2013 Wake Forest Preview - Defense

Posted May 22, 2013

CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Wake Forest Defense

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Preview 2013 - Defense

- 2013 Wake Forest Preview | 2013 Wake Forest Offense
- 2013 Wake Forest Defense | 2013 Wake Forest Depth Chart

What You Need To Know: Eight veteran Deacons return after starting the majority of 2012. If this unit doesn't improve dramatically, heads could roll by December. Coordinator Brian Knorr will be coaching a D that has no shortage of leadership or experience. The group just has to polish up the fundamentals, tackling and reacting up to their ability. Oh, and it has to rise up when it matters most, on third downs and in the red zone. Knorr will have at his disposal an all-star candidate at each level of the D to go along with a solid supporting cast. Up front, Nikita Whitlock is one of the quickest nose guards in the ACC. LB Justin Jackson will look to build on his breakout campaign in 2012. And FS A.J. Marshall and corners Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel each has an all-league ceiling. Barring injuries, Wake Forest will have no excuses if it repeats last season's results. Neither for that matter will Knorr or his three positional assistants.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Justin Jackson, 82
Sacks: Justin Jackson, Zach Thompson 4
Interceptions: Kevin Johnson, 3

Star of the defense: Senior NG Nikita Whitlock
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Merrill Noel
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Brandon Chubb
Best pro prospect: Junior CB Kevin Johnson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Whitlock, 2) Senior LB Justin Jackson, 3) Johnson
Strength of the defense: Veteran D-line, the cornerbacks, overall experience
Weakness of the defense: Run defense, pass defense consistency, third-down D, red-zone D

Defensive Line

No, Nikita Whitlock does not fit the prototype for a nose guard. His production, however, does. Generously listed at 5-11 and 250 pounds, the senior has been breaking the mold ever since he cracked the lineup three years ago. He simply makes big plays, enough to be named Second Team All-ACC in back-to-back years. Whitlock is flat-out too quick and explosive out of the gates for most opposing blockers, using his light feet and ideal leverage to blow past lumbering blockers. He had 51 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss and three sacks during an injury-marred junior year, numbers he's capable of obliterating in 2013.

At one end spot, senior Zach Thompson will be looking to build on his breakout year with the program. Built like a three-down lineman at 6-5 and 265 pounds, he emerged as one of Wake's better pass rusher, collecting a D-line-best 52 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss and four sacks. He also plays with a great motor, playing fast and hard on every snap.

Thompson's partner at defensive end will be 6-4, 275-pound senior Kris Redding, a seven-game starter a season ago. While he brings more size to the outside, he was also plenty active and agile in 2012, contributing 30 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, 3.5 sacks, four pass breakups and a couple of forced fumbles.

The coaching staff is excited about the future of sophomore Tylor Harris, who'll spend another year as the backup to Thompson before replacing him in 2014. In his first year out of high school, he lettered by making 22 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Now up to 6-4 and 285 pounds, he can do a little bit of everything up front for the Demon Deacons.

Watch Out For … Whitlock to leave NFL scouts scratching their heads about the senior. If you're a pro talent evaluator, what do you do with a 5-11, 250-pound nose tackle requiring constant double-teams? No. 50 has been a conundrum throughout his athletic career, something that won't change as he attempts to move on to the next level.
Strength: Proven linemen. Whitlock is a perennial all-star, and now Thompson and Redding have a couple of productive years behind them. This trio has an opportunity to surprise in 2013, especially when it pertains to pressuring the pocket.
Weakness: Stuffing the run. Considering their size on the outside and the ability of Whitlock to shoot the gap, the Demon Deacons ought to be a better team against the run. Sure, they made advancements in 2012, but still ranked ninth in the ACC, and yielded over four yards per carry.
Outlook: The D-line is a unit Wake Forest feels should be stingier than it's been in recent seasons. Whitlock is the kind of sparkplug that makes everyone around him better. And Thompson and Redding are productive and underrated ends who are capable of taking advantage of Whitlock's magnetic personality. Even the reserves have stood out in the offseason, an encouraging sign about the line's depth.
Unit Rating: 7


The coaching staff likes the team's mix of veterans and youth at linebacker, beginning with senior Justin Jackson on the outside. At his core, he is a gifted all-around athlete, a 6-1, 230-pounder, with the wheels and the range of a free safety. Jackson made the most of his promotion from part-timer in 2011 to one of the leading men of the D in 2012, collecting a team-high 81 stops, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and four quarterback hurries. When Wake Forest needs a stop on defense, No. 39 is rarely far from the ball.

While Jackson is the quintessential playmaker, senior Mike Olson is the classic run-stuffing anchor. This fall, he's expected to move to weakside, though he's also comfortable on the interior. He started all but the Maryland game in 2012, finishing second to Jackson with 78 tackles, 3.5 of which were behind the line of scrimmage. The coaching has long liked the potential of the sturdy 6-3, 230-pound veteran, whose toughness and instincts are expected to help bolster a run defense that yielded more than four yards a carry a season ago.

The emergence of 6-1, 240-pound sophomore Brandon Chubb in the middle has allowed Olson to switch to weakside. He had 22 tackles in 2012, saving his biggest pops for special teams. However, during this offseason, he asserted himself, sending a message that he's ready to start if the opportunity presents itself.

At the other outside spot, the one Joey Ehrmann handled well in 2012, the team could entrust the responsibility to a redshirt freshman, 6-2, 230-pound Kevis Jones. The Deacons need someone who can perform a hybrid role, rushing the passer as well as dropping back into coverage occasionally. Jones possesses the range and athleticism to eventually grow into the desired role.

Watch Out For … junior Zachary Allen to eventually nab the outside job currently being led by Jones. Allen missed time to injury in the spring, which impacted his spot on the depth chart. However, he's been around longer, starting last year's opener, and finishing with 42 tackles.
Strength: Range and pursuit. The common thread that runs through the Demon Deacons linebackers is that they're generally undersized, yet go from sideline to sideline in a hurry. This will once again be a quick collection of defenders that closes to the ball in a flash, and will make stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Weakness: Run-stoppers. Sure, Wake Forest can be quick and attacking from the second level, but what happens when they're run directly at? The linebackers have gotten a little thicker with the addition of Chubb to a more prominent role in the rotation, but this remains a unit that will struggle at the point of attack against physical opponents.
Outlook: There's a decent foundation on which to build. But now the linebackers need a couple of other Demon Deacons to step up and support Jackson and Olson. The early returns are positive on Chubb who'll improve with more reps. However, there's a hole at Ehrmann's old spot that either Allen or Jones will need to fill in the fall.
Unit Rating: 6.5


Wake Forest needs to be much better against the pass in 2013, when it ranked 100th nationally. It ought to help to bring back most of last season's regulars in the rotation. Junior Kevin Johnson seized control of the team's top cornerback spot last fall, nearly performing at an All-ACC level. Sure, he needs to cut down on missed assignments, but that'll come with more snaps. In the meantime, he led the Demon Deacons with 15 passes defended, three interceptions and two forced fumbles to go along with 58 tackles. Long, lean and extremely athletic, the 6-1, 175-pounder begins the year with all-star possibilities.

The other corner, 5-10, 180-pound junior Merrill Noel, is looking to rebound after not playing at full strength last year. The 2012 Freshman All-American Team and ACC Defensive Newcomer of the Year started just seven games, finishing with 33 tackles and three pass breakups. It was a far cry from the player who tied for the FBS lead with 21 passes defended in 2011. Noel has ample motivation to once again become the cornerback that opposing passers choose to avoid.

Setting the tone from free safety will be 6-0, 195-pound A.J. Marshall, a starter in all 12 games last fall. The senior finished third on the team with 76 stops, three tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions. He's one of the headier players on the defense, with the blend of instincts and athleticism to excel at this position.

Strong safety won't be nearly as rock-solid in Winston-Salem this year. Exiting spring, 5-11, 190-pound redshirt freshman Ryan Janvion held a lead on 6-0, 215-pound senior Duran Lowe and 5-10, 170-pound sophomore James Ward. Janvion was lightly-recruited out of high school, but has already looked as if he'll provide outstanding value for the Deacons. Lowe and Ward both started a game in 2012, finishing with 28 and 19 tackles, respectively. However, Lowe is attempting to get out of the doghouse following last year's suspension, and Ward has simply been passed by on the depth chart by Janvion.

Watch Out For … sightings of the old Noel. Wake Forest desperately wants to see a return of the player who exploded on to the scene in 2011. If last year was indeed an anomaly, the junior can start to prove when the team reconvenes in the summer.
Strength: The cornerbacks. In Noel and Johnson, the Demon Deacons should have a formidable tandem in coverage. Both players have fringe All-ACC potential, jumping routes with their athleticism, and tipping balls into the air for other teammates to snare. If Noel can shake off his sophomore slump, this pass defense ought to be much tighter than it was in 2012.
Weakness: Consistency in pass defense. Sure, there's talent on the back end of the D, but that wasn't always obvious last fall, especially when facing the ACC's accomplished throwers. Wake Forest ranked 11th in the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt and pass efficiency.
Outlook: The defensive backfield ought to be improved on 2012. It better be improved on 2012. This is a talented unit that really needs to begin showing it on the field. The Deacons pretty much know what they're going to get out of Johnson and Marshall, a couple of steady defenders. All eyes will be on Noel, a player whose development could dictate the ultimate fate of this unit in 2013.
Unit Rating: 7

Special Teams

The Demon Deacons are looking for a replacement for PK Jimmy Newman, an opening that'll be filled by sophomore Chad Hedlund. The encouraging news is that he has already tasted live action, filling in last fall by making all three field goal attempts and 10-of-11 extra points. He should be a special teams fixture for the next three years.

Sophomore P Alex Kinal was a very pleasant surprise in his debut on the job. The 6-4, 210-pounder averaged 40.7 yards, displayed good hang time and directionals and earned honorable mention All-ACC.

Although favorites to return punts and kickoffs have not been named, junior Orville Reynolds and sophomore Deandre Martin ought to be in the discussion. Both players were active on special teams as kick returners in 2012.

Watch Out For … Kinal to take another step toward becoming one of the ACC's better punters. The distance will come as he sharpens his technique and fundamentals. The leg strength and experience now in place, he can't help but be more effective in Year 2.
Strength: Young legs. Kinal and Hedlund are just sophomores, yet they already have valuable reps in the vault. Both are well-sized for their respective positions, hard workers and destined to raise the bar in their second year on duty.
Weakness: The coverage teams. Or the return game. Both are awful. Wake Forest was when covering kicks and punts in 2012, ranking 92nd and 85th, respectively, in the country. The team allowed four touchdowns to be taken back, tying Marshall for most in the FBS.
Outlook: The good news? Kinal and Hedlund are just sophomores, with elevated ceilings. The worry? The coverage teams and return games are liabilities that could cost the Demon Deacons a close game or two in the fall. The program isn't strong enough on offense or defense entering 2013 to be so shaky on special teams.
Unit Rating: 5.5
- 2013 Wake Forest Preview | 2013 Wake Forest Offense
- 2013 Wake Forest Defense | 2013 Wake Forest Depth Chart