Spring practice is underway at Wake Forest, and the Demon Deacons are hard at work.
Defensively, Wake made took some steps forward, but also regressed in other areas that Jim Grobe and his staff hope off-season preparation and recruiting will help to remedy as the Deacs look to the 2013 season.
Deacons Illustrated gives a rundown of the position groups on the defensive side of the ball as Wake Forest gets into spring practice.
Let's be real Nikita Whitlock is the cornerstone Wake's defense is built around. The diminutive, but athletic, gritty and powerful Whitlock was limited in 2012 by an ankle injury. Whitlock, a difficult matchup because of his speed and quickness and ability to keep blockers from gaining leverage, looks be the normal Nikita that earned him All-ACC honors.
The emergence of Zach Thompson must continue and improve on last season's 52 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, forced fumble, fumble recovery and interception.
Anticipate defensive end/nose guard Tylor Harris to get dramatically better as a sophomore, who improve by leaps and bounds from beginning to end as a true freshman.
Wake saw defensive end Kris Redding emerge as a contributor in the trenches and as a pass-rusher, but this spring will prove to be a pivotal moment as he seeks better his craft and provide leadership as a senior.
Grobe and his staff are hopeful defensive ends Josh Banks, Desmond Floyd and Johnny Garcia and nose guard Shelldon Lewinson will have a strong spring and jump into fall camp ready to compete with ACC caliber talent.
The Deacs may be without James Looney for the spring, as he recovers from a foot injury. Looney, who enrolled at Wake Forest in January, has the size at 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds and speed (4.9 40-yard dash-time) to play defensive end and nose guard. However, there is the possibility he could switch to the offensive line before it is all said and done.
Wake improved its pass-rush dramatically from 2011 to 2012, doubling its production in the sack category from 12 to 25 quarterback takedowns. However, the Demon Deacons ranked among the ACC's worst in defending the run (166.1 yards allowed per game) and the pass (266.8 yards allowed per game), and that starts up front.
Defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Brian Knorr and outside linebacker coach Derrick Jackson are entering a period of transition after the departure of long-time veteran contributors Scott Betros, Joey Ehrmann and Riley Haynes.
Seniors outside linebacker Justin Jackson and inside linebacker Mike Olson and redshirt junior outside linebacker Zachary Allen return to lead a young and developing linebacking corps.
Jackson (81 tackles) and Olson (78 tackles), who were Wake's leading tacklers last season, will be among the ACC's elite linebackers, while Allen also brings athleticism and play-making ability to the Demon Deacon defense.
The expectation for Brandon Chubb and Teddy Matthews are to continue to develop, compete for the start spot vacated by Haynes. True freshmen Ford Howell and Marquel Lee, who enrolled at Wake Forest in January, are learning the system and getting adjusted to speed and complexity of the college game, but must catch on quickly to add quality depth in the interior of the corps.
Redshirt freshmen outside linebackers Steve Donatell and Kevis Jones should be ready to take the next step in their development by becoming solid, game-ready players. Donatell's size (a slender 6-foot-5) may remind the Black and Gold Faithful of former Wake standout Kyle Wilber. Also, as the son of a coach Donatell has a great understanding of the game and has the intangibles to succeed at the collegiate level, while Jones brings speed and athleticism to the table.
The Deacs were wise and fortunate to sign Wendell Dunn, Ali Lamot, Julian Thomas-Jackson and Lance Virgile in February. All of whom may play earlier than most think.
Wake Forest struggled through 2012 with injuries and a lack of depth in its secondary. This position group was dealt another blow when Tim Duffie left the program a week and a half ago for a similar job at Oklahoma State.
The Demon Deacons return All-ACC caliber players to its secondary in free safety A.J. Marshall and cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel. Cornerbacks Allen Ramsey and James Ward and redshirt freshmen safeties Dominique Gibson and Ryan Janvion add depth and talent to the secondary and will push the veterans for playing time.
Gibson appears to be the leading candidate for the starting spot at strong safety unless senior Duran Lowe works his back into Grobe's good graces. Lowe's status with the team remains to be determined following his suspension in the middle of last season.