Two games into a 12-game schedule is hardly the time for Wake Forest’s defense to declare its biggest offseason task an accomplished one.
But so far, the Deacons have been markedly better in critical situations, and it’s an encouraging sign.
“I feel like, since Coach (Dave Clawson) kind of singled in on those two things, I feel like as a defense we took it as something we need to work as a unit to get better at,” defensive end Boogie Basham said. “Of course the first two games, we feel like we’ve done a great job at it.
“We just need to get better all the time.”
Getting better would be further improvement on numbers that already illustrate a difference from last season.
A year ago, Wake Forest gave up scores 37 of the 40 times that opponents entered the red zone (inside the 20-yard line). That 92.5% ranked 124th of 130 FBS teams.
In two games, the Deacons have as many red zone stops as they had all of last season — Utah State and Rice combined to score on 6 of 9 trips into Wake Forest’s red zone.
The stops came on Trey Rucker’s interception in the end zone and on a pair of fourth-down stops: linebacker Justin Strnad made the tackles each time, on fourth-and-1 from the 13-yard line against Utah State and on fourth-and-goal on the 1-yard line at Rice.
“We had a turnover in the red zone, something that we didn’t see last year,” sophomore safety Nasir Greer said. “If we keep that up, we’re going to be a way better third-down and red-zone defense.”
Teams converted third downs against Wake Forest at a clip of 42.2% last year, 98th in the country. This season that number has dropped to 31.3%, 45th in the country.
Again, a limited sample size. But so far, so improved.
“Last year we were a really good first-and-10, second-down defense and we struggled in critical situations,” Clawson said. “And so far this year, our third-down defense is much better. Our red-zone defense is much better.”
It’s a defense that returned only four starters — but the most-important returner was probably defensive coordinator Lyle Hemphill, who took over as a co-defensive coordinator during last season and took advantage of a full spring and summer to install his schemes and terminology.
“I think we have a clear plan of what we’re doing in those situations,” Clawson said. “That, if we get beat, it’s because we got out-executed, not because we didn’t know what we were doing. Again, we’ve got challenges ahead of us. Certainly Friday is one of them.
“The quality of the offensive line and the skill level we’re going to see Friday is the best that we’ve seen all year, so the challenge gets harder. But so far, those results are very encouraging.”
North Carolina comes to Winston-Salem for a nonconference game toting a 2-0 record, but not the greatest rates of converting third downs or converting red-zone trips into touchdowns.
The Tar Heels have converted 7 of 26 third downs, their 26.9% rate checking in at 115th in the country.
North Carolina has scored on all eight of its trips into the red zone, but only three of those have been touchdowns — there are 43 teams in the country that have scored on every red-zone trip, and North Carolina is one of five teams that has kicked field goals in more than half of those trips.
The Tar Heels, as Clawson said, will present the toughest overall test the Deacons’ defense has seen this season.
As usual, defending the Tar Heels starts up front.
“Rondell Bothroyd is, to me, winning some pass rushes. Dion Bergan is getting good, physical push. And I’m encouraged that once we get Tyler Williams back, that’ll even get better. Even Ja’Corey Johns had a sack the other day,” Clawson said. “I really think that’s a young group that’s going to get better every single week, and those guys already look more comfortable in Week 2 than they did in Week 1.”
Now it’s time to see how they look in Week 3.