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Very Real Questions for the Wake Defensive Secondary

Wake Defensive Secondary

There are some areas of certainty going into the 2024 Summer for Wake Forest football. The defensive secondary is not one of them. From having to replace key talent, to developing young players, there are some very real questions for the Wake defensive secondary.

When we talked with defensive coordinator Brad Lambert during camp, he talked us through the impact of running live scrimmage drills on two fields simultaneously. Much has been said about how the new training camp system would develop the younger players at a faster pace than has been the case for years at Wake Forest.

The same is true for the defense and we asked Lambert which part of his defense needed that development the most. Without hesitation, Lambert told us, “The defensive secondary.”

Talent Lost

Part of the reason for that is attrition. The Demon Deacons lost defensive backs Malik Mustapha, Chelen Garnes, and Caelen Carson to the NFL.  Mustapha was the leader of last year’s defensive secondary, both in terms of on-field abilities and in the position room among his teammates. And this was before veteran defensive back Dashawn Jones hit the transfer portal at the end of camp.

We met with Wake safeties coach James Adams at the end of Spring camp. We asked him how to replace someone of Mustapha’s skill set. “You don’t [replace him],” Adams told us. “He’s a one-of-a-kind generational player.” After rattling off a list of Mustapha’s attributes, Adams said, “He made me right as a coach being the player he was.”

After going over even more of the on-field attributes, Adams talked about what he would be like to have to replace off the field. “He was the alpha in the room, the voice in the room. He and Che (Garnes), had a unique balance of power in the room. Malik was the voice and Che was the hammer. They played off of each other very well”

Next in Line

So, in addition to replacing these talents on the field, there is a void left off the field as well. How does that work now? Adams said he is relying on Nick Anderson and Evan Slocum to be the voice and the hammer, respectively.

“I’m hoping that dynamic can come out with Nick and Evan. Evan’s tough,” Adams said. “He’ll hit you between the screws. And Nick’s tough. He’ll hit you. But Nick talks.” Adams said there is a need to have the two types of personalities and let them balance themselves as a unit.

Anderson is moving from the nickel position back to safety. The extra reps during camp were as much of a key to some of the experienced players as they were to the developing defensive backs.

Adams rotated his groupings throughout camp, so it was not necessarily the “ones” and “two,” but finding combinations that worked. Part of it was to see what kind of coach on the field Slocum could become. “Now he has to not only lead by example but now you have to talk to him, (the younger player), and you’ve got to make sure it is a two-way conversation.” Adams added about his strategy, “I’m a firm believer that if you can teach it and coach it, then you know it.”

Changing the Dynamics

Slocum admitted to us at the end of camp that he has always been more of a leader-by-example kind of player. He told us that he has never been a vocal leader but is trying to grow into that role with the younger players. Adams is trying to pull it out of him. “He’s a watcher, a processor,” Adams said. “My big thing in the room is, I don’t want you to change your personality. I don’t want you to completely overhaul who you are. But when you’re in between those white lines, I’m going to need you to be the type of safety we need you to be.”

Adams said it is a matter of wearing a lot of hats as the quarterback of the defensive secondary and knowing which one is needed at which time.

Slocum enters his fourth season at Wake Forest. He started 10 games and finished the season with 29 total tackles, 23 of them being solo. He also had one interception. Anderson is in his fifth season, (including a 2020 Covid exempted year and a redshirt year). He finished 2023 with 33 tackles and an interception.

As good as they may be, there is still a gap between the guys who are in their first NFL training camps this Summer, and the ones looking to fill the void at Wake.

Youth Served

Adams said that is where all the extra work is key for the younger players. He specifically brought up redshirt freshman Rushaun Tongue and true freshman Myles Turpin. Adams said the Turpin, an early enrollee this year, has already put on 14 pounds of muscle since arriving in Winston-Salem. He called Turpin intentional in making a comparison of his work habits and film room work to that of Mustapha.

There isn’t going to be a lot of time assuming the group will come together. It needs to happen quickly. At the Spring scrimmage in mid-April, both offenses had a big play touchdown.

Head coach Dave Clawson said after the scrimmage that he was excited to see the offense produce big plays. But then there is the realization that those big plays came against your own secondary, and you have to wonder how the receivers got so wide-open.

Work To Be Done

Clawson added that he needs all of the defensive backs to come together as a unit in order to replace the ones who are gone. He was specific in mentioning freshman Tayshaun Burney, redshirt freshman Davaughn Patterson, as well as Capone Blue, the transfer from Kent State. Clawson said they need to elevate as a group to be able to cover receivers in the ACC. “I tell these guys all the time that that is a position where if you grade out at 99% for a game, you might cost us the football game.”

Growth, reps, maturity, and work are all on Clawson’s short list of what is needed at the position before the regular season starts.


Wake Defensive Secondary
Photo courtesy: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports


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