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What to Watch For in the Wake Forest Defense

Will Wake spice up a bland defensive approach?

Clemson v Wake Forest Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Here goes the weekly attempt to show you more or less what Clemson’s opponent will run on defense against the Tigers. In past years it was half informative — for those football nerds out there who like knowing the philosophies and calls Clemson faces — and half derisive, since no regular season opponents had the manpower to stop Clemson no matter what they did.

I still tried to highlight where an opponent had an interesting tendency or position of strength, but it quickly turned into condescending self-assuredness that Clemson could mitigate those strengths and attack whichever weaknesses they chose.

This year will be an exercise in self-derision if anything. We live in a world where half the roster could be ruled out the night before the game, and we humble viewers only find out shortly before kickoff. I will be wrong quite a lot. But I’ll still be stupidly smug about it.

Clemson essentially has two tuneups this month before the schedule grows progressively more exciting, and with Wake and The Citadel, there is only one player between the September opponents I’d label a defensive standout who could trouble Clemson. And again, that’s before positive tests may wipe out a depth chart or two.

Thus, I want to begin this season with a general disclaimer that this column will still shade toward explaining opponent philosophies, but then describe what I want to see from the Clemson attack — rather than specific opponent strengths or weaknesses following the philosophical musings like in years past where I blended the topics together into an overconfident rant.

I’ll do the best I can to give you the most prudent insight I can glean, but medical scratches could render the opponents’ strengths and even predominant philosophy completely moot between publishing and game time.

We all have to be flexible this year and remain thankful Clemson can play what games they can while they can.

Defensive Coordinator: Lyle Hemphill

The overarching philosophy Hemphill employs is a loose cover 4, more often than not from a 2-high soft shell behind a 4-3 front, which is your classic bend but don’t break alignment. As we know, cover 4 can still be plenty aggressive with smart safeties and competent corners, and Wake will more often than not keep their safeties down closer to the box.

Theirs is a prudent approach due to Wake’s traditionally stronger player development than talent acquisition; from a soft shell, smarter defenders can ball-hawk with their eyes in front and rally to the ball.

The usual Wake Forest coverage shell, showing cover 4. If showing cover 2, the safeties would be farther back to better drop into their deep half coverage. Notice how far off the corners are from the line — this screams soft outside zone.

The downside to their more reactive approach is that Wake’s cover 4 is prone to manipulation, in particular to the RPO skinny post which Clemson utilized to great effect early in last year’s contest. The boundary safety must support the front 6 against Etienne on the ground, steps down on the run action, and the corner has no inside help. It was pretty much the game winning play!

Blitzes aren’t necessarily uncommon for Wake, and they happen in front of typical man and cover 3 coverages, but they aren’t particularly effective. Wake either forgoes any sort of attempt to disguise, bringing the Sam onto the line for instance, or keeps him back at their abnormally deep linebacker depth and he rarely gets home.

Clemson’s bread and butter route a year ago, a deep out against soft zone; this time a cover 3 shell behind a Sam fire blitz. The field safety drops into a hook zone instead of a cloud coverage (that’s the term when a safety covers a flat zone) and there’s no underneath help to deter the easy out. Well it’s more of a comeback route but there was little difference here.

There isn’t as much a need to blitz as you would think though, with superstar defensive end Boogie Basham (that one player I mentioned up top!) Wake is in a good position up front to throw in a respectable pass rush despite their conservative philosophy. What we’ll mostly see tomorrow is this sort of cover 4, with this sort of halfhearted blitz, while Basham does most of the heavy lifting in trying to pressure Lawrence.

I’m going off script here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Wake could experiment with some inverted cover 2 if they have any intent to fight on defense. It’s all the rage in slowing spread offenses lately, from Iowa State all the way down to our most recent Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

From the shallow safety/soft corner shell, Wake could quickly drop into the inverted cover 2 — the safeties can crash against the run and underneath zones, while the corners bail into deep half coverage.

It’s inverted because the corners and safeties swap coverage responsibilities versus your traditional cover 2

But this is merely conjecture, since Wake was pretty vanilla on defense while Hemphill righted the ship after a shaky 2018. Their defense isn’t nearly as interesting or effective as their offense, and there’s little they can offer to slow Clemson without their typical experienced backfield which mitigates a bit of the talent discrepancy. But if I’m wrong and Hemphill spices things up, it will be a welcome test to grade.

In summary, this is about as friendly a conference game could be for the new outside receivers. The softer coverage Ngata, Ladson, and Powell should face tomorrow was exactly how most teams chose to defend Higgins and Ross a year ago — wary of being beaten downfield — and ironically proved to be the very last way defenses should’ve defended Clemson outside.

Clemson’s passing game a year ago boiled down to “when in doubt throw it up to Higgins or Ross against soft/scared coverage” which worked fine in the first 13 games. It was never the efficient machine we expected, but explosive enough along the sidelines and whenever the staff remembered that occasional carries for Travis Etienne aren’t, in fact, cheating. However it was rarely what we would call “on schedule.” The Tigers were finally exposed by OSU and LSU, who knew they could match up and especially win outside.

The good news is that if there’s anywhere this year’s outside receiver group should bring an upgrade over last year’s it’s that your outside targets in 2020 possess stronger frames and seemingly more physical blessings to counter tighter and more confident coverages down the road. Higgins and Ross were elite, acrobatic sideline targets, but Ngata and Ladson in particular bring more strength and speed to their positions. This isn’t to suggest the latter pair will be better than the former, but it is one area for optimism where we still expect an overall drop-off.

Wake (and all other opponents) have surely seen the success stronger defenses had in tightening down on the outside against Clemson, and I for one hope they choose to implement a good bit of it. Not just to challenge the new blood with press man coverage early, but to see if this receiver group is more predisposed toward beating a jam off the line as their physiques would suggest.

But Wake isn’t necessarily going to change who they are just to try calls and styles which worked for much more talented defenses against different receiver personnel. Like I said above, I’ll watch for any different looks Wake throws at Clemson, but I wouldn’t expect much more than a blitz package or two. They’ll play mostly soft cover 4 and hope Basham can get to Lawrence before he manipulates a relatively weak secondary too much.

I leave you with these evergreen thoughts which will be my major keys for improvement in attacking opposing defenses all year: Feed Etienne, let the route tree grow across the middle of the field (please), and don’t rotate back-up offensive linemen into the game until Lawrence is out (PLEASE).

Clemson 55, Wake 17