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August 22, 2012It is about today; not yesterday or last season for the Wake Forest secondary under new position coach Tim Duffie.
"Most of the guys I coach think they're NFL prospects, and if you don't perform at that level they replace you," Duffie said. "That's the same way we're trying to get these guys to realize it's Wake Forest. Obviously it's not professional football, but the competition level doesn't change. We're about what you do for me today; not yesterday, so whoever comes out of camp starting may not start week two."
This mentality makes what is an already intense battle for the two starting cornerback positions even more competitive for redshirt sophomores Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel and redshirt senior Chibuikem Okoro.
"All of them are very competitive," Duffie said. "Obviously K.J. [Johsnon] and Kenny [Okoro] are taller than Bud [Noel]. Kenny probably is the thickest out of them all. Bud may be the most physical. The other two are not afraid, but Bud is feisty, competitive, in your face. He's probably been that ever since he was two. I think he kind of just wakes up with an edge on, but he's a loveable guy."
"K.J. is very, very instinctive and long. He's a guy who I think could play receiver. I think Bud could play receiver. I think Kenny could play [receiver], and those are the type of DBs I like. I like guys that could play receiver, but are tough enough to be defensive backs. All three of them have that. It's a luxury as a secondary coach when you feel like you have three corners that can play man-to-man, which is a good problem to have."
Noel, a 5-foot-10 and 180-pounder from Pahokee, Fla., finished last season tied for the national lead in passes defended with 21 (19 pass breakups and two interceptions, recorded 66 tackles (54 solo), a tackle for loss and a forced fumble on his way to Freshman All-America honors. He was also named an honorable mention All-American, honorable mention All-ACC, and was voted ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, Noel is not satisfied at all.
"Every time I see write-up or someone sends me a link they're telling me I can't catch, so there's more I have to work on in my game," Noel said. "I'm not a big-time player yet."
"That [competition at cornerback] just makes each one of us work even harder, but at the same time we're still brothers out here and we learn from each other and we teach each other every day how to be great players and better person in life."
Johnson watched from afar while Noel earned the accolades in 2012. The 6-foot-1 and 170-pounder from Clarksville, Md. recorded 31 tackles (20 solo), a tackle for loss and two pass breakups as a true freshman before he was declared academically ineligible for last season.
Okoro, the grizzled veteran of the group, has the size to play safety at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds. He has amassed 115 tackles (94 solo), 1.5 tackles for loss, six interceptions, 25 pass breakups a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in three seasons. The Greensboro, NC native has also taken reps at wide receiver in pre-season practice.
Redshirt freshman Allen Ramsey, who has performed well in fall camp, will add depth at cornerback.
Moving from the corners to the interior of the secondary Duran Lowe and Daniel Mack appear to be the leading candidates for the starting safety spots, while A.J. Marshall while act as a floater much like Josh Bush did for the Demon Deacons in 2011.
"Our safeties they're involved in the run-game, they're involved in the pass-game, so that involves fix, checks, the coverages and all that," Duffie said. "We got a couple of guys that have been back there, Duran Lowe, Daniel Mack, and Desmond Cooper played a little bit spottingly last year and then the rest of the guys we're trying to catch up."
Lowe, a 6-feet and 210-pound redshirt junior strong safety from Plant City, Fla., has 63 tackles (35 solo), an interception and pass breakups for his college career.
Mack, a 6-feet and 200-pound redshirt junior free safety from Miami, Fla., recorded 58 tackles (28 solo), 1.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and three pass breakups in his first two seasons with the Deacs.
He sustained a shoulder injury at Syracuse that forced him to miss two games.
Marshall, a 6-feet and 190-pound junior from Durham, NC, made 55 tackles (40 solo), two tackles for loss, a sack and five pass breakups in 22 games. He moves from cornerback to free safety, but will also action as a nickel back.
"I think for sure we've got three good football players back there," Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said. "I'd feel good with D-Lowe, D-Mack or A.J. [Marshall]."
Free safety Desmond Cooper and strong safety Joe LaBarbera will likely see their roles expand this fall. The redshirt sophomore duo played in all 13 last season primarily as special teams' contributors. In 2011 LaBarbera was in on seven tackles and forced a fumble, while Cooper made four tackles.
Faces for the future
Wake Forest signed three defensive backs in its 2012 recruiting class, strong safety Dominique Gibson from Belle Glade, Fla., free safety Ryan Janvion from Pembroke Pines, Fla., and cornerback James Ward from DeLand, Fla.
The freshmen trio will likely redshirt this fall.