All on the line: Deacons’ defensive front grows into a strength
Quizzes come during the week for Wake Forest’s defensive line, administered by the coaching staff. The exams come Saturdays, administered by each opponent.
That’s part of an ongoing process to continue the growth and development at crucial positions, not just across the first four games, but across the past four years.
“It’s taken three or four years, but we were never in the position to have a talent where Boogie Basham could be our third, or a guy like Chris Calhoun could be the first guy off the bench,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “It’s nice to have depth at that position; it’s a very, very hard position to develop and have depth at, both line positions.”
Wake Forest’s offensive line tends to be among the first examples given to illustrate the improvement across Clawson’s three-plus seasons, and rightfully so. But it’s hardly the only position group that’s grown into a strength for an unbeaten team that plays host to Florida State on Saturday.
Wake Forest is tied for the best turnover margin (plus-five) in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Deacons lead the conference with 8.3 tackles for loss per game.
That defensive success starts up front, where the Deacons have a group of eight that rotates in and out. Fifth-year senior defensive ends Duke Ejiofor and Wendell Dunn team with fourth-year juniors Zeek Rodney and Willie Yarbary as the starters. Dunn has started all 41 games of his Wake Forest career, Ejiofor is the most talented pass-rusher with 19 career sacks, Rodney has made a strong return after a year-long hiatus, and Yarbary’s leadership has become a valuable asset.
The second unit is where the younger players are making impacts. Basham and Calhoun, the backup ends, each have 10 tackles. Elonte Bateman and Sulaimon Kamara, both tackles, have made their marks — Kamara has the Deacons’ only fumble recovery this season, while Bateman has two tackles for loss. Calhoun is a junior, Bateman is a redshirt sophomore and Basham and Kamara are both redshirt freshmen.
“We’ve got some older guys that have put their work in and some younger guys that are very promising,” assistant head coach/defensive line coach Dave Cohen said. “We’ve gotta get to the point though that there’s no drop off at all. And we’re not to that point from a consistency perspective.”
That’s where the exams come in.
“There’s no way to learn but, you know, take a test. You don’t learn in a review class, you learn in a test. And really, that’s what it is,” Cohen said.
Bateman feels like the Deacons have aced the tests so far, and the stats certainly back that up.
“I think we’ve got enough depth for three-deep, honestly. I feel like if anybody gets hurt on the inside, anybody can step up and we won’t miss a beat,” Bateman said. “When my time is called, I feel like we won’t miss a beat, that’s what I try to do. Backup or not, I try not to miss a beat.”
To explain what makes defensive line recruiting difficult, Clawson uses the NFL as an example.
“Just everybody wants those guys. I mean … look at the NFL, a great three-technique or a great pass-rushing defensive end, those guys get pretty good contracts,” Clawson said. “That’s a very unique skill set when you’re that big, that heavy and that athletic, there’s not a lot of those guys.
“We don’t get a lot of ready-made guys there. Like a lot of things in our program, it’s a slower process, it’s more developmental in nature.”
That’s why the work when the Deacons’ defensive line prospects arrive on campus is imperative. There’s no hesitation for Bateman to admit he wasn’t ready to play when he first arrived in town.
Cohen is responsible for the mental aspect. Ejiofor credits him and first-year defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel with creating game plans that allow the Deacons’ linemen to operate in their comfort zones, constantly asking for the players’ input.
“Like, sometimes Coach Sawvel asks us, me, ‘What would you like to do, what would you like on this play, that play?’ … Coach Cohen always asks me, like when I’m evaluating their O-line, ‘What move am I thinking about here?’ and he agrees with it and we go from there and they make the game plan,” Ejiofor said.
That’s the level of trust Bateman and other younger defensive linemen are trying to achieve, and if the growth continues at the rate it has for the past few years, the Deacons will continue to feature a strong defensive front.
“I don’t think the younger kids really, totally understand the detail that goes into it. … They kind of want to run around and play football. But there’s really a reason that we’re telling them to do what we’re doing, and that detail is slowly improving by the young guys,” Cohen said. “It’s kind of like this: When they get here they run around and they’re wild, then we corral them and they don’t play as fast as they played but they’re in the right place. And then when it all kicks in, they’re able to run around like wild men but also have some direction of their wildness.”