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2012 Wake Forest Preview - Defense
Posted Jul 5, 2012 2012 Preview - Wake Forest Defense

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Preview 2012 - Defense

- 2012 Wake Forest Preview | 2012 Wake Forest Offense
- 2012 Wake Forest Defense | 2012 Wake Forest Depth Chart

What You Need To Know: There’s cautious optimism in Winston-Salem about a defense that’s been feeble the past few seasons. The Demon Deacons return a solid enough core of playmakers to make insiders believe that progress is possible in 2012. The three-man line will again be sparked by squat NG Nikita Whitlock, whose frame doesn’t look the part, but production does. He’s scary quick off the snap, commanding double-teams, and notching 24.5 tackles for loss in his first two seasons. The linebackers lose Kyle Wilber to graduation, but return seasoned veterans Joey Ehrmann, Justin Jackson, Mike Olson and Riley Haynes. The linebackers may not be electrifying, but they’re steady, and will make a ton of plays against the run. The secondary is going to be a mixed bag for Jim Grobe and the coaching staff. Wake Forest lost a talented pair of safeties in Cyhl Quarles and Josh Bush, who was drafted by the New York Jets. The corners, though, are underrated. Merrill Noel was a revelation as a rookie, earning Freshman All-American recognition. Kevin Johnson has a high ceiling once he adds some weight and gets more snaps. Kenny Okoro, assuming he’s unable to crack the lineup, is a terrific vet off the bench, and an ideal option in nickel packages.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Merrill Noel, 66
Sacks: Nikita Whitlock, 3.5
Interceptions: Merrill Noel, 2

Star of the defense: Junior NG Nikita Whitlock
Player who has to step up and become a star:Junior DE Zach Thompson
Unsung star on the rise: Junior LB Mike Olson
Best pro prospect: Sophomore CB Merrill Noel
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Whitlock, 2) Noel, 3) Senior LB Joey Ehrmann
Strength of the defense: Inside pressure, the linebackers, cornerbacks, red-zone D
Weakness of the defense: Outside pressure, run defense, safeties

Defensive Line

The Deacons are about to enter their second year using a 3-4 front, so there ought to be less confusion about roles and assignments. While the program’s top defensive end, Tristan Dorty, has graduated, its all-league nose guard returns for his junior year. Nikita Whitlock built on a superb rookie debut by collecting 64 tackles, a team-high 14.5 stops for loss and 3.5 sacks. While hardly the prototype at 5-11 and 260 pounds, the All-ACC second-teamer remains too quick and too fundamentally sound for most blockers, often requiring double-teams. Whitlock explodes off the snap, using heavy hands and ideal leverage to get up underneath the pads of his man.

Someone needs to offset much of Dorty’s lost production. Junior Zach Thompson wants to be that guy. He started all 13 games a year ago, making 40 tackles, four stops for loss and a pick. However, he had just a half-sack, a dearth of big-play production that needs to be addressed this fall. The 6-5, 255-pounder is a high-motor defender who is better at defending the run at this stage of his career.

Closing in on the job on the other side is 6-4, 265-pound junior Kris Redding, the author of a solid offseason so far. He only registered three tackles in 10 games a year ago, but looked like a different player in the spring. A terrific all-around athlete for his size, he now needs to improve his technique and pass rushing moves in order to generate more consistent pressure on the quarterback.

Watch Out For … Redding to evolve into the Deacons’ best pass rusher from the outside this season. He has always had the right mix of talent, blending great size with enough quickness to get around the edge. However, it wasn’t until this year that he finally began to put it all together, and look like a lineman worthy of a starting gig.
Strength: Whitlock. He is such a unique interior lineman, a whirling dervish requires more than one blocker to keep him out of the backfield. Not only is the junior a consistent playmaker from the nose, but he warrants so much attention from the opposition that it helps free up the ends to make things happen from the edge.
Weakness: Stuffing the run. Again. This has been a major headache for the past few seasons in Winston-Salem, with no relief in sight. For the third consecutive year, the Demon Deacons ranked no higher than No. 9 in the ACC against the run, yielding an unsightly 4.6 yards a carry. If Wake can’t stop the bleeding from the first line of the D, opposing teams will be content to keep it on the ground as much as possible in 2012.
Outlook: Whitlock is a star, even if he struggles to boost his Q rating outside of the North Carolina border. Wake Forest, though, needs a player or two more like him to make this defensive line complete. The Demon Deacons are just average at defensive end, lack depth everywhere and will once again be vulnerable against teams that commit to peppering them with running plays.
Unit Rating: 6.5


Wake Forest enters its second season using a 3-4 system, meaning it’s now had a full year to bolster its depth at linebacker. The big loss on the outside comes from the graduation of Kyle Wilber, a skilled pass rusher. Junior Justin Jackson is among the contenders to pick up the slack at one of the two positions on the flank. A year removed from suffering a season-ending ACL tear, he finished the season with 59 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss and three forced fumbles. At only 6-1 and 220 pounds, he has the closing speed and range of a safety, yet can really pack a punch when meeting his target.

