Deacons defense key to Wake climbing ACC ladder

Coach Dave Clawson has an offense that can put up points and now needs his D to keep opponents off the board

Carlos Basham Jr. and the Demon Deacons defense will need to up their play for Wake Forest to reach the next level in the ACC. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

WINSTON-SALEM — The Wake Forest football program has made numerous advancements in the five seasons Dave Clawson has been its coach.

Its facilities have undergone a major facelift, highlighted by a state-of-the-art indoor practice field. Its trophy case has become more crowded thanks to three straight bowl victories — the first time in school history that’s happened.


As much as the Deacons have accomplished since breaking a string of seven straight losing seasons in 2016, there’s still plenty of room left to grow. Or as Clawson put it: “I don’t think that we’ve reached our peak.”

The next step in the process is escaping the 7- to 8-win plateau and taking the next step toward the top of the ACC standings.

That’s easier said than done in an Atlantic Division that includes perennial national championship contender Clemson.

But with an offense that has literally rewritten the school record book over the past two years and returns most of its key components — including two experienced quarterbacks — Wake has mastered at least half the equation.

All it has to do now is figure out a way to play enough defense to turn those big offensive numbers into big numbers in the win column.

“I’m excited to see what we’re going to do with the whole offseason, a whole spring, a whole summer camp to implement our plan,” Clawson said at the ACC’s Football Kickoff event in Charlotte in July. “I think our depth is good. We need some young guys to step up. You need to stay healthy. But I think every coach would get up there and say that.

“I expect us to be better. Improving statistically, that’s a low bar. I expect us to be a lot better. I think our players have bought in, believe what we’re doing and that’s three-quarters of the battle.”

It was a battle the Deacons were clearly losing during the first half of last season. So after watching his defense give up 41 points to Boston College and 56 the following week in a loss to Notre Dame, Clawson took drastic action by firing coordinator Jay Sawvel.

Things didn’t get much better right away. After a high-scoring win against Rice, Wake came out on the short end of a 63-3 embarrassment at the hands of eventual national champion Clemson.

But that turned out to be rock bottom.

The defense still wasn’t a world-beater under the direction of interim coordinator Lyle Hemphill, the team’s safeties coach. But it was good enough to beat three of the last four opponents Wake faced — including Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl — to salvage a season that could easily have flown off the rails.

Hemphill did such a good job that he was retained to run the defense again this season.

“Decisions like that are never easy to make,” Clawson said of the mid-season change of coordinators. “Sometimes things just aren’t working. I felt last year, if we just stayed down that path, in some ways we’d be giving up on the season. I didn’t think that was fair to anybody in our program.

“Coach Hemphill and (assistant head coach for defense Dave) Cohen took over a very difficult situation. But they did a really good job. We improved, got better, became more fundamentally sound. We schematically came up with answers we maybe didn’t have before.”

It’s a scheme senior linebacker Justin Strnad said revolves around a simplified game plan and a lot more communication.

“It’s pretty similar from a structure standpoint,” Strnad said. “I think we’re going to have the ability to play a little more nickel this year. I think it’s just good to understand more the scheme as opposed to technique.

“We’ve thrown in some change-ups, some calls that I think are going to help us, big situations this year on third down. I think overall as a defense, I like the way we’re heading into this season.”

One of the Deacons’ biggest problems over the past few seasons is their penchant for giving up big plays. Some of that can be blamed on their own offense’s explosive nature.

So in an effort to keep his defenders fresher and allow them more time between possessions to catch their breath, Clawson has pulled back the reins on his team’s sometimes too up-tempo attack.

“We purposely and very intentionally slowed down at the end of the year,” the coach said.

It was a move appreciated by Strnad and fellow returners such as lineman Boogie Basham, and defensive backs Essang Bassey and Amari Henderson.

“To be honest with you, with the tempo our offense plays with, any time we can have somebody take one to the house it’s a little breather for the defense,” Strnad said. “You get a little time on the sidelines to catch your breath. (That’s) really helpful to winning ballgames.”

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

2018 Record: 7-6 (3-5 ACC)

Coach: Dave Clawson (118-115 career record, 28-35 at Wake)

Points Per Game: 32.8

Points Allowed Per Game: 33.3

Key Returning Players: Jr. QB Jamie Newman; Sr. RB Cade Carney; Sr. LB Justin Strnad

Key Departed Players: WR Greg Dortch; OL Phil Haynes; DB Cameron Glenn

Key Additions: R-Fr. DE Ja’Cory Johns; R-Fr. DT Rondell Bothroyd; R-Fr. WR Isaiah Isaac

Key Game: UNC, Winston-Salem, Sept. 12