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How the Deacons’ defense will operate without a coordinator — and why the decision was made

September 26, 2018

The decision to fire Jay Sawvel four games into the football season is not one Coach Dave Clawson of Wake Forest made hastily or took lightly.

Clawson expanded Tuesday on what went into the decision to remove Sawvel from his position as the Deacons’ defensive coordinator after Saturday’s 56-27 loss to No. 8 Notre Dame.

“You don’t make a decision like this after one game or two games or a month. This has been evaluation of the past year and a half. I’ve evaluated our defense; I just don’t feel it was up to the standard,” Clawson said. “And you look for certain things to get better, and when they don’t get better, at times as a head coach you have to make hard decisions.”

Surrendering a few big plays in games during the first half of the 2017 season became surrendering big yardage and point totals for the second half of the season. Clawson said after the 41-34 loss to Boston College almost two weeks ago that he was going to get more involved with the defense and that “it’s been a two-year problem.”

A revamped terminology was implemented in the spring and Clawson, defensive coaches and defensive players all raved in fall camp about how much faster the defense was able to operate and get lined up.

Clearly, that progress didn’t translate to games.

“It just, very simply, was a year-and-a-half evaluation of where we were and where we were going and we were not evolving in a way that I wanted to see us evolve,” Clawson said. “It wasn’t just about the results, it was about the process of how we were going to get those results.”

The solution to that will be a committee approach of defensive coaches, but with two of them sharing the decision-making process. Those two are defensive line coach Dave Cohen and safeties coach Lyle Hemphill. New defensive staff member Tom Gilmore will coach the rovers.

“Dave and Lyle are running the meetings. Those two have worked together before. Lyle worked for Dave when Dave was the head coach at Hofstra. Mike Elko was the defensive coordinator, Dave was the head coach, Lyle was the secondary coach. (Cohen and Hemphill are) both very familiar with our defensive system,” Clawson said. “They’ve spent many years in it, they’ve both coordinated it. And those two have a great working relationship.”

Wake Forest faces Rice in its final nonconference game of the season Saturday. The Owls rank 88th nationally in offensive yards per game, with 386. Wake Forest has allowed 524 (Boston College) and 566 (Notre Dame) in the past two weeks.

Clawson made it clear — just as he did last week, when discussing his transition to more of a hands-on coaching role with that unit — that it’s not going to be magically fixed with one coaching staff move.

“I think this is a decision that is best for our football team for this week, for this month and for this season,” Clawson said. “Decisions like this don’t fix things instantly. I mean, if there’s an expectation from you guys or from our players or our fan base that — we have other issues, OK