'09 Previews: Wake Forest Defense

Now that you've read an overview of Wake Forest and a breakdown of their offense, take a gander at the other half of their roster -- the half where games are ultimately won or lost, or so the saying goes. With Wake as depleted on defense as they are loaded on offense, look for the Deacons to sell out to stuff the run, allowing Stanford to try to win the game through the air.

First Down: The Basics
Stanford @ Wake Forest – September 5

Stat Battle: Wake Forest D vs. Stanford O
Stats listed opponent defense (conference rank), Stanford offense (Pac-10 rank). All stats conference-only. The first six 2008 stats are good and last three stats bad for an offense, so the larger the first six stats are, the better the offensive rank and the worse the defense rank, and vice versa for the final three stats. There are 12 teams in the ACC.

Points Per Game: 18.0 (4), 28.6 (6)
Yards Per Game: 300 (6!), 369 (5)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 98 (2), 218 (2)
Yards Per Carry: 3.1 (2), 5.1 (4!)
Passing Yards Per Game: 202 (10), 151 (9)
Completion Percentage: 53.1% (4), 57.1% (4)
Yards Per Point: 16.7 (3), 12.9 (7)
Turnovers: 22 (3), 16 (7)
Sacks: 16 (8), 12 (2)

Returning Starters: 4 (Pac-10 Avg: 6.4), 9 (Pac-10 Avg: 7.4)
Predicted Points Per Game: 27, TBA

Second Down: Line
Wake's defense is strongest up front, and features two seniors in the middle and two sophomores on the end, all returning starters, save for end Tristan Dorty. (Indeed, just 64 tackles depart off last year's line.) Linemen Boo Robinson, Kyle Wilber and John Russell each had at least 38 tackles and three sacks in 2008, so opposing offensive lines can't just double-team one of those guys. The unit allowed just 3.5 yards per carry last year and, given the returning experience, figures to challenge 2007's 3.2 per-carry average, though the porous back seven may do its part to ensure the 2007 mark withstands the test of time. The lack of a fearsome pass-rushing linebacker, coupled with the fact that all the linemen are equivalently good, suggests that this line will perform better against the run – for wherever the offense directs its attack, the defender should be able to stand his ground – than the pass, where a standout defensive player has to beat someone to pressure the quarterback.
So call the unit competent if not spectacular, which given the offense, would be fine most years. This season, however, Wake could use all the pass rushing help it can get. The Deacons had double-digit sack totals in just two of their first eight games, but all their last five contests last year. Whether that positive momentum can continue into 2009 will be key.
Rating: 3

Third Down: Linebackers
You may have heard of Aaron Curry. He recorded 105 tackles last year, 13.5 for loss, took home the Butkis Award and ran a (real, not high-school combine) 4.56 40 at 254 pounds. He was Seattle's first-round draft pick and will be sorely missed at Wake.
As if replacing Curry were not enough, Stanley Arnoux recorded 89 tackles, No. 2 on the team, and was a fourth-round draft pick of New Orleans. Also gone is the other starter, Chantz McClinic, who made 51 tackles and Daniel Novinson's All-Name Team in 2008. Hunter Haynes, Matt Woodlief and Jonathan Jones are all upperclassmen and, no doubt, nice guys, but they have 98 tackles over a combined seven seasons on the squad – or seven fewer tackles than Curry made by himself in 2008. None of the returning talent was that highly recruited, though the standard caveat applies that Wake is better than any program at finding the diamonds in the rough. Unless you've been attending Wake's practices these last few weeks, your guess as to exactly how well the linebackers will perform this season is as good as mine, but every data point we do have suggests that it is likely to be a season to forget for this group. Stanford, weaker than the Deacons elsewhere on the field, absolutely must exploit its mismatches here.
Rating: 1

Fourth Down: Secondary
The good news is the secondary didn't lose any first-round draft picks, nor all its starters. The bad news is it returns just one starter – and did lose a First Team All-American. Alphonso Smith had three pick-sixes in 2007, which is simply sublime, and 15 interceptions over the last two seasons, which is simply '97 Woodson-esque. Free safety Chip Vaughan was essentially a fourth linebacker, recording 87 tackles last year, two fewer than Arnoux, an actual linebacker, and 2.5 tackles for loss. Like Arnoux, Vaughan also went in the fourth round to New Orleans. The only returning starter is Brandon Ghee, who claims 4.34 speed, and FS Alex Frye, who chased down and tackled from behind Maryland WR Darius Heyward-Bey, who Al Davis made a top-ten draft pick and paid untold millions because of his 4.3 speed. So the secondary will be fast, which is better than the alternative, but inexperienced.
Cyhl Quarles and Josh Bush are the sophomores likely to be pressed into starting service this year. At 5-foot-11, Bush is as short as his name, while Quarles is well-positioned to take over McClinic's place on the All-Name Team. The fact that these players have little experience (three combined starts aside from Ghee) means all we can do is poke fun at their names, for as far as what to expect on the field, your guess is as good as mine.
Clearly, there's a lot of speed. Hopefully the front four can help pressure the QB and the linebackers won't need so much support that the safeties are all out of position. Plus, Ghee singlehandedly provides more returning experience than all the linebackers. Further, as last year's stats show, the secondary is good at bending but not breaking under Grobe. So I'm more optimistic about the secondary than the raw facts suggest, but still, this will be one of the weaker units Stanford faces. Exactly where on the spectrum from serviceable to awful they fall will likely determine Wake's bowl fate, if any, as well as the result of the Sept. 12 Brain Bowl.
Rating: 2

Overtime: The Verdict
2008 Record: (0-12, 0-9)/(5-7, 4-5)
2009 Projected Record: (6-6, 2-2)/TBA
2009 Projected Conference Finish: 6th/TBA

I'm taking the agnostic route here, calling for Wake to finish smack in the middle of the ACC and at .500 on the nose. Wake does have seven home games and returns the conference's most ballyhooed quarterback, but three of the out-of-conference teams are Florida State, Baylor and Stanford, all programs on the rise, the ACC is the nation's deepest conference without a doubt and, oh yeah, they lose more All-Americans in the back seven (two) than they return starters (one). So the Deacons won't top last year's eight-win mark, but anything from four to eight wins won't surprise me. Not incidentally, that prognosis is the same as that of our beloved Cardinal, which makes this Week Two tilt all the more important.

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