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April 30, 2013

Springing to fall

Wake Forest's defense is looking to carry the momentum from a strong spring into fall camp and the upcoming season after building quality depth and developing young players the last month.

"We've progressed well, very well since last spring," Wake Forest nose guard Nikita Whitlock said. "It's a total 360. Last year we knew we had it, and throughout the season we just kind of lost it."

"As a defense all the puzzle pieces are there. We got a great secondary, good linebacking corps, great, great defensive line. I don't think we've had a defense like this since the 'Fresh Deacs,' so it's been a while."

The Demon Deacons were among the worst defensively in the ACC in 2012, finishing 11th in points allowed per game (31.8), ninth against the run (166.1 yards allowed per game), 10th against the past (266.8 yards allowed per game) and ninth in total defense (432.8 yards allowed per game). It appears things can only get better.

This unit returns seven starters, six of its top 10 tacklers, and some of its top reserves from last season.

Jim Grobe and his coaching staff are also beginning to see the fruit of their labors as most of Wake's 2012 recruiting class will be ready to contribute on the field this fall.

Everything starts on the defensive line with Whitlock, an All-ACC player, and Zach Thompson, who has evolved into arguably one of the top defensive ends in the conference. Veteran defensive end Kris Redding also had elite flashes, and should be more dependable in 2013.

As a true freshman Tylor Harris offered depth and versatility, as someone who could play defensive end and nose guard. Nicknamed Big Baby, Harris should be ready for a breakout season in year two.

Grobe said it has been a cool spring for the defensive line. Mainly due to the emergence of underclassmen Josh Banks and Shelldon Lewinson along with veterans Desmond Floyd and Johnny Garcia.

"Des Floyd is really balling," Whitlock said. "Another thing, I'm going to have a backup this year, which is something very rare to me that can come in and give me a little rest. I think we got depth, and we got a lot of great players and [are] ready to win."

"Josh Banks is definitely ready to ball. I think he's definitely ready to step on the field and make some crucial plays for us. He's one of those guys that you always saw it in him. You always saw the potential. It's just now coming to show on the field."

Despite losing long-time stalwarts in the middle Scott Betros and Riley Haynes the Deacs have seen vast improvement in its linebacking corps even without the team's number two tackler Mike Olson this spring.

Wake needs its senior leader, but his inactive status gave Brandon Chubb, Teddy Matthews and early enrollees Ford Howell and Marquel Lee more reps at inside linebacker.

"I thought Chubb had a really, really good spring," Grobe said. "I thought that was great. We got to get a little bit better intensity from play to play out of Teddy Matthews, a little up and down, but I thought he did some good things."

Justin Jackson, who returns after leading the Demon Deacons in tackles, will again anchor one outside linebacker position with the ability to rush the quarterback, defend the run and the pass. Zachary Allen brings stability to the other side, while Kevis Jones, who had a shaky start to the spring, progressed well and brings athleticism to the position.

"He's a tough guy and he gets stirred up," Grobe said. "We've had some of those guys in the past that like to get stirred up, and he's one of them."

Moving on to the secondary, which was an area of concern going into the off-season, provided hope for the future at spring's end.

Led by All-ACC cornerback Merrill Noel, cornerback Kevin Johnson and free safety A.J. Marshall this group improved by leaps and bounds.

Redshirt freshman free safety Ryan Janvion emerged as a play-maker, while Duran Lowe showed dependability after he was suspended much of last season, and cornerbacks Allen Ramsey and James Ward also made strides in their overall development as key contributors.

"Ryan Janvion, he's a very hard worker I'm just happy to see his hard work paying off on the field," Marshall said. "Off the field he does everything necessary. He does everything he needs to do."

"We have a lot of speed and a lot of guys that like to get after it. Our coaching staff has put a lot of emphasis on effort. Getting to the ball is half of the equation, so when you get there just make something happen. We put a lot of emphasis on takebacks, so when we get to the ball take it back. We're definitely moving forward. Everyone's working hard. I feel like everybody's bought into our new system of championship caliber effort. We're really buying into Coach [Brian] Knorr's system, and everything's going well."


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