New-look Wake defense shows improvement with Clemson looming

The Demon Deacons bounced back from consecutive defensive meltdowns to top Rice

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson was happier with his defense’s performance against Rice. (Woody Marshall / AP Photo)

The bar was low, but Wake Forest’s defense cleared it against Rice.

“We got lined up,” coach Dave Clawson said of his new-look defense, “and that was the goal this week.”

While it may sound like Clawson was happy that his maligned defenders simply found the field on Saturday, things weren’t quite that dire. After getting lit up in back-to-back games by Boston College —who scored 41 points — and Notre Dame — who put up 56 — Clawson made a change on his coaching staff.

Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel was relieved of his duties the day after the Notre Dame game. Clawson shuffled duties on his defensive staff and brought former Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore on as a full-time assistant.

For one week, at least, the move paid dividends. After giving up 1,090 yards in back-to-back games, Rice managed just 370 — a season low for a Wake opponent.

“I’ll be the first to admit, Rice isn’t Notre Dame,” Clawson said. “So regardless, there should have been improvement.”

Clawson was more encouraged by what he saw on the field than the stat sheet. Wake’s defensive players did their assignments — the true meaning behind his “lined up” comment — and executed the game plan.

“I just liked the way that, when we gave up plays today, it was a physical mistake, not a mental mistake,” he said. “If we missed a tackle, we missed a tackle. If we didn’t cover something, we didn’t cover something. It wasn’t because we weren’t in the right coverage or we weren’t in the right alignment. There were a lot less of those mistakes.”

In addition to the coaching change, Wake made some personnel moves on defense to get faster. Sophomore Ja’Cquez Williams, a 210-pounder who had been playing the rover spot — a hybrid linebacker/safety position — was moved to the buck — a linebacker/defensive end role. That meant playing closer to the line and exchanging licks with bigger opponents. He responded with four tackles, double his total in the previous two weeks combined, and his first tackle-for-loss since the Tulane game.

Clawson also went all hands on deck in the secondary, playing a number of younger players to improve Wake’s depth in pass coverage.

“We made a commitment to roll guys in there,” he said. “Luke Masterson and Cameron Glenn kind of split the game (at one cornerback spot).”

Masterson responded with a team-high eight tackles and his first career interception. Glenn added four stops.

The other corner was a revolving door.

“We rolled Ja’Sir (Taylor), Amari (Henderson) and Essang (Bassey) all in at corner,” Clawson said. The trio combined for 10 tackles, seven solo stops, an interception and a pass breakup. More importantly, Rice managed just 103 yards through the air, Wake’s lowest total surrendered since playing Georgia Tech’s triple-option running attack 11 games ago. The previous low for Wake’s defense this year was 281 passing yards.

“We just tried to play more guys and keep them fresh,” Clawson said. “We mixed more guys in there. Our goal was to prevent the mental fatigue. If guys play (fewer) plays, they can focus more when they’re in there. A lot of those mental breakdowns for us against Boston College came in the third and fourth quarter. Even against Notre Dame, they were late in the game. I thought when they got physically tired, they got mentally tired.”

So Clawson went younger, faster and deeper.

“At a lot of those positions, we’re young,” he said. “We’re down six guys this year on defense (due to injury). Three of them are linebackers and two are in the secondary. We’re going to have to make a commitment to play younger guys, live through their mistakes and just let them play.”

The Deacs seemed to respond to the commitment, playing with an increased level of intensity.

Rice had three straight three-and-out possession to open the game, gaining a total of three yards on the drives. Wake then got an interception on Rice’s fourth possession.

“To me, it looked like they were having fun,” Clawson said. “They were playing with emotion. They were flying around. The blitzes looked faster. I think they got some confidence from those first few drives. That’s a unit that for the eight quarters before had it handed to them pretty good. The Boston College game and the Notre Dame game, there wasn’t a lot of success in those games. I thought it was really important that we start fast today. Kids were smiling. It’s a game. When they have fun playing it, they’re going to play better.”

Of course, Wake won’t play Rice every week.

“We made progress,” Clawson said, “and (this) week, with Clemson coming to town, we’ve got to continue that progress.”