Wake Forest

Defense still the key for Deacons

Aaron Curry, one of nine defensive starters returning for Wake Forest, called this season's defensive system a carbon copy of last season.

"Maybe a harder copy," he said. "And instead of carbon maybe it's written in stone."

Why change? The Demon Deacons return for their season-opener at Baylor on Thursday with a defense replete with experience. Seniors Zach Stukes and Jeremy Thompson graduated, but redshirt junior defensive tackle John Russell and redshirt senior defensive end Anthony Davis replaced them on the depth chart.

The unit boasts four players who have started for at least three seasons. Headed to Texas today, where they will face a Baylor team adjusting to a new coach and a revamped offense, the No. 23-ranked Deacons face high expectations, especially on defense. The Deacs have never won in Texas and are 0-11 there.

It's a unit that allowed 22.2 points and 340.4 yards per game, finishing last season, seventh and sixth in the ACC, respectively. And coaches say the defense has grown stronger, faster and smarter.

"Playing good defense has a lot with how you do on offense," Wake coach Jim Grobe said. "If our offense is able to control the ball ... if we make people go a long way to score points against our defense, then we have the potential to be good."

With players so familiar with the Deacs' 4-3 scheme, first-year defensive coordinator Brad Lambert thought it would be unfair to make too many changes as he stepped in for Dean Hood, who left after seven years to take the head coaching post at Eastern Kentucky.

Instead of rearranging, Lambert asked players to recommit to learning the old playbook. He wanted players not only to understand their assignments but also their teammates' responsibilities.

That familiarity was unmistakable as the preseason unfolded.

"We had guys out there flying around," Curry said, "knowing where to be at and knowing ... where everybody else is going to be on the field."

Redshirt senior Stanley Arnoux said he eventually felt as though he was playing by rote.

"That's all you can really ask for: Come out and play fast," he said.

Lambert said he wants players to continue to "hawk the ball," though that requires a keen understanding of the thick playbook. He said the more they know, the fewer mistakes they make.

"Big plays are a result of a missed tackle or mental mistake," he said. "Someone in the wrong place, playing the wrong coverage. That's a big emphasis of ours. No gifts."

To avoid mental meltdowns, Curry has devoted hours to film study. Outside of the daily 30-minute sessions with the team, he often sneaks into coaches meetings to review. Well, not so much sneaks.

"It's hard for a guy my size to sneak in a room," the 6-foot-3, 247-pounder said.

Sometimes coaches kick him out. Other times they allow him to listen.

Curry, who last season compiled 99 tackles and 13.5 sacks, said he has learned why his particular assignment is important. Studying more, he's grown mentally sharper.

"I realize it's not always about what the offense is doing, but more about where the defense is vulnerable and where we can get sliced for a big play," he said. "To know where that spot is ... it helps big time."