The numbers are eye-popping.
As Wake Forest (15-0) enters Saturday’s N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA state championship against Page (14-1), the Cougars have allowed just 7.1 points and 23.7 yards rushing per game.
They’ve picked off 28 passes, recovered 15 fumbles, blocked 11 punts or field goals, sacked the quarterback 55 times and made tackles behind the line 166 times (more than 10 per game).
But Wake Forest can raise an eyebrow or two just by stepping off the bus.
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It’s hard to imagine a team in the Triangle that’s been this big. Wake Forest got bigger from last year and didn’t sacrifice speed to get it.
It’s headlined and epitomized by the 6-foot-2, 255-pound – yet nimble – linebacker Darius Hodge, who is committed to N.C. State.
“We have some pieces on defense that we felt like can do well against their offense,” Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas said. “But the difference in that group and this group is, across the board, defensively we’re in a better place.”
Even with losing AP defensive player of the year Dexter Lawrence, the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year at Clemson, the line is still wreaking havoc. The Cougars play a 3-4 defensive front and the front three don’t need much help.
Wake Forest blitzed only a handful of times against Middle Creek in a 20-17 overtime win for the East regional title.
Xach Gill (6-foot-5, 270 pounds), who will announce his college choice on Monday, is a senior along with Jeremy Johnson (6-3, 270). Johnson was hurt last week, but sophomore Jaden McKenzie (6-3, 270) filled in admirably.
Nose tackle Jadacus Lucas (6-1, 340), a sophomore who wears Lawrence’s No. 71, recovered a late fumble that nearly won the game in regulation.
In a way, Lawrence’s graduation made the line more cohesive. Sensing the imminent loss of production, they banded together and improved.
“If I could have Dexter back this year I would love to have him back, but at the same time, nobody’s expecting Dexter to make the play,” Lucas said. “All three of those guys have to do their job. Sometimes when you have a guy like Dexter you have a tendency: ‘Well I know Dexter will make the play so I’m not as focused and I’m depending on Dexter to make that play.’ ”
Size in the secondary
After last year’s second-round loss to Page one of the things Lucas and the staff looked at was improving the secondary.
If the Cougars were going to win a state title, they’d likely come across a team with receivers who were every bit as fast as the ones in the Triangle, but a lot taller.
Will Jones (6-2, 180), not to be confused with the Page quarterback of the same name, moved from wide receiver to corner. Junior safeties Javon Terry (6-2, 195) and John Jiles (6-3, 205) give the Cougars one of the largest secondaries in the state.
When Middle Creek had its deep go routes taken away by corners and its tunnel routes were closed down by linebackers, the only place to go was over the middle. But Jiles and Terry broke up some of those passes that seemed perfectly placed on deep post routes.
And then there’s Emarri Preddy (5-11, 170), a senior, at the other corner. He’s the most aggressive, Lucas said.
Lucas doesn’t mind a few risk-takers in the secondary, so long as they accept the responsibility if they read a play wrong.
“Your risk-takers are your confident football players. I like a confident, disciplined football player versus a risk-taker,” Lucas said, making the distinction between the two. “Looking at a player like (Jiles), we’ve got to accept he’s going to be a risk-taker because he’s one of the most talented kids on the team. Hopefully when he takes those risks, it’s a risk within the scheme.”
Different result wanted
Lucas knows his offense can’t turn the ball over, but he’s also urging his team to do the little things, like make sure they’ve got their pre-snap alignment correct.
Wake Forest has taken great defenses to the title game before but was outmatched in two of the previous three. Wake Forest has been more competitive each time. The Cougars lost 44-0 to Butler in 2010, 59-21 to Mallard Creek in 2013 and 25-14 to Mallard Creek in 2014.
“We played against some schools with pretty much a Division I or II player at every position on offense and defense. That’s strong,” Lucas said. “Personally, I feel like with what we’ve done at our skill positions, especially on defense, we’re able to play with more of those teams.”
The Cougars, as a team, have allowed six touchdowns in four rounds of the playoffs – one was a special teams score, two were almost immediately after Wake Forest turned it over, and two were broken plays.
“We want to do whatever we can to get this win. It’s special to get here, but to get one for the school and for the community is even bigger,” Lucas said.