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Wake Forest defense counting on youngsters and seniors alike

Wake Forest is ranked No. 15 in total defense after pitching a shutout of Boston College last week. Gregory J. Fisher/USA TODAY Sports

Dave Clawson has never missed a moment to thank his seniors for their roles in the early stages of the second-year coach’s renovation of Wake Forest football. This is about more than simple tone-setting, though. And about more than seasoned players’ loyalties being rewarded.

Defensively, Clawson has asked plenty from his seniors. For a Demon Deacons squad that entered 2015 with the youngest two-deep in the country (per Phil Steele), this 3-3 start has been a group effort.

“I told them: We’ve got so many young guys, I can’t worry about you; you guys have to help us coaching the team,” Clawson said. “So when you guys come in and watch film, make sure you’re grabbing the freshmen with you, because at some point our success is going to come down to their ability to play, too. ... They’re such a small group, their leadership can’t just be affecting one person -- they’ve got to be affecting multiple people.”

If it’s not redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Chubb making tackles all over the field, it’s redshirt freshman Cameron Glenn coming up with a timely pick. If it’s not Maryland graduate transfer safety Zach Dancel jarring the ball loose near the line of scrimmage, it’s freshman linebacker Chris Calhoun blowing up a play in the backfield.

Wake Forest has already matched last year’s win total, and while its offense is light years ahead of last year’s unit, the backbone of this ascension rests on the other side of the ball. The Demon Deacons rank 15th nationally in total defense after shutting out Boston College last week, and they have built off the blueprint established a year ago, even though that does not necessarily mean this outfit looks similar to last year’s.

The 2014 defense was anchored by a pair of strong cornerbacks in first-round pick Kevin Johnson and all-ACC performer Merrill Noel. Boasting the nation’s No. 12 pass defense, the Deacs were able to hang around in several late-season games despite a lagging offense, before upsetting Virginia Tech in their penultimate game.

Wake Forest may rank No. 8 in passing defense so far, but that is a testament to the seasoned linebacking corps coordinator Mike Elko has built this year’s unit around. The Deacs notched ACC win No. 1 much earlier this year, and while their 3-0 victory at BC was every bit as strenuous as their 6-3 double-overtime win over the Hokies last year, it proved to be a test of wills considering the Eagles were the ones who entered with the nation’s top-ranked defense, and considering the triumph required a pair of red zone stands late.

Saturday’s trip to North Carolina will be a far different test, given the Tar Heels’ pace, experience and depth. Elko said Florida State running back Dalvin Cook may be the best skill player Wake has faced, but UNC will present the best collection of skill players so far.

That will no doubt be a challenge for a defense that features eight first- or second-year players among its two-deep, which made the upperclassmen’s roles this week all the more important.

“For us to have success while you’re here, you’re going to have to have some blind faith in us,” Elko said of his message to older players. “I know we didn’t recruit you, I know you didn’t come here to play for us, but the only way we’re going to have success is if you just get with what we’re preaching and don’t try to feel your way through it. I think you lay that out there to them and you hope they do it, and I think fortunately for us the majority of the kids have.”

Whether a .500 record halfway through the season gives way to bowl talk will likely depend on the Deacs’ progress in the coming weeks. Even then, though, progress is measured carefully. Losses to Syracuse and Indiana make the postseason an uphill climb, but outings like an eight-point loss to three-time defending ACC champion FSU are encouraging.

As Clawson essentially told his team before the year: We have a lot of guys playing college football for the first time. Let’s see how good we can be.

“We’re still at a point where we’re very process-driven, and trying to get better every day with everything we do,” Clawson said. “That’s execution. How we practice. The focus level in meetings. I think the players are seeing that that does show up on Saturdays when you play.”