Malik Mustapha Says This Year will Be Different

Malik Mustapha

It doesn’t take too much effort to go through game films from last year and find Wake Forest defensive backs getting beat over the top. It didn’t happen with high frequency in each game. But check out games five through 12 and it is there, at least once a game. Sometimes it was for big yardage. Other times it actually led directly to points. It was enough that in his post-game interview after the regular season finale at Duke, head coach Dave Clawson brought it up as a specific concern. Fixing the Wake Forest defensive secondary was bound to be a priority. Defensive back Malik Mustapha says this year will be different.

Change Is In The Air

Changes are never easy in the college football world, but they were going to be inevitable for the Demon Deacons. When the head coach expresses frustration over a specific part of the game, that part has to have changes made.

Gavin Holmes and J.J. Roberts hit the transfer portal at the end of last season. No one is going to call them out individually or place specific blame on them. But it is part of the process of making changes in the secondary.

Clawson also brought in cornerback coach Chip West. There was no specific coach for the position last season. West has a coaching path with Clawson, defensive coordinator Brad Lambert, and safeties coach James Adams. West and Adams were at Charlotte together.

A Reinvigorated Malik Mustapha

And then there is Mustapha. If you go back and watch those same game films, you see what an impact he had when he was on the field. The third-year safety missed the final three regular-season games with an unspecified illness. The significance on the secondary was perceivable. He came back to play sparingly in the Gasparilla Bowl and recorded six tackles.

Mustapha had 58 tackles, three-and-a-half sacks, and two forced fumbles for the season. It was also his physical presence that made coaches take notice. At only 5-10, 205 pounds, he is a very physical hitter. With drastic improvement by the defensive secondary being a key to whatever level of success Wake Forest has this season, much will be expected, and needed from Mustapha.

“I feel like the communication is on a new level,” Mustapha told us this week about the defensive back group. “Last year we gave up so many explosive plays because not everybody was on the same page. But now it feels like everyone is operating in a cohesive unit. I really feel like communication is number one in how we are elevating from last year.”

Verticle Challenges

Two years ago, the Wake defense was getting blown open by the run game. Clawson brought Brad Lambert from Purdue as the new defensive coordinator to fix that. The change worked. The Demon Deacon defense improved about 50 spots, to 46th in the country in run defense. But the pass defense plummeted all the way to #115 (out of 131 teams), in the country. “I feel like we need to be well-balanced,” Mustapha told us. He said the defensive secondary in addition to adding West to the coaching staff, is getting a lot of attention from Lambert this Spring, “I feel like he has drawn up things to really help us make plays, defend those deep balls, and limit those explosive plays.”

Adams said part of the equation to the improved performance from the safeties and the cornerbacks in Spring has been the depth there. “We’ve got five, six guys (safeties) who I feel really good about right now and who can go out there and play a game right now, Adams said. “We’ve got about two or three young guys that are also making a push.” He was quick to give credit to early enrollee Davaughn Patterson and redshirt Christian Masterson as two players getting the attention of the coaches this Spring.

Accountability And Leadership

Adams said his key to fixing what went wrong last year with the big plays is better attention to detail, from both the coaches and the players. “I think them taking a little more ownership and developing the techniques, understanding the play call better is key.” Adams understands how displeased Clawson was with the results last season, as it pertains to giving up plays over the top. “We’ve got to keep a lid on some of the vertical routes,” he said, adding that it was the focus of off-season individual workouts for the players. “They’re bigger, they’re faster, they’re stronger than they were last year. So now, through Spring we’re going to get them smarter.”

Mustapha said West has had an impact in the short time he has been in Winston-Salem. “You see how he has developed the players at all the schools he has been at, and I feel like the corners are open to listening to him and taking his constructive criticism they get,” he said. “I feel like that’s really helping their overall game. And that impact rolls over onto us and elevates the whole DB group.”

As for his game, Mustapha is happy to take on a leadership role. “I feel like I owe it to them because I missed those last three games,” he said. “I feel like this year, it is going to be something bigger for me and I want to bring the team along with me. We’ll be able to do really great things as a whole.” He said the primary thing for him is after an ACL injury recovery two years ago, and then the illness at the end of last season, he is feeling the upside of being fully healthy and that allowing him to have a larger impact on the defensive back group as a whole.


Malik Mustapha

Photo courtesy: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports