A case could be made that of all the cornerbacks who have ever started together in Wake Forest’s secondary, the two set to start Thursday at Louisiana-Monroe are a pair beyond compare.
Nobody is in better position to make that case than redshirt seniors Kevin Johnson and Merrill “Bud” Noel, which is, indeed, what they intend to do.
“We just want to live up to the hype,” Noel said. “Everyone is talking about ‘This duo could be better than Alphonso Smith and those guys.’ And that means a lot to us to be in the same category as some top-notch players. So we take pride every day.
“We go after our receivers every day like it’s a game. We’re going to give every receiver we play in the ACC, and whoever else after that, a good run for their money.”
When asked to name the best pair of cornerbacks in the ACC, Johnson pounced on the question like it was wobbly pass.
“Me and Bud,” Johnson replied. “No question.”
It’s a claim that will have to be proved on the field. But what remains beyond dispute is that of all the players Dave Clawson inherited from Jim Grobe when the head-coaching position changed hands last December, the two with the best chance of reaping All-ACC honors this season are Johnson and Noel.
Johnson was honorable mention All-ACC as a sophomore and junior, and Noel was the ACC defensive rookie of the year as a redshirt freshman in 2011.
And if a coach is going to have two special players, the ultra-demanding position of cornerback is not a bad place to have them. When Clawson and defensive coordinator Mike Elko started installing the Deacons’ 4-2-5 defense, they didn’t have to wonder where to begin.
Johnson has intercepted six passes and has broken up 29. Noel has intercepted five and has broken up 28.
“It gives you a lot of flexibility on defense,” Clawson said. “It allows you to do some things to maybe cheat against the run. Those guys are going to have to cover people for us.
“We graduated the whole starting (defensive line). I like the players we have in the D-line, and I think they will develop, and I think they will get better. But we don’t have a lot of experience up there.
“(Johnson and Noel) allow you to do a lot of different things with your front, with your blitz game. If you’re always worried about having to protect your corners, you don’t have as much flexibility.”
Opposite, yet similarly dominant
It’s not always easy for a first-year coach to coach a fifth-year player, but Elko said he has been as impressed with Johnson and Noel off the field as on. Noel redshirted in 2010 as a freshman, and Johnson redshirted in 2011 as a sophomore after he was ruled academically ineligible.
“I’m so proud of those guys for buying into what we’ve wanted to do and what we want to be about,” Elko said. “Guys who have played a lot of football can go away from that sometimes. I’ve said to both of them, I respect the heck out of them for taking us under their wing and doing what we’re asking them to do and trying to play the game the right way.”
Although they’ve been a pair for so long — starting together in 20 of Wake Forest’s past 24 games — the two could hardly be more different in body type or temperament.
Johnson is studious. Noel is instinctive. Johnson (6-1, 175) is long and lean, so lean that his biggest problem at Wake Forest has been adding and retaining weight since showing up in 2010 at about 150 pounds. Noel (5-10, 175) is shorter and more compact.
“Our size is different,” Johnson said. “That’s the biggest difference.
“But Bud’s a very tenacious, physical corner. He’s got some good speed and a good knack for the ball. And myself, I just try to be all around, be able to run-support, play man-to-man, play zone coverage.”
Johnson’s game is more cerebral. Noel’s is more aggressive.
“He’s a finesser on the field,” Noel said. “I’m a more physical, up-in-your-face type of guy.
“K.J. is a great athlete. I love watching him play, and I know he’ll say the same thing about me. And our energy, we feed off one another. So it’s a pleasure having someone across from you and knowing they’re going to hold down their side so you can hold down your side.”
Johnson plays taller than 6-1. Because of his height and length, he might be a better NFL prospect than the 5-10 Noel.
But as much football as the two have played at Wake Forest, both should have a chance to play a lot more after their college careers end.
“They both love football,” Clawson said. “Football is very important to both of those guys, and they care about it, and that’s why they’re good football players.”