Joining Jackson on the outside will be 6-4, 220-pound senior Joey Ehrmann, the veteran of 27 career starts with the program. He plays with good lateral quickness and outstanding intensity, excelling at making stops in the open field. The staff will be looking for more big plays this year from the veteran, who collected 54 tackles, three stops for loss, a pick and a forced fumble in 2011.

Zachary Allen is being groomed as the successor to Ehrmann on the outside. Just a sophomore, he came off the bench last season to chip in with two tackles. At 6-2 and 240 pounds, he’s one of the thickest of the Wake Forest linebackers, an asset when defending the run.

The Deacs’ middle linebacker will be junior Mike Olson, who is eyeing a breakout season for the program. The coaching staff has been in love with his potential from the moment he arrived on campus, though he’s done the majority of his work from off the bench. In 2011, he started only two games, yet still made 57 tackles, six tackles for loss and a pair of fumble recoveries. The 6-3, 230-pound Olson is instinctive, tough at the point of attack and poised to make a significant splash in 2012.

Filling out weakside, the final of the four starting slots, is senior Riley Haynes. A full-time starter for the first time in his career, he was in on 49 tackles in 2011, six of which were for minus yards. At 6-1 and 220 pounds, he’s not very big for the position, but possesses the quickness and change of direction to be utilized on occasional blitzes. Haynes’ versatility also allows him to smoothly drop back into coverage in order to blanket a tight end or running back.

Watch Out For … Jackson and Olson to embrace their roles as first-time full-timers. Both players excelled coming off the bench in 2011, putting down the kind of solid foundation that will serve them well now that their roles and responsibilities are about to explode in 2012.
Strength: Pursuit of the ball. The common thread among the Wake Forest linebackers is that they are all a little undersized, yet go from sideline to sideline in a hurry. This is going to be a very quick collection of defenders that close to the ball in a flash, and will make a slew of stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Weakness: Run-stoppers. Sure, the Demon Deacons can be cat-quick from the second level, but what happens when they’re run directly at? It’s an undersized collection of defensive players who are prone to getting trucked when opposing linemen drift out of their normal working space. There’s a reason why Wake allowed 4.6 yards per carry, and the D-line can’t shoulder all of the blame.
Outlook: The linebackers will begin the season underrated, and will end it having made a ton of key plays throughout 2012. There’s a nice mix of talent, speed and experience buried within the unit. Ehrmann and Haynes are the steady leaders, returning starters who’ll set the tone. Olson and Jackson are up-and-comers, junior poised to make a splash in their first season as full-time players.
Unit Rating: 6.5


After enduring a rocky season in 2011, the secondary faces a conundrum as it attempts to rebound this fall—the cornerbacks are solid, but the safeties need replacements for playmakers Josh Bush and Cyhl Quarles. First, the good news. The corners are deep and talented. Sophomore strong> Merrill Noel is coming off a most unlikely debut with the program, who went from virtual unknown to the Freshman All-American Team and ACC Defensive Newcomer of the Year. The 5-10, 180-pounder made a seamless transition to the starting lineup by making 66 tackles and 21 passes defended, tying for the FBS lead. He makes excellent breaks on throws, watching the quarterback’s eyes before exploding to the ball. Now Noel just needs to turn more of those deflections into picks.

Slated for now to start at the other cornerback spot is 6-0, 160-pound sophomore Kevin Johnson, who is back with the team after being declared academically ineligible in 2011. As a true freshman two years ago, he started five games, and made 31 tackles with a pair of pass breakups. Johnson is one of the most gifted all-around athletes on the roster, a speedy and fluid Deacon, with the smooth hips to develop quickly as a pass defender.

In 6-0, 190-pound Kenny Okoro, Wake Forest has a luxury on the bench. He’s an experienced senior, with 28 career starts and six interceptions on an extensive resume. As a weekly member of the lineup in 2011, he made 38 tackles and 10 pass breakups. While Okoro still needs to play with a little more discipline in coverage, he has the physical and instinctive skills to either jump Johnson in the summer, or remain an integral part of the rotation in the fall.

Replacing Bush, an All-ACC first-teamer, will not be easy. Getting first crack at the job will be 6-0, 200-pound junior Daniel Mack, who’ll be looking resuscitate his career this fall. After starting seven games as a rookie, and looking like a budding star, he made just 13 tackles as an 11-game backup in 2011. He has the size of a strong safety, but still needs to prove he can consistently hold up in coverage.

Depth and competition at free safety comes from 5-11, 180-pound junior A.J. Marshall. An experienced backup in the rotation, who has started at least two games in each of the last two seasons, he contributed 33 tackles and four pass breakups as a reserve cornerback and special teamer last season.

The hope around Winston-Salem is that junior Duran Lowe is ready to take over at strong safety. The hard-hitting 5-11, 210-pounder has three games of starting experience, but none since his freshman season. A year ago, he came off the bench to make 13 stops, while breaking up a pair of passes.

Watch Out For … the battle between Johnson and Okoro to unfold in August. It’s a classic duel of potential versus experience. Johnson has the higher ceiling, the raw natural ability that has the coaching staff excited. Okoro, on the other hand, has been here before, and is a known entity. Both cornerbacks are expected to play plenty in the fall.
Strength: The cornerbacks. A concern a year ago, Wake Forest is now very confident about its situation at the position. Noel is a budding star at the position, Okoro is the cagey veteran and Johnson is the wild card, with untapped potential. With this trio roaming the defensive backfield, the program is banking on a lot of tipped balls being turned into takeaways.
Weakness: The safeties. There’s simply no easy way to replace Quarles and Bush, who was drafted in the fourth round by the New York Jets. The pair brought so much production and big-play ability to the field. Even if the juniors, Mack and Lowe, evolve on the fly, this is still going to be a sore spot on defense in the early stages of the season.
Outlook: After making strides in 2011, can Wake Forest take another step forward in pass defense in 2012? The cornerbacks, led by Noel, are going to be one of the sneaky-good groups in the ACC. The upside of the safeties remains to be seen. The Deacons will be looking to pick off a few more passes, while avoiding the lapses that resulted in 22 touchdown passes allowed a year ago.
Unit Rating: 7

Special Teams

The Demon Deacons are bringing back both last year’s specialist. Now, they’re just hoping that everyone associated with a middling special teams unit can raise the level of his game in 2012. Senior PK Jimmy Newman continues to be the shining star of the group. The former top recruit from the state of Alabama has showcased his accuracy the last two seasons, hitting 12-of-13 field goal attempts in 2010, and 17-of-22 in 2011. Although his career long is from 48 yards, he can reach well beyond 50 yards if given a chance.

The situation at punter is quite a bit less stable. Junior Alex Wulfeck returns, but averaged only 39.7 yards in his debut. Plus, of his 70 punts, only 13 landed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. For the sake of the Wake defense, he needs to provide a little more thump in the fall.

The staff is still auditioning punt and kick returners in the hopes of infusing some life into the return game. Wake Forest ranked 82nd nationally on punt returns and 103rd on kickoffs, wallowing near the bottom of the ACC in both categories.

Watch Out For … Newman to start getting the recognition that’s coming to him. Over the past two seasons, he has connected on 29-of-35 field goal attempts, yet has been overlooked by ACC all-league voters. Yeah, the conference is chock full of quality kickers, but the senior might be ready to finally get his due as one of the game’s more accurate specialists.
Strength: Newman. Not only has he missed just six field goals over the last two seasons, and led the team in scoring the past three years, but he also does a solid job on kickoffs for the Deacons. Newman is the finisher on offense for Wake Forest when the offense is unable to put up six points.
Weakness: The return game. With rare exceptions, the Wake Forest return game was impotent throughout 2011. And now the program remains unsure of who’ll handle the jobs as the summer approaches. The offense is going to need more help this year from the athletes comprising the special teams unit.
Outlook: Newman is all-star caliber no matter how the voters speak in December. After No. 82, though, it’s all downhill for the Wake Forest special teamers. Whether it’s the punting game or the returners, mediocrity is the label that best fits the balance of this group. The Deacons can sorely use the kind of spark from the new return men that positively impacts field position.
Unit Rating: 6.5
- 2012 Wake Forest Preview | 2012 Wake Forest Offense
- 2012 Wake Forest Defense | 2012 Wake Forest Depth Chart