Cards fans know exactly how important a defensive coordinator can be. Wake lost one of the better ones in the country when Mike Elko took the job at Notre Dame. Jay Sawvel was brought in and the defense has played about as well as you could hope. Sawvel has his defense leading the nation in tackles for loss and he’s survived the loss of Marquel Lee at middle linebacker. If he can put together a game plan that slows down Lamar Jackson like Elko did last year, he could actually help his team come away with a win.
The defense is led by defensive end Duke Ejiofor. The ACC has had some high level ends over the last couple of years and Duke has been overlooked some in my opinion. He finished last year with 17 tackles for loss and he’s already hit 13.5 this season. Duke is an edge rusher by position but he can rush the passer from inside when they move him in there. He can also get pressure up the middle from the outside with swim moves and spin moves. His motor is maybe the most impressive thing about him. He just doesn’t stop.
The other members of the front four are no slouches either. They’ve combined for 24 run stuffs and 16 tackles for loss, themselves. Wake likes to get into gaps to make those negative plays but that can lead to some running lanes for backs. Louisville dedicated themselves to the run last week and they ran it a lot between the tackles. Something to look out for this week is if they run read option as much as they did and if Lamar hands it off.
Losing Lee was big because of just how many big plays he made. Lee had 20 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles. They haven’t been able to replace Lee but they’ve been getting solid play from Grant Dawson inside. Dawson plays with a lot of energy and he gets to the ball a lot. The only issue is that he doesn’t always make the play. He’s missed some tackles and other players haven’t always been there to help clean up.
Jaboree Williams has also taken over a starting role this year and improved as expected after a strong year as a reserve. Williams is a speedy player that has enough size to make plays in the hole. Both of these guys can run well and they get downhill fast. That serves them well when quarterbacks are trying to scramble to get away from the pass rush.
The secondary is the strong point of the defense in some areas but it can be a weakness at times in others. The corners have been up and down all year with Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey leaving a lot to be desired sometimes. Both of these guys do such a great job at staying with receivers but they don’t find themselves in position to make the play much. Wake defends the pass very well so it might seem harsh to go after their corners but they didn’t look all that great against the two offenses that can actually pass the ball.
The safeties are the strength of the secondary with Cameron Glenn and Jessie Bates back deep. Glenn does a little bit of everything in both coverage and run support but he’s more likely to be the guy deep playing over top. Bates is the big time player for this defense. He leads the team in tackles and he led the team in picks last year. He’s a missile when he comes up in run support and delivers a lot of big hits. The biggest part of his game is his open field tackling. You might remember him wrapping up Lamar Jackson last year and stripping him before he hit the ground. He plays a big role in how this defense can be so aggressive up front.