Wake Has a Lot on Line at Linebacker

Wake has waited a long time for Nate Mays to make a significant contribution to the Deacons’ football fortunes.

We’re all getting ready to find out if Mays – or make that Mays’ game – was worth the wait.

For all the attention being focused this preseason on the quarterback battle, and whether Jamie Newman or Sam Hartman will make their first college start in the Deacons’ Aug. 30 opener at Tulane, what happens at linebacker may end up having at least as big an impact on Wake’s chances at a third-straight winning season.

Brandon Chubb no longer plays linebacker at Wake, and hasn’t since his first-team All-ACC season of 2015. Marquel Lee no longer plays linebacker at Wake, and hasn’t since his second-team All-ACC season of 2016.

For that matter, Jaboree Williams and Grant Dawson are gone as well, having exhausted their eligibility last fall. Neither, as far as I heard, were ever mentioned for All-ACC honors, but they did both start all 13 games last season and finished second and third in total tackles.

There were a number of reasons Wake ranked 11th in the ACC last season with an average of 28.3 points allowed, and 14th by giving up 347.4 yards a game. The offense was explosive enough to obliterate the school record for points in a season, and thus Clawson wasn’t as bound and determined to keep the defense off the field as he had been the first three season.

But in watching Wake roll to an 8-5 season and second-straight bowl victory, I couldn’t help noticing the Deacons weren’t getting the same production at linebacker. That’s not as much a knock on Williams and Dawson – two gamers who gave their team pretty much all they had – as much as a recognition that Chubb and Lee were two of the best linebackers to ever play at Wake.

Now with Williams and Dawson departed, who steps up? The best bet, of course, is Justin Strnad, a redshirt junior who really came on last season – his first in the substitution rotation – but who, like Newman and Hartman, has yet to start in college.

My question all along on Strnad concerned his size, and whether he was big and strong enough to plug the middle. But he has steadily put on weight, and is now listed at 6-3, 230, up from 225 pounds last season and 220 two seasons ago.

But let’s say Strnad turns out to be the real thing, and has a great season. That still leaves Wake one short at linebacker, unless some inexperienced player makes the kind of splash it’s tough to expect an inexperienced player to make.

The candidates are Mays, DJ Taylor and Jake Simpson. Mays is a redshirt junior listed at 6-1, 225 pounds who logged all of 65 plays in the 2017 regular season while making all of three tackles. Taylor and Simpson are sophomores who played as first-year freshmen, though neither did much to distinguish themselves.

Simpson, listed at 6-0, 215, played in 12 games last season, making five tackles. Taylor, listed at 6-1, 230, played in five games, making five tackles.

Clawson is too good a coach not to project, and he could see he needed help at the position once Chubb, Lee, Williams and Dawson were done. And it’s not like he didn’t address the issue.

One possible solution should have been Zack Wary, a rangy 6-4, 225-pound linebacker who showed real promise while playing in eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2015. But Wary’s career was sidelined by injuries that remain undisclosed, though anyone following the program knows that Wary was battling concussion-like symptoms from his time on the field.

All along I thought two prime candidates would be Jeff Burley and Chase Monroe, two linebackers who signed to significant acclaim before last season. But linebacker is obviously a physically demanding position, and the reports from preseason are that Burley and Monroe are expected to miss the 2018 season with injuries that – stop me if you’ve heard this before – remain undisclosed.

Clawson, for the record, said the battle is among Mays, Simpson and Taylor to start alongside Strnad. Les Johns of DemonDeaconDigest reported that Mays and Taylor were getting first-team reps the first week of practice. But it also sounds like Clawson might have a Plan B, which would entail at least occasionally rotating Ja’Cquez Williams, a 6-2, 210-pound redshirt sophomore into the mix from his position as backup to Demetrius Kemp at rover.

“I think there’s clarity in who the candidates are and who’s going to play,’’ Clawson told Les and Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal. “I think the battle is how much are they going to play.

“The four guys who are going to play inside for us are going to be DJ and Nate and Justin and Jake. How much they’re going to play, what the distribution is. . . we’re getting Ja’Cquez some work in there. Those are the guys that are going to play.’’

If you pull for Wake, you’d better hope they not only play, but play well. The season just might depend on it.

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