Into the second week of Wake Forest’s fall camp, this much is obvious: The polar opposite of taking over a defense four games into a college football season is to have an entire off-season to implement defensive schemes.
The Deacons’ defense is playing faster and smarter, and it’s a development that’s been about seven months in the making.
“I had the whole, really, winter, spring, summer to really install the stuff we wanted to do, that I wanted to do,” Lyle Hemphill, Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator and safeties coach, said after Thursday morning’s practice.
“As opposed to spring, the kids … know exactly what they’re doing. It’s just a matter of executing it, and now we’re coaching the other stuff. We’re coaching the effort, the ball disruption, stuff like that.
“We’re not coaching the 100-level stuff anymore. … Now we’re onto the higher-level stuff, which is huge.”
Hemphill and Dave Cohen became co-defensive coordinators after Jay Sawvel was fired four games into last season. Wake Forest’s defense improved after the change.
Before the Birmingham Bowl, Hemphill was assigned the defensive coordinator role while retaining his position as safeties coach, and Cohen’s title became assistant head coach for defense/defensive line coach.
In announcing those changes, Coach Dave Clawson said he saw improvement “in all phases of our defense” after the mid-season shakeup.
When asked Thursday if he’s seeing what he needs to see out of the defense so far, Clawson didn’t hesitate.
“Yes, we’re aligned better. I think our breaks on the ball are better. I just think we’re playing faster,” Clawson said. “You can just tell, it’s a little different speed to things. I just think they’re playing like they know what they’re doing and there’s a lot less indecisiveness in their reads and their footwork and their alignments.”
Indeed, there was improvement to the Deacons’ defense last season. That much was seen in holding N.C. State to 23 points and 47 rushing yards, in holding Duke to seven points in the regular-season finale, and in holding Memphis scoreless for about 40 minutes of the Birmingham Bowl.
But those were three games, and Hemphill sees his undertaking as trying to reverse two years of subpar play by the defense.
“We have to reinvent ourselves a little bit, you know what I mean? We can’t worry about what we were before,” Hemphill said. “We’re not last year; we’re a new team, we’re a new defense. This is who we are, we’re-going-to-create-our-own-path kind of thing.
“And they need that, because it’s been, really, two years of really bad defense. It’s just not acceptable anymore.”
Last season, Wake Forest’s defense ranked in the bottom quarter of the FBS in three categories. Against Wake Forest’s defense, opponents scored 33.3 points per game (No. 102), scored 92.5% of the time they reached the red zone (124th), and converted 42.2% of their third-down attempts (98th).
Those numbers must improve, and the Deacons are trying to do so by adapting to the offenses they’ll face.
“As this league has gotten a little more wide open, we have to get a little bit … out of three-linebacker defenses. Not saying we don’t want to play three-linebacker defenses, but we’ve gotta play with five DBs more,” Hemphill said. “And I don’t think we ever had the ability to do that last year. We’re going to have the ability to do that this year, in a lot of different ways.”
The biggest change here is with what has been the rover position in Wake Forest’s defense. Earlier this week, Clawson described that position as two-thirds linebacker, one-third safety in past seasons.
In fall camp, safeties Luke Masterson and Traveon Redd have lined up in the traditional rover spot.
“I’ve grown to like it a lot,” Masterson said of the position. “I like being close to the box a little bit. It took me a little bit to get it, but … once I know what I’m doing, (I’m) able to play faster and I’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
Depth also factors into how much the defense will improve, and two positions have benefited from an influx of healthy players compared to where they were in the spring: safety and linebacker.
In addition to Masterson and Redd, Wake Forest is rotating Coby Davis, Nasir Greer and Zion Keith at safety while also looking for others to emerge as playable over the next couple of weeks. Hemphill has been pleased with freshmen Trey Rucker and A.J. Williams, and walk-on Keegan Good remains in the discussion to push for playing time.
Clawson and Hemphill are both satisfied with the competition level at safety, with Clawson pointing out that “the concentration level, the focus, is way better than it was a year ago.”
At linebacker, fifth-year senior Justin Strnad and sophomore Ryan Smenda Jr. are entrenched as the starters. DJ Taylor will miss the season, Ja’Cquez Williams is moving over from rover, and Chase Monroe and Jeff Burley are making strides coming off major knee injuries. Freshmen Chase Jones and Jaylen Hudson are coming up to speed, too.
“Just like at safety, there’s a huge battle at linebacker right now. Because we’re going to play more than those two guys. It’s not Justin and Ryan, that’s not it,” Hemphill said. “It’s Justin, Ryan and then there’s gotta be three other guys that can play, and right now that competition for those other three spots of real game reps, that competition is starting to brew because the freshmen are starting to learn what they’re doing.”
On a few occasions last season and in the spring, Clawson made it clear that criticism of the defense in the past two seasons didn’t mean the Deacons had bad players. Problems have been attributed to being out of position and not upholding the standard established in Clawson’s first three seasons at Wake Forest.
If nothing else, it’s clear that those issues have been addressed head-on.
“We’re not where we were last year; we’re not the 100th-ranked defense in the country,” Hemphill said.
“And we won’t be this year.”