With the many player changes at Wake Forest for 2023, one of the more significant changes is on the coaching staff. Head coach Dave Clawson went out and got more help for the defensive secondary during the off-season. It’s one of a number of indicators that the Wake Forest defensive secondary must improve if the Demon Deacons are going to be competitive in the ACC.
Assistant coach Chip West is coming in as the new cornerbacks coach. He is actually two times new, because he replaces no one. The team did not have an assistant solely focused on the cornerbacks last season. And West is coming in not a moment too soon.
Numbers Don’t Lie
After a promising start on defense last season, Wake wound up 93rd in the country in total defense at 406.5 yards per game. They were also 115th in the nation in passing yards given up at 269 yards per game. Yes, there were good numbers early, but as the schedule got tougher, the stats went south. Duke scored 34 points on the Demon Deacons’ defense. It was 36 for UNC. And who can forget the 48 by Louisville? All in the last five weeks of the regular season. As the points went north for the opponent’s offense, the stats got measurably worse for the Wake Forest defense.
And there is the part of the defense for which there is no specific stat line, but for which Clawson was acutely aware…the defensive backs getting beat over the top on long pass plays. Clawson mentioned it on multiple occasions in the last few weeks of the season.
It would be unjust to pick on anyone in particular. Even Clawson pointed out last year that some of the issue was the defensive line not getting enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But when a defensive back gets beat deep, it is an isolating feeling for all to see. Now, there are players from last year who have moved on through the transfer portal, and a key component coming back from nagging injuries.
Fresh Eyes And A Fresh Start
But perhaps the biggest change is West. He and Clawson know each other from their time together at Fordham. And West has worked with current Wake Forest defensive coordinator Brad Lambert at Charlotte and Marshall. West spent the last three seasons as cornerbacks coach at Syracuse where he coached a host of All-ACC defensive backs.
Now he is being asked to turn around a position that needs an immediate makeover. “We’ve got some things to work on, but that’s always the case,” West said Thursday after practice. “From the past few days, I thought we’ve been stacking good practice on top of good practice.”
West says he came to the job with no preconceived notions about what went wrong last year with the corners or specifically what needed to be fixed. “When I came in, I watched cutups (film segments) with the defensive staff. So I kind of understood what was at stake and what we needed to improve on.”
Even though he was at conference rival Syracuse, West said he paid no attention to what was happening with the Wake defensive backs last season. “No, I had bigger fish to fry. I was worried about A.T. [Perry],” he said with a laugh. “I had my own set of problems.”
The Key To The Corners
One of the key elements to improvement will be a healthy season from Caelen Carson. The junior missed half of September and most of October with a hamstring injury. Even when he was in the lineup in the latter part of the season, he was not fully healthy and his impact was limited. When healthy though, Carson can be a difference maker. In 2021, he had seven pass breakups and two interceptions to go with 26 solo tackles.
Carson says he is ready to be a leader among the corners and in the defensive backfield as a whole. “I really kind of took the young guys under my wing,” Carson said. “Even last year, when I wasn’t playing as much, I tried to help them, you know, off the field, with film and understanding things.” Carson said he is also still learning from those who came before him. He said he still talks with Ja’Sir Taylor on their social media apps. Carson also said he is being more proactive in trying to take care of his body in order to make it through the season. He said in the past he only took care of things when there was an issue or an injury. Now, he says, he is working with the trainers on body conditioning and maintenance on a regular basis.
West said that while he is leaning on Carson as the veteran leader of the group, there is also an upside to having fresh faces to start with a clean slate. Guys like DaShawn Jones, Jamare Glasker, and Zamari Stevenson are getting their first real shot and with a new position coach. “If things go to plan, we’ll be able to learn and grow together, and it’ll be like my guys,” West said.
In case he needs someone with an abundance of confidence, Carson is his guy. He declared that despite the injuries and missed time, he has nothing to prove, because, “I feel like I’m the best. All I’m doing is proving it to myself.” He said he has nothing to prove to anybody else. He added that he owes it to his team, but outside the “Walls of Wake Forest,” he has nothing to prove to anyone. And just so as to be precise, Carson was asked to clarify what he meant by being the best. “I’m the best in the nation. I believe that,” he responded. “I feel like we’ve got the best corner room, got the best team.”
Back in the reality of the moment, West said he understands the expectations to correct what went wrong last year, but he does not find it daunting. “There’s pressure with the job. But this is why I do it. I teach and I am confident in what I teach,” he said. “Will it be perfect in day four? Maybe not. But as time goes on and they understand exactly what we’re asking them to do, I think we’ll be fine.”
Photo courtesy: Tony Siracusa