The biggest question of Wake Forest’s fall camp was answered in the past few days.
It just wasn’t the quarterback one.
Whether Jamie Newman or Sam Hartman would enter the season as the starting quarterback deserved and received plenty of attention. But it’s also a question that didn’t have a right or wrong answer because both are capable of being top-level ACC quarterbacks — and if the last two years are any indication, Wake Forest’s offense is going to score points.
No, the biggest question of fall camp was whether Wake Forest’s defense could show significant improvement from last season.
And after that unit was humbled in the first scrimmage, to the tune of 611 total yards in about 112 plays, it responded Monday night.
Wake Forest’s offense was held to 356 yards in 100 plays, every quarterback who dropped back was pressured, runs were blown up in the backfield and the only thing missing was a takeaway.
“We were flying around, everybody knew what they were doing,” sophomore safety Nasir Greer said. “We got a lot of big stops (Monday night) that we didn’t get in the last scrimmage, just the energy was there and you could feel the excitement on the sideline.”
One of the benefits of Monday night’s scrimmage being at McCreary Field House and not BB&T Field was how close observers were to the defense.
At the stadium, we’re on the sixth floor of McCreary Tower. We can’t hear much of anything that happens on the field.
But in the indoor facility, we’re on a catwalk and observation deck above the sideline, and that sideline was being used that night by the defensive players and coaches. We could hear everything. We could hear the excitement level, the congratulations for third- and fourth-down stops, the energy displayed throughout the night.
It was contagious on that sideline.
Now, it’s tricky to quantify “significant improvement” for Wake Forest’s defense from last season. The change in coordinators eventually led to improved defensive play by the end of the season. But in the big-picture view, Wake Forest’s defense has spent the last two seasons coming up short of the standard that was established in the three previous ones — and that’s where the need for improvement comes from.
The other noticeable part of it was that the Deacons’ defense was effective while still limiting the snap counts of its top players.
Defensive end Boogie Basham dominated the first possession, but he was barely on the field after that. Linebacker Justin Strnad had two tackles (1½ for loss) in limited action, and cornerback Essang Bassey had one tackle in his short time on the field.
Those same players also played limited snaps in the first scrimmage, and it was cited then that the defense’s performance would’ve been better if those three had been on the field more.
So Monday night showed how much the Deacons’ younger defenders elevated their performances from the first scrimmage to the second.
“We all know what we’re doing and we’re all going to play as hard as we can because, like, the older guys, we know they’re not going to be here next year, so this is their last hoo-rah, this is their last everything,” sophomore linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. said. “So why not give it all for ourselves and for the team and for them?”
That’s the “sense of urgency” tagline that was missing from the first half of last season, and it’s clear the emphasis on it has resonated.