Shifting the focus: new coach, new attitude

Colin Threlkeld, Contributing Reporter

The first challenge of the 2016 season for new Green Wave head coach Willie Fritz will be the Thursday, Sept. 1 road contest against Wake Forest.

Throughout his career, Fritz has gained a reputation as a program builder, taking Sam Houston State University to back-to-back Football Championship Subdivision National Title games in 2011 and 2012 and later successfully guiding Georgia Southern during its transition from the FCS to the Football Bowl Subdivision.

As he inherits a team that finished 3-9 in both of the last two years under former head coach Curtis Johnson, Fritz will be making changes towards creating a bowl-ready team. 

Fritz said he has had “very, very, very few issues” with getting players to buy into the new system, likening his taking charge of a team of players largely recruited by a different coach to an “adoption” of sorts. He adds to this existing crop of players an impressive recruiting class featuring 11 three-star commits. 

The departure of 2015 starting quarterback Tanner Lee for the University of Nebraska sparked a wide-open competition for his old spot among dual-threat freshmen Johnathan Brantley and Darius Bradwell and redshirt sophomore Glen Cuiellette. 

“We’re going to get a couple more practices in and then make a decision on Friday exactly who’s going to be our starting quarterback,” Fritz said.

Fritz went on to say that he is likely to play two different quarterbacks at times.

“It may not be equal reps, but we’re probably going to end up playing two guys at some point in the game,” Fritz said. 

During his time at Sam Houston State and then at Georgia Southern, Fritz became known for his flexible “pistol,” which he adapts to fit the strengths of his personnel. A strong backfield led by junior running back Dontrell Hilliard, who last year rushed for 646 yards on an impressive average of 5.6 yards per carry to go along with six touchdowns, will nicely set up Fritz’s eventual quarterback picks to move the ball through the air, forming the balanced attack Fritz plans to run this year. 

Defensively, the Green Wave return seven starters, led by 2015 All-AAC First-Team picks Tanzel Smart and Nico Marley, who last year recorded 62 and 82 tackles, respectively. 

“We’ll try to play quite a few guys early,” Fritz said. “I always believe early in the season that you can do all the running you want, but it takes a little while for guys to get in shape…we’ll look to play close to 20 guys on defense.”

The Demon Deacons, who went 3-9 (1-7 American Athletic Conference) last year, are entering their third season under head coach Dave Clawson. 

Offensively, they return junior quarterback John Wolford, who threw for 1,791 yards, nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year and was part of a strong receiving corps.

Over the last two years, Wake Forest has consistently struggled to gain more than a few yards per carry on the ground and there are not many signs that they are planning on improving in that area this year. 

Defensively, the Demon Deacons look to maintain their strong run defense, as they return most of their defensive line from last year. In contrast, their pass defense was notably weak, with the secondary frequently giving up large gains through the air.                                                                                              

The season opener will be broadcast at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1 on ESPN3.

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