’s shoes, but inside the program, everyone has had full belief in him ever since he came to campus in Spring of 2020. He does have some experience with the start last year and the start this year, but it’s important to keep in mind that they are two different quarterbacks. 

The offensive scheme will be similar, but Griffis is a more willing scrambler than Hartman and is always pushing to get extra yardage with his feet while also being assertive downfield. He has some reliable wideouts returning in Jahmal Banks and Wesley Grimes, two guys he spent a lot of time building chemistry with on the second team, so it’s not like he’s coming into a completely new team. I see Mitch and the whole Wake Forest offense continuing to do what they’ve done this year.

VH: Going back to Jahmal Banks as you mentioned, he had a great year in 2022 with 57 catches and 9 touchdowns and he had got to be an X-factor for the Demon Deacon offense; is there anyone else specifically on the offensive side of the ball that you foresee being another X-factor?

CS: Both Wesley Grimes and Jahmal Banks are guys that Mitch trusts – they can get downfield, get open in man, 1 on 1, or zone coverages, whatever is thrown at them. Ke’Shawn Williams is another guy that Mitch is close with playing out of the slot mostly – he came in 2020 as well. Williams can run the ball and is used in jet motion often. He is the type of guy that you just try to get the ball in his hands and let him work.

On the running back side, you’ve got Justise Ellison and Demond Claiborne. Ellison’s got plenty of experience – he was 3rd-team ACC last year. It’s only been one game but Wake Forest did honestly struggle to get that run game against Elon out of the base set without a heavy package. The run game had some consistency issues last year as well, but if Ellison and Claiborne can get past the first line of defense, they are also pretty dangerous

VH: I was going to ask about the run game – even with a small sample size, Claiborne averaged twice as many yards per carry on 10+ carries each. Do you foresee Coach Clawson sticking with the runningback by committee approach, or do you predict more of a feed-the-hot-hand rushing attack?

CS: Running back by committee is how Coach Clawson has run his backfield all 10 years at Wake Forest, and that’s kind of due to the speed of the offense. You have to keep in mind though something he mentioned at the press conference on Tuesday concerning the new running clock on first downs. There are now fewer plays in the game, so even though they actually wanted to get a third runningback in the mix, Tate Carney, they just didn’t have the chance to do so because there were fewer plays. They are still going to get both the top guys reps. Clawson will definitely feed the hot hand if the game flows that way, but I doubt they’ll run one of them into the ground when they have both of them available and ready.

VH: We’ve focused on the offense thus far, but the questions about this Wake Forest team aren’t really on the offensive side of the ball – as showcased putting up 37 points last week. Rather, the defense is the unit that struggled last year, especially the secondary. How do you foresee that secondary holding up against AJ Swann, Will Shepphard, and the rest of the Vandy offense? What can the defense as a unit do to help that secondary?

CS: The defense, and this is true of the team in a nutshell, has a bunch of guys who have been with the program that just haven’t had much experience starting. The defensive backs are actually one of the most cohesive groups on the defense with guys like Malik Mustapha, Chelen Garnes, Caelen Carson, and DaShawn Jones. These guys have all played tons of snaps together last year – Garnes and Mustapha started 10 games together last year. Mustapha’s a safety on paper but he’s going to be flying around, blitzing, playing from the second level, just really all around the field.

Two other guys should be mentioned as well. DaShawn Jones, who I mentioned before, is going to get a lot more playing time than he did last year, and a D2 transfer to keep your eye on is Demarcus Rankin, who had a pick last week. They’re going to probably run a cornerback-by-committee approach as well, not as much so as at the running back position, but guys like Caelen Carson and DaShawn Jones will be mixed in a lot of the time. It’s all going to be about getting fresh legs on the field and to be honest, I don’t think DB’s will be the biggest issue as these guys do have a ton of experience. It’s just going to be about knowing assignments and communicating.

VH: We all know about last year’s matchup where Wake kind of dismantled Vandy 45-25. Do you expect any carryover from last year, whether emotionally on the field or in the stands, or even competitively?

CS: It’s funny that you mention emotion because you have to keep in mind that it’s an 11:00 kickoff in a non-conference game between non-rivals. From the student section side, I honestly don’t know how jam-packed it’s going to be, so all of that emotion is going to have to come from the guys on the field. These are two different teams from the ones that were put out in 2022.

There is mutual respect between the Wake Forest and the Vanderbilt side, from Coach Clawson (to Coach Lea) and Mitch (to AJ), as well as a number of other players, so they know this isn’t going to be a cakewalk. I do think our guys are confident in their personnel and their scheme, and that they’re prepared enough for Saturday at 11:00 a.m.

VH: Last question – what is your score prediction for the game on Saturday?

CS: I don’t know about the specific score, but I will say I think Wake will win by double digits.

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About the Contributors
Noah Roslin, Former Staff Writer
Noah Roslin ('26) is planning to double major in human and organizational development and economics in Peabody College. When not writing for The Hustler, you can usually find Noah at the hockey rink, at the tennis courts or at home looking for new Soundcloud remixes.
Arianna Santiago
Arianna Santiago, Senior Staff Photographer
Arianna Santiago ('24) is from Bremerton, Wash., and studying electrical and computer engineering in the School of Engineering. When not shooting for The Hustler or for freelance work, Arianna can be found leading campus tours, organizing events for University Catholic, attempting to study and procrastinating her lab reports. You can reach her at [email protected].
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