- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Last season, Dave Clawson knew he had one legitimate strength on Wake Forest's roster he could build around: His cornerbacks. Merrill Noel and Kevin Johnson were fifth-year seniors, and the latter was a first-round NFL talent. They anchored Wake's defensive scheme, with the Deacons leaving their corners in press-man coverage on a majority of the snaps, putting an extra man in the box to challenge the run. It was a system that worked about as well as it could given Wake's lack of depth and offensive woes that often put the D in tough situations.
Now, however, Johnson and Noel are gone, but Clawson sees another area of the D to build around -- a linebacking corps that might be the best in the ACC.
"They're good players and good leaders," Clawson said of his starters, seniors Brandon Chubb and Hunter Williams and junior Marquel Lee. "All three of those guys were very productive for us. They're smart, good football players, they work hard and buy into the weight room. If there's one position where if we can stay healthy there, we're in really good shape."
Given the injuries at Florida State, the turnover at Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech and the uncertainty surrounding Kelby Brown at Duke, there's a good case to be made that Wake returns the most established group of linebackers in the conference this season. In fact, Chubb is the only linebacker to receive votes for All-ACC last season who is a healthy participant this spring.
Chubb, Williams and Lee combined for 270 tackles, 25.5 TFLs and eight sacks last season and helped Wake put together a defense that kept a team with a historically bad offense in nearly every game.
All three return for 2015, and their potential impact was obvious during Tuesday's practice session. Williams is one of the more vocal leaders on the team, adding energy to what Clawson said is often a lackluster practice day following the team's first spring scrimmage. Chubb picked off two passes during the practice session. Lee, one of the most improved players in the ACC a year ago, was singled out by Clawson after practice for calling out situations for his teammates, a noteworthy accomplishment for a staff hoping to shift more of the onus for on-field success from the coaches to the players.
But even behind that group of starters, reserves such as Zack Wary, Jaboree Williams and Grant Dawson make linebacker the one area where there's legitimate depth on a roster that's virtually devoid of established talent.
"That position looks exactly how you'd like every position to look -- older kids who have played and the next group ready to go," he said. "If the whole team was like that, we'd be competing for the ACC championship."
Of course, that's not the case everywhere else on Wake's roster, but Clawson's staff is happy to build from its strengths. And so just as they did with their strong cornerback play last season, the linebacking crew will be a centerpiece in 2015.
"Are we going to be able to put our two corners up in guys faces like last year? Probably not," Clawson said. "We'll still do it, but instead of having it be three-quarters of our calls, it's a little bit less. You take your personnel and figure out what they can do and try to maximize that."
Just as the Wake Forest Demon Deacons did with their strong cornerback play last season, the linebacking crew will be a centerpiece in 2015.