FIve to watch: Wake Forest Defense

As Duke prepares to travel to Winston Salem to face the Demon Deacons, TDD takes a look at five players who could pose a problem for the Sean Renfree and the Duke offense.

Wake returns seven starters from the 2011 season, but is battling injury. Most notable has been the absence of nose guard Nikita Whitlock, who missed the last two games with ankle trouble. Without the team's primary disruption on the interior of the line, the Deacons are surrendering 266 yards per game on the ground and another 212 yards through the air.

Despite the big gains by opponents (and it's somewhat skewed by playing ACC powerhouse Florida State and option-happy Army over the last two weeks), the Deacons have generally been able to make big stops when they had to including a fourth down situation against Army last week.

Top 5 to watch Wake Forest Defense

1. NG Nikita Whitlock (5-11, 265, R-Jr.): Whitlock arrived in Winston as a 5-foot-11, 230 pound freshman projected to play inside linebacker. However, he quickly established himself as a matchup problem in the trenches on the way to a breakout 2011 sophomore season in which he earned second-team all-ACC honors. Whitlock finished 2011 ranked fourth on the team with 64 tackles, including 26 solo stops and a team-leading 14.0 tackles for loss.

Through his first two games of the season against Liberty and North Carolina, Whitlock had registered six stops. However, he suffered a severe ankle sprain against the Tar Heels and hasn't played since. Without him, Wake has surrendered 1,118 yards over the past two games including 814 yards on the ground.

Against the Blue Devils, however, Whitlock says he'll be on the field.

"Now my trainers will tell you, 'Oh well, we don't know.' But yeah, I'm pretty sure I'll convince them to let me play," he said on Tuesday.

Grobe, however, wasn't as optimistic:

"Nikita's biggest problem is he's been out for a while. It's going to be hard for him to come back (this week). (With) those high ankle sprains, you get to where you feel good walking to class but you get to pushing against people, especially in his position, going against guys who are 300-plus pounds, makes it a little bit tougher. Quite frankly, I have my doubts about him playing, or playing well, or playing a lot this Saturday."

2011 v. Duke: Seven tackles including 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack.

2. DE Zach Thompson (6-5, 265, R-Jr.): Thompson was one of the biggest commits from the recruiting class of 2009 for Grobe's team. A former three star defensive end who chose Wake over NC State, Maryland, Virginia, Syracuse, and West Virginia, Thompson's career has been steady, with the now fourth year junior making appearances on the ACC week honor roll.

A season ago Thompson recorded 40 stops and an interception, but just 0.5 sacks. This year started somewhat slow as he register just six stops in the first three games, before terrorizing Army to the tune of 12 tackles including seven solo stops against the Black Knights. For Wake to slow down a Duke passing attack that may very well be the first, second, and third best options for the Blue Devils, Thompson will need to get pressure on Blue Devil QB Sean Renfree.

2011 v. Duke: Three tackles and one QB hurry.

3. OLB Justin Jackson (6-1, 220, R-Jr.): Much like Thompson, Jackson had a big game last week against Army, totaling 11 stops, blocking a PAT, and recovering a fumble.

Jackson played in all 12 games a season ago, but took over the starting outside linebacker spot during the final three contests including the bowl loss to Mississippi State. In that amount of time he registered 59 tackles and provided 6.5 TFLs, a sack, and three forced fumbles (good enough for third in the conference).

On the season Jackson is averaging 7.5 tackles per game and has already gotten to opposing signal callers twice in four games. He's tied for second on the team in tackles per game, and tied for the team lead in sacks.

Certainly the Duke offense has protected Renfree well this season - surrendering just three sacks in four games, however it's a safe bet that the Deacons will blitz the Blue Devils early in an attempt to rattle the Duke quarterback. Jackson and his fellow linebackers will be key in that battle.

2011 v. Duke: Seven tackles including 1 TFL.

4. CB Kevin Johnson (6-1, 155, R-So.): Johnson had a very good freshman season in 2010, earning five starts in 11 games and producing 31 stops and two pass breakups. From there it appeared the Deacons had secured themselves a three year starter on the outside. However, in 2011, Johnson was declared academically ineligible and missed the entire season.

So far in 2012 as a third year sophomore, Johnson has provided a boost to the Wake Forest secondary. He's fourth on the team in tackles and has recorded a pair of pass breakups. He'll likely draw the assignment of Conner Vernon, who continues his drive towards the top of several ACC career receiving categories. If the Deacons are sending a lot of blitzes early on at Renfree and company, it'll put Johnson on an island.

2011 v Duke: DNP

5. P Alexander Kinal (6-4, 210, R-Fr.): Coming to Wake Forest via the world of Australian rules football, Kinal has been active through four games, punting 31 times for an average of 39.4 yards per kick. That total ranks last in the conference. However, those numbers include eight attempts from inside the 50 yard line, with another two from the Wake Forest 49 yard line.

With a defense that is struggling to slow offenses down, it's important to win the battle of field position whenever possible. So far, Kinal has done well in that regard, pinning opponents inside the 20 yard line 13 times, and booting the ball more than 50 yards four times.

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