Returners(5): Ryan Smenda Jr.(Junior), Chase Monroe(RS Junior), DJ Taylor(RS Junior), Chase Jones(Sophomore), Zach Ranson(RS Freshman), Jaylen Hudson(RS Freshman)
Newcomers(2): Luke Masterson(Super Senior, position change), Joshua Sosanya(Freshman), Dylan Hazen(Freshman)
Departures(2): Ja’Cquez Williams(Transfer Portal), Jeffrey Burley(Graduation)
So this one is going to take a bit of a different approach given how, let’s say polarizing, this group can be.
What happened in 2020?
There’s no one good answer. From a unit that was fantastic in 2019, from the jump in 2020 we saw a topsy-turvy group. Sure, the loss of Justin Strnad to the NFL is big, but he missed the last 6 games of the 2019 season, and Ja’Cquez Williams stepped in and stepped up.
COVID did a number on this but this one wasn’t a group that was oft-injured(at least on the surface.) Ja’Cquez was banged up in the Syracuse game and was just not healthy playing in the UNC game. Smenda was coming out of protocol mere days before Louisville so he didn’t play his usual allotment of snaps there. Chase Jones picked up an injury against VT and missed a couple of games, but returned late in the season.
It was a multitude of things. First, they just didn’t take Ja’Cquez and Smenda off the field. Monroe had 19 snaps in the first 2 games, Jones was a bit better with 55. Ja’Cquez and Smenda played 58 and 62 snaps in the NC State game alone. Things evened out a bit more as the year went on, but from just snaps alone, they didn’t rotate as much as you’d like which seems like a mistake. Chase Monroe is one of the better tacklers on the team, and when Chase Jones is healthy he seems more and more like a promising ACC linebacker. In a year where eligibility doesn’t matter, why aren’t those two getting more snaps? Why is Jaylen Hudson not even breaking 50 snaps, not including special teams, where is Zach Ranson? If you’re having problems with depth everywhere else, why basically try to run your starters into the ground?
Secondly, there just wasn’t enough help for them to succeed. Football is a team sport and if others aren’t doing their job it can make someone else look absolutely terrible.
So let’s take this TD for example, shoutout for the person who pointed this out to me. If you’re watching this at first glance, the auto-response is probably, “Chase Monroe has to be faster and read this play better.”
In reality, he played this perfectly and was supposed to protect the middle at all costs on the mesh. When the ball goes outside, there’s supposed to be a DE there to either tackle the pitch man or at the very least corral him enough so reinforcements can come. There’s no help and now Monroe has to try and get the runner at an angle that he’d never make. There are so many examples of breakdowns like these or where the line lets them get clipped on a blitz which in turn makes them half a step to a step late. Have there been missed tackles and assignments? Absolutely, and both myself, Hemphill, Greg Jones, and the players will agree, but they weren’t put in places to succeed, especially when Wake was trying to cover all year for barely having any DBs.
There were also very good moments! The LB corps played tremendously well in the games against UVA, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Wisconsin.
If you’re sensing a trend you’re right.
Smenda through all the struggles only allowed 3 catches after the NC State game and was the 8th best-graded linebacker in the ACC according to PFF.
oh hey it's Ryan Smenda going step for step with a running back. I thought he couldn't do that. Hm. pic.twitter.com/xe9FQbZquO— DeColdest Debro (@CamLemons_) March 5, 2021
Monroe had some key moments of blowing up plays.
shoutout to Miles Fox getting just enough of the LG to make it a 1-on-1 for Chase Monroe with a C. They've *got* to continue to open up even the smallest holes for the LBs to shoot through if they're going to bring them at the rate they do pic.twitter.com/I6a7b9k4CR— DeColdest Debro (@CamLemons_) March 5, 2021
But overall it was an up and down season for this group to say the least.
What will be the answer come camp?
Losing Ja’Cquez Williams hurts. He was one of the team’s best players in 2019, and while he fought through injuries was a solid piece in the middle.
Enter Luke Masterson.
If you follow me on twitter, you know I’ve never been the biggest fan of Luke Masterson playing a high safety role. With his skill set, I’ve always thought he’d function a lot better in the box and we saw that in 2018 when he had to move to linebacker due to the rash of injuries there, and in 2019 when he was the main Rover on the team. With Traveon Redd playing at a high level, it’s easy to move him around and now he finds himself back at the BUCK linebacker to fill where Ja’Cquez departed. He actually played more in the box for the bowl game and they moved Redd up high, which resulted in a much better overall defensive performance.
The other main answer has to be a focus on the rest of the group. DJ Taylor, Chase Monroe, Chase Jones, Jaylen Hudson, Zach Ranson, and Joshua Sosanya have to take steps in this camp(omitting Dylan Hazen as he won’t be on campus until the summer.)
Normally, the tone would be more of a, “let’s get these guys playable and have our starters and then 3-4 guys we feel are playable.” That can’t be the case this year. Wake has more depth at every position than at any point in recent memory, but if they want to make this season special there has to be a higher level of play across the board here. They can’t just be playable they have to be at a better level than that. But there are questions?
Can Chase Jones stay healthy? Can DJ Taylor get back to the form he had in 2018 before injuries ravaged his career? What on earth happened to Zach Ranson for the coaches to rave about him and him get snaps freshman year, to essentially falling off the face of the earth last year? How much can Sosanya pick up given he played his junior year of football and then COVID shut everything down?
My pick for an X-Factor? DJ Taylor. We know Chase Jones can be good if healthy, and Monroe does a lot with the snaps he gets and will push for more. If they can get at least 1 more guy that’s at that standard, they’ll be in a very good place. I think given a year to refresh and recharge DJ Taylor can be that guy we once saw.