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The Wake Forest Defense Was Better Than This

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Without Justin Strnad, the Wake Forest defense falters

NCAA Football: Elon University at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Hello old friends I am back from a solid month of business travel, which means I had the time this week to find and watch relevant film and subsequently patronize Clemson’s opponent for what I hoped would be a ranked match-up in conference play for once.

Alas, we cannot have nice things here in the ACC. With increasingly undermanned Wake Forest’s loss at Virginia Tech, Clemson is once again the conference’s only ranked team. The closest we come to nice things are perhaps Louisville or UNC in the near future, and a fling with Notre Dame when they find it convenient, but we can’t get our hopes up they’ll make it official.

Wake Forest has quietly become a steadily overachieving program, though, on the back of Dave Clawson’s offense and player development. There was a time not too long ago, while Clawson’s newer Wake teams had to find their way on offense, when the Wake defenses were the overachieving force under Mike Elko’s direction. Since his departure to Notre Dame and now Texas A&M, the Wake defense has fallen back to the where their talent level would suggest: competent when experienced and healthy, but thin and underwhelming when injuries mount.

Wake does have a few bright spots on defense, and their scheme in particular is intriguing since it employs a converted safety, hybrid 4-3 Sam like Brent Venables employs here. The problem — like we find throughout the ACC compared to Clemson — is much they try to do is limited by personnel. Worse, their best defender is on the shelf due to injury.

After a year which saw former coordinator Jay Sawvel fired after only 4 games, many of the alignment issues which plagued Wake at the second level were gradually rectified. Unfortunately, those alignment issues weren’t yet fixed by week 6 a year ago and were glaringly exacerbated without any experienced, healthy linebackers against Travis Etienne. But Wake improved throughout the year and salvaged another bowl victory.

This year, coordinator Lyle Hemphill was afforded an entire offseason to install his defense, and the returns were even more encouraging over the front half of the season; the defense was aligned and players thus flew to the ball faster:

Notice Hemphill employs the same 1 gap 4-3 over as Brent Venables; even always keeps his corners separated as edge defenders against overloaded formations

Wake is a predominantly cover 4 and cover 2 zone defense which plays loose, but not soft, coverage and largely leaves its senior corners Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey in pattern match zone outside. With quarters-depth safeties and more trustworthy corner play, this is a drastic change in philosophy from the run defense oriented, equal safety and corner depth Clemson faced in Raleigh a week ago. The simple out routes against soft corners won’t be as hilariously open, but the run game won’t face a stacked box with shallow safeties flying in from near linebacker depth. But man, that Wake run defense is now a glaring concern without senior leader and would-be ACC leading tackler Justin Strnad.

Like most defenses (including Clemson), when Wake chooses to blitz they often do so in front of cover 3 or man cover 1. The trouble is, they most often do so in front of soft, easily discernible coverage shells with none of the late safety movement we saw under Elko, and don’t run the cover 3 fire zone blitzes Venables employs to nearly the same effect with linebackers generally beginning so far off the line of scrimmage.

What’s the simplest blitz tell? Two defenders aligned one directly behind the other to quickly cover an area or man which would be briefly undefended at the snap due to a blitz from said area:

And what did Wake do? They sent the nickel/Sam on a telegraphed fire blitz in front of cover 3:

This is admittedly a nitpick, but it’s a sign of either secondary inexperience (at the safety level certainly) or a coordinator who doesn’t fully trust his personnel to disguise their zones before the snap without sacrificing coverage integrity. Again, it’s understandable with a young line, freshmen and sophomores at safety, and your best player lost to injury, but these are easy pickings for the analytical minds in Clemson’s offensive brain trust.

That such a young front 7 must face the top yards per carry offense in the country may render much of the coverage philosophy moot, since Clemson perhaps won’t need to throw the ball to pull away early, but that’s what makes Wake’s issues in this contest all the more confounding. Wake will need to send more cover 3 blitzes to attack the run, and trust their corners to hold on; it isn’t ideal against Clemson’s receivers, but it’s the best personnel group in the unit now.

Despite the strong start to the season, much of what led to last season’s blowout is suddenly an issue: with a young defensive line and its star linebacker lost to injury for the year, Wake is overmatched against a fully operational Clemson offense.

It’s a similarly regrettable story on the other side of the ball, where the best QB in the league outside of Trevor Lawrence is suddenly without his top receivers and must rely on a plodding running back and converted quarterback turned receiver outside to take pressure off Jamie Newman’s capable shoulders. A contest earlier in the year, between a healthy Wake and a less efficient Clemson offense, would’ve been a delightfully (or fearfully) tight game. Lacking 3 of its best players between both sides of the ball, Wake has taken a step back down the stretch while Clemson has rounded into championship form.

Most everyone here roots for Dave Clawson to catch his break one day, at Wake or at a bigger job; Saturday won’t be that day.

Clemson 55, Wake 20