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Thoughts, Evaluation, and Ways to Improve Wake Forest’s Defense

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Everything isn’t as bad as it seems?

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday stunk. It flat out stunk as a fan, it stunk as a writer, and I’m sure as a player and a coach it stunk.

Coming into this season, (reasonable)expectations for the defense were as such:

On the line, the cupboard would be stacked. You got Boogie Basham, Tyler Williams, Sulaiman Kamara, Miles Fox, JaCorey Johns all back. Ja’Cquez Williams and Ryan Smenda Jr. ended last year on such a hot streak it’d carry over to this year and you’d have more experience on guys like DJ Taylor, Chase Monroe, Chase Jones, Zach Ranson, Jaylen Hudson. Nasir Greer, Luke Masterson, and Traveon Redd would lead the safeties, I’m counting the Rover as an S here given the personnel, and your only question on defense would be at CB as you had Ja’Sir Taylor and a bunch of unknowns.

The easy thing to do at the end of the season, when evaluating, is to point and say, “Wake Forest is giving up 34 points and 470 yards per game, the defense sucks, Lyle Hemphill needs to be fired and the entire defense needs an overhaul.” Hell, I’m guilty of saying it during the NC State game. But when you sift through it, is the defense as bad as Wake fans(trust me I saw a lot of it Saturday and against UNC) wish to make it out to be?

Personnel

Coming into the season, You think you have Nasir and Luke and Tra Redd manning your safety and rover spots. If you’re keeping track at home: Nasir Greer played 81 snaps due to injury, well we don't know if he’s going to be back for the spring or until the fall. Luke Masterson missed over 2 months with a foot injury and was finally back against Louisville. Traveon Redd was playing at an extremely high level and was the only healthy one out of the three, but now he was out this week and his status is unknown for FSU.

Just right there alone, when you’re missing 2 of your starters for a huge chunk of the season it doesn’t necessarily bode well, but ok what about the depth?

Trey Rucker missed the first 3 games due to a foot injury, and now might be done for the year. Zion Keith was one of the best-graded safeties in the nation but broke his thumb and missed almost 2 months before slowly working back in for 14 snaps against Louisville. Nick Andersen has been a great story and had some great weeks, but also a bit of baptism by fire asking a guy of that build to single cover guys like Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, and remember he is still a walk-on freshman and has 9 missed tackles over his last 2 games. It took until December 12th for Coby Davis to make his debut due to a high ankle sprain. JJ Roberts is a true freshman and it’s been alluded to that he was the member who missed a considerable amount of time due to contact tracing so his development has been stunted. The only game that the safeties have been “healthy” was UVA when Rucker, Keith, Redd all played. That unit has just been decimated.

At CB, Ja’Sir Taylor and Caelen Carson have been better than we envisioned by a mile. Carson hasn’t allowed 100 yards total through the air, and QBs have a 47.9 passer rating when targeting him, which is good for 11th in the nation. Taylor has given up on average 45 yards a game and QBs have a 77.8 passer rating targeting him, good for 64th in the country and 12th in the ACC. Between the two of them, they have as many interceptions as they do touchdowns allowed(3). You’d obviously would want a third there, as Wake did with Ja’Sir for years as Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey held it down, and that plan has been thrown out the window as both Kenneth Dicks III and Gavin Holmes have been working through injuries essentially the entire season. No matter how you spin it, the corners haven’t really been an issue, but are teetering with virtually zero depth at this point with Peyton Woulard and Isaiah Essissima deciding to opt-out

The linebackers haven’t really had anyone break out this year as we’ve been accustomed to. Smenda and Ja’Cquez have been fine, but there is seemingly a reliance on these two and absolutely zero trust in Chase Monroe(who, granted did not have a good game in the slightest yesterday), Chase Jones, Zach Ranson, Jaylen Hudson. I don’t want to go full excuse mode, but this one screams coaching hasn’t been great. A reminder that Wake hired 2 new coaches this offseason. Paul Williams was an external hire with a proven track record of producing NFL level corners. Greg Jones was hired to head the linebackers after Tyler Santucci left for Texas A&M, and was pulled up with very little coaching experience, and was most recently the director of recruiting for Wake.

The linemen have been the biggest improvement as the season goes on. The sacks have stayed at the same rate, but they more than doubled the number of QB hits and dropped from 4 missed tackles a game to just 1 according to PFF going into yesterday's contest. How did Saturday go? Without over half of their normal 2 deep, Boogie, Kamara, Tyler Williams, Shamar McCollum, the DL had 2 sacks, 6 QB hurries, 15 tackles, and 13 run stops. 8 missed tackles isn’t what you want at all, but if we’re giving the offense a pass for the drops and missed throws after such a long layoff, I’m willing to do so here.

The Role of the Offense

This is the part of the article that generally rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Scoring a lot of points is fun! It’s better than 2014 where Wake basically wanted to drag teams into dogfights because. I said it on twitter and I’ll say it again, it is absolute insanity to have an offense that is on the field for 2-3 minutes at a time and then expect your defense to consistently hold. The only team that does that successfully is Alabama this year. If you go at a breakneck pace on offense, whether you score points or not, you are asking for your defense to be gassed, missed tackles and long touchdowns.

That is exactly what happened against UNC and against Louisville.

UNC is a top 5, at worst, offense in the NCAA this year. After Wake’s defense gave up 4 straight scores, UNC went punt, punt, INT, punt, TD, punt from 12:45 left in the 2nd quarter to 14:51 left in the 4th quarter when the flood gates started to open. When this stretch starts it’s 28-24 Wake. When it ends Wake is still up 45-31.

You would think with a two-score lead, against one of the best offenses in the country, you’re down both starting outside wide receivers, your starting center, and barely have enough playable people in the secondary in the second half, you’d want to run the ball and milk the clock.

After North Carolina cuts the lead to 45-31 with 4:43 left in the 3rd, Wake Forest next 5 drives AVERAGED a minute and 10 seconds. Wake ran the ball 5 times total in 5 drives. Given the circumstances, who you’re missing, what’s on the other side, why not milk as much time as possible and give your defense a rest?

It’s also not that farfetched of an idea, as against better run defenses in UVA and Virginia Tech, that was exactly the game plan and they were up by fewer points than they were against UNC. Against UVA, where 1 run was the difference between Wake averaging 5 yards a carry to 3 yards a carry, Wake still made it a point to run the ball almost 40 times with CBS and KW3, 17 times in the second half before garbage time, and averaged just under 2 minutes a drive in the second half with one of the drives being a 17 second 75 yard scamper from KW3. Up 7 against VT in the second half, Wake’s drives averaged almost 3 minutes with almost 40 rushes again, 22 in the second half.

Is it calling the offense bad? No, not in the slightest, but we already go into the game knowing the offense puts such a huge strain on the defense, Dave Clawson has touched on it multiple times throughout the years, former players I’ve talked to have said as much, that if you’re going to run that many plays and at that fast of a pace you have to execute or you are leaving the offense out to dry. Stacking the box, not stacking the box, if you’re willing to play like that when all of your options are there, why aren’t you when your options are limited?

Fast forward to Louisville. Wake’s defense got out to a fast start with Louisvlle’s first 5 drives ending in either turnover on downs or a punt. Wake’s offense clearly rusty, scored once, and punted the other 4 drives. The rest of the game for Wake went FG/INT/Punt/FG/TD/Fumble/Downs/game. The offense wasn’t good that’s not really a debatable topic, but again what kind of hole did the offense put the defense in. Granted Wake was missing Donavon Greene and Kenneth Walker III on offense, the defense was missing Boogie/Kamara/Tyler Williams/Shamar McCollum/Nasir/Trey Rucker/Gavin Holmes and had a clearly not healthy Zion Keith for 14 snaps. Wake’s offense averaged a little over a minute and a half per drive. If you’re not going to give this defense a break, especially when they’re short handed, what do you expect?

So what needs to change?

One of the main things has to be injuries. COVID and contact tracing had its way this year, but you only have to go back one year to the Pinstripe Bowl when Wake was missing Kamara/Fox/Justin Strnad/Nasir/Masterson and had to at points have Essang Bassey play safety. The breakneck pace of the offense doesn’t help, but at this point there has to be borderline malpractice happening for the amount of injuries this defense suffers and how long they linger.

Depth also has to be addressed at certain points. There has to be a willingness to get guys like Will Smart, Justin Williams, and Jasheen Davis more reps on the line. There has to be a willingness to get Zach Ranson, Jaylen Hudson, DJ Taylor more reps at LB. They essentially had to baptize their safeties this year so all have meaningful reps, but in the past that group hasn’t gotten the youth involved either. You have to find ways to get these guys on the field for a few plays here and there so you can get off the field on 3rd down with your studs.

Lastly, the philosphy of the offense in some shape or form needs to be tinkered with. The excuse of “they were loading the box” can’t continue to be used as to why Wake abandons the run, especially when they’re running well, and tries to rely on letting Sam cook. Wake Forest is 3-7 in games that Sam Hartman had to throw more than 30 times in that game. Is it calling Sam bad? Absolutely not, but this team has to rely on its strengths and allow this defense to breathe.