Liberty takes on one of their toughest challenges of the season this weekend in the Wake Forest Demons Deacons at 5 p.m. EST on the ACC Network. The Deacons are coming off a 45-25 win at Vanderbilt and are currently ranked 19th in the AP top 25. To help preview this weekend’s game, we caught up with Conor O’Neill of Deacons Illustrated to get the scoop on this year’s Wake Forest team.

What is the overall feeling surrounding this season within the program and its fans on expectations for the year?

Conor O’Neill: Expectations are higher than they’ve perhaps ever been for Wake Forest’s football program, given last season saw the Deacons win 11 games and the ACC’s Atlantic Division and they returned the bulk of their production. Competing in the division with Clemson has never been easy, but Wake Forest was able to break the seal last season and after this weekend’s game against Liberty, all focus will shift toward the Sept. 24 game against Clemson.

What is the expectation for Sam Hartman’s production this game?

CO: Wake’s star quarterback returned after missing time because of a blood clot and it was tough to see any rust. Hartman threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns without a turnover on a soggy, sloppy day at Vanderbilt last weekend. One of the premier quarterbacks in the country, you’ve come to basically expect those types of performances from Hartman against anybody who doesn’t have ready-made NFL defensive linemen (hence, Clemson and Pittsburgh were difficult last season).

Who do you consider to be the biggest X factor on the Wake Forest offense besides the quarterback?

CO: There are obvious ones in the receiver corps: A.T. Perry is a preseason All-America pick who had five catches for 142 yards against Vanderbilt; Donavon Greene was Wake’s best wide receiver in 2020 and missed last season with a torn ACL, and he’s gotten back up to speed this year; and Wake’s slot receiver is typically a star because of how much they use the position, so next up is Taylor Morin. The running backs qualify here, too. Christian Turner had a 100-yard game in the opener and Justice Ellison is the starter. A third running back, Quinton Cooley, has probably earned more snaps from the first two games, when he’s only entered with the competitive part of the game over.

How about for the defense?

CO: Wake’s linebackers are the key to the whole thing. Ryan Smenda Jr. is a fifth-year player who’s played a ton of football and had some really good days and moments, but also struggled at times. Chase Jones is a fourth-year player who’s not all that flashy, but is a solid player.

The Deacons are on their fourth linebackers coach (Glenn Spencer) in the last five years.

If you had to guess the ending record for this team, what would it be?

CO: At this point I’d say 9-3 before the bowl game, with each loss coming in ACC play so without a return trip to Charlotte for the ACC championship game. Wake Forest is a really good team; I just have doubts of whether they’ll be able to beat Clemson or win at N.C. State.

What player do you think is poised for a breakout season?

CO: It’s tough to find a breakout season with so many established contributors.

So far you’d give the edge to Malik Mustapha, a safety who’s in his second season in the program after transferring from Richmond. He looked fantastic against Vanderbilt, with five tackles, a fumble forced, TFL and a QB hurry.
Safety was a big question mark entering the season for this team, so that’s been an encouraging development.

Where do you think the Flames will struggle the most against this team?

CO: Wake’s offense has just become so lethal. If teams can blow up the interior of the offensive line and speed up the slow mesh, or disrupt the handoff, then you can get Wake Forest behind the chains and off schedule. But typically the only teams that can do that are the ones with massive, NFL-bound defensive tackles. Even N.C. State, which has put a bunch of defensive linemen in the NFL lately, struggles to stop Wake’s offense. It’s become the standard with Wake’s offense that you expect them to score 40-plus points.

What is your final score prediction for this game?

CO: I hate doing predictions like this, but since you asked … I think a Wake Forest win of 45-20 seems about right. Reading Hugh Freeze’s comments about Liberty’s offense against UAB and the play of Kaidon Salter makes me think there are some issues – if they get things ironed out quickly, it’ll be an interesting test of Wake’s defense. Like I’ve said about Wake’s offense, that thing is a well-oiled machine. It would be borderline shocking to see them held under 400 yards or under 30 points. Not saying it’s impossible – just that Wake’s offense is one of the best in the country.