Two of the four Justins on Wake Forest’s football team didn’t practice Tuesday morning, but the absences of Justin Herron and Justin Strnad were of the just-in-case nature.
The two senior captains weren’t in pads, but — as the Deacons have been using a different approach to preseason — that wasn’t as alarming as it would have been in years past.
Herron, the sixth-year left tackle, was held out as a precaution as he works back into form after the tear of an ACL in the 2018 season opener.
“It was funny, they told me I wasn’t going to practice today and I was like, ‘OK, well, I’ll just be another coach again, like I was last year,’” said Herron. “But the trainers were making the jokes, they were like, ‘It’s your NFL vet day, so you can just relax.’”
After his season-ending injury, Herron became something of a student assistant coach. He was indeed back in that role Tuesday morning, working closely with redshirt sophomore Spencer Clapp and freshman DeVonte Gordon, among others. He was particularly impressed with Gordon, who enrolled in January but missed most of the spring while recovering from an injury.
Strnad, the fifth-year linebacker who led the Deacons with 105 tackles last season, hit his workload maximum in the Catapult system and was also held out. He played more than 1,000 snaps last season, though, and was active in the spring until a minor injury about a week before the spring game.
Sitting out Tuesday meant Strnad could also take on more of a coaching role.
“We’ve got some young guys that are learning right now, a guy like Ja’Cquez (Williams) who’s new to the position,” Strnad said. “When we’re installing this defense, it’s good to get out here and be able to help them learn it and understand schemes and situations.”
Wake Forest’s revamped approach to fall camp, which has seen the players on the practice fields for six straight days, is paying dividends. The area reserved for injured players — otherwise known as “the pit” — has been relatively empty.
“I think comparatively to a year ago, we’re much better off,” Coach Dave Clawson said. “I think the players feel better. It’s still camp and they still have camp legs, but we’ve got a lot more guys out here practicing, we’ve got less guys in the pit and it’s hard to get better as a football player if you’re not practicing.”
Resting players such as Herron and Strnad, who are proven commodities, is a calculated move for Wake Forest’s coaching and training staffs.
Not only does it help those two players recover, it creates a trickle-down effect for others at their positions. Nathan Gilliam and Jake Benzinger played offensive tackle, and Loic Ngassam Nya and Sean Maginn played guard with Herron sitting. Nya and Maginn are battling to be the team’s left guard.
With Strnad on the sideline, Williams — a redshirt junior whose position of rover was eliminated — took first-team snaps alongside Ryan Smenda Jr., and freshman Chase Jones stepped up to the second team.
That allowed Strnad to see practice from different angles — sometimes from that of defensive coordinator Lyle Hemphill.
“I was able to stand behind (the defense) … and see how everything is working from the back end, as opposed to playing the position — you’re only seeing the tackle box and stuff like that,” Strnad said.
There is a painful part of missing a practice for Herron, though. For a player who finally returned the field last week after months of rehab, being told to sit out wasn’t the easiest thing to hear Tuesday.
Of course, he only needed a little perspective.
“It’s just kind of like, would you rather practice today or would you rather play on Saturday? When they say stuff like that, I’m like, ‘Eh, rather play on Saturday,’” Herron said with a laugh.