CB1- Bud Noel
SS- Duran Lowe
FS- Daniel Mack
CB2- Kevin Johnson
In 2010 the Wake Forest secondary was getting abused and embarrassed week after week en route to what could be considered one of the worst in the history of Demon Deacon football. The defense overall gave up 35.8 points per game, while the secondary allowed over 2800 passing yards, 29 touchdowns (to only 11 turnovers), and a shocking 62% completion percentage. The passing defense ranked 92nd in the country in passing yards per game at 238.2 YPG.
Last year, with the emergence as Merrill "Bud" Noel at the cornerback position, eventually winning the ACC defensive rookie of the year award, the passing defense improved to 69th in yards per game at 227.9 YPG. They allowed 22 TD's and picked the ball off 13 times. The completion percentage also dropped to 57.4% (good enough for 36th in the NCAA).
The defensive backfield loses both starting safeties from last year in Josh Bush (now with the New York Jets) and Cyhl Quarles, but the returning depth and new starting talent should hopefully make up for those losses.
Click through the jump as we project the starters and examine the corners and safeties by position!
PROJECTED SECOND STRING
CB1- Kenny Okoro
SS- Des Cooper
FS- A.J. Marshall
CB2- Allen Ramsey
The starting lineup is pretty well set right now in the secondary as camp has begun. Bud Noel and Kevin Johnson will man the cornerback positions while Duran Lowe and Daniel Mack will take the strong safety and free safety positions respectively.
Backing Bud and KJ up will be Kenny Okoro and Allen Ramsey. Backing the safeties up will be recently converted cornerback A.J. Marshall, Desmond Cooper and Joe LaBarbera could also see some reserve time.
With as much depth as there is in the secondary it seems unlikely at this point that any of the true freshmen (Ryan Janvion, James Ward and Dom Gibson) will need to take their redshirt year off which is a very good thing.
Now that we have the starting lineup out of the way let's dive into some deeper analysis starting with the cornerbacks.
The cornerback position is probably the deepest and most talented position on the Wake Forest football team. Not only is there All-ACC talent in Bud Noel and Kevin Johnson, but backing them up is (formerly Kenny) Chimbuikem Okoro, who leads the team with 29 career starts, is second on the team with 115 career tackles, and has registered 6 interceptions and 25 passes broken up during his career. Behind these three guys will be RS Fr Allen Ramsey, who has a ton of talent but due to the logjam in front of him will probably not see a lot of the field this year.
Let's start with the main man, Bud Noel (give him a follow on Twitter @MonopolyMoney_7)! He decommitted from FSU before coming to Wake Forest and more than proved his worth last year by not only claiming the Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in the ACC, but also leading the nation is passes defended with 21 (passes broken up+INT's), as well as 19 passes broken up.
Noel will continue to get better as he converts some of those passes broken up into interceptions, which he only had 2 of last year. In the fall practices so far I have noticed that while he still plays with a ton of passion and fire, he has reigned it in a bit and begun to act as a mentor to some of the other guys, despite still only being a RS So.
When Bud is paired with Kevin Johnson, who was redshirted last year because he was academically ineligible, the cornerback position is absolutely loaded at the starting spot. KJ actually beat out Bud Noel last spring before word came out that he was academically ineligible. That shows the immense amount of talent that the two guys have.
Kevin Johnson saw the 2010 defense struggle, as he was one of three freshmen not to redshirt. He wound up playing in 11 games and started 5 of them alongside Okoro. He registered 31 tackles and two passes broken up during the year. After taking last year to mature on and off the field it seems like he has come back with a vengeance and looks really good on the practice field.
Now I want to take a minute to talk about Chibuikem Okoro. I know that a lot of fans believe that over the past three years Okoro has been a bit of a distraction on the field for his histrionics in celebrating even when he has not had a lot to do with the play. This coupled with getting beat on a fair amount of balls that were on his man is not a good combination and tends to get the fans riled up. A lot of guys on and off the field have a completely different demeanor and Chembuike is definitely one of those guys.
Okoro is actually one of my favorite athletes from my four years at Wake Forest as I got to work with him for two seasons in the Campus Recreation Intramurals Department. As fired up as he gets on the field, he is just as humble and down-to-earth off of it. He was a great employee, referee and even better person. Now this means nothing in the whole scheme of things on the field, but I thought it was worth noting that I have found my encounters with him to be extremely different than most have seen, which have predominantly been on the field of play.
As for many of his plays last year on the field, somebody very in the know with the team and the game of football noted to me that Okoro got a bad rap for a lot of the stuff that went wrong when it was in his area. He no doubt had something to do with the blown plays/coverages, but a majority of the plays where blame was placed solely on him it was late in the play and the pass rush didn't do what it was supposed to do.
Did he get beat a lot? "Sure, but it happens to everybody."
Chibuikem has experienced a great set of practices so far and has settled into his role as "backup" cornerback very well. I put the word backup in quotes because he (along with A.J) are going to see a lot of playing time alongside the starters. When there is that much talent in a secondary rotation will be critical and they will all be called on to play a lot of snaps.
Allen Ramsey, the fourth cornerback on the team will likely not see a lot of snaps, but has been a big presence in the spring and now the fall practices. He reads the passing lanes very well and gets hands on a lot of balls that are seemingly out of reach. He will be a contributor in the future and needs to take this year to learn what it takes to be a cornerback in the ACC so he can step up when his time comes.
Make no mistake about it, losing Josh Bush and Cyhl Quarles is a big hit to the safety positions coming into this year. Quarles led the team in tackles last year by 32 tackles (101 total tackles), and was also essentially the playcaller on defense. This was a role that Quarles struggled with a bit in the past but last year he played it perfectly and led the secondary back from an embarrassing 2010 campaign.
Josh Bush had a resurgence of his own and went from one of the most jeered Wake Forest players by the fanbase to one of the most lovable. Bush led the team with 6 inteceptions and coupled that with 59 tackles and 5 passes broken up.
Replacing these two guys will be a difficult task, but it should be somewhat lessened by the fact that coming in to start will be two guys who have been under their wings for the past 3 years (RS Jr's) Daniel Mack and Duran Lowe. Mack figures to start at free safety, while Lowe will man the strong safety position. Lowe has played in 25 games with 3 starts while Mack has played in 23 games with 7 starts. Long story short, both guys have been around the block and know that it is now their time to step in and lead the safety positions.
Daniel Mack has struggled a bit in the past with his coverage in the secondary, but has hopefully matured this year and begin to pick up on what he needs to do to be successful.
A.J. Marshall is a bit of the wildcard here at the safety position. He was converted from a cornerback to a safety due to the depth, but he will still play a big role on the team. He will be the primary backup and will do a lot of what Josh Bush did last year in terms of playing a hybrid safety/cornerback mix and sometimes taking guys on in man to man situations. Part of the reason for his switch to the safety spot other than depth is his ability to play a great zone defense and read passing lanes and the throws from the quarterback. He has a knack for seeing the ball and getting to where he needs to be to make a play on it.
Marshall will also be good for covering the smaller, quicker receivers because he is a bit of a better athlete than the other two guys. If he can play that hybrid position to a T like Bush did then he will lift a lot of pressure off of Mack and Lowe, who can then drop back a little and not worry about tiring themselves out with the speedy guys. For this reason I think Marshall will spell Lowe or Mack frequently too so the opposing offenses have different looks in the secondary and don't get too comfortable with the same formations and players.
Des Cooper will also figure in to the safety situation to some degree. He played in all 13 games last year but mostly on special teams. His lanky 6-2 frame and long arms makes him a little bigger than Marshall and Mack and that size could come in handy in certain situations.
Another thing to consider this year is the new secondary coach Tim Duffie, who came from Colorado State. This is his 13th season as a college coach and he has been heavily involved in recruiting in past couple of gigs as well. From what I can tell so far he is a lot more reserved during practices that Coach Russ or Coach Lambert were. It is definitely a different style (he's no Coach Galloway, that's for sure), which lends itself to a different type of player. More reserved can be good if he finds other ways to motivate them, but that can't end in laziness.
It seems that he has a good relationship with the players and is also not as pressing as previous coaches. It seems in general that there is more freedom for the players and perhaps a bit simpler overall on defense. This is likely planned due to the talent and experience that the guys have. Unlike the offensive line where nearly everybody is new, this is an experienced group that has been around the block and knows what they need to do. Practice at this point.is about refining that and getting back into the groove of things.
I'm excited to see what Coach Duffie and the guys bring for the Liberty game and beyond!
Overall I expect the secondary to be the strongest sector on the team. In a league full of above average to really good quarterbacks (Glennon, Boyd, Manuel, Thomas, just to name a few), the secondary has to be able to play the pass well, as well as guard against the run from the dual-threat quarterbacks. The guys that we have out there now, as well as the ones that will step into that role in 1-2 years all have a pretty good head on their shoulder and know what is expected of them.
While as a group they have had some maturing to do academically and on the field the past couple of years, it seems that a lot of this is in the past and they are ready to get out there and make this a year to remember on the defensive side of the ball for Wake Forest fans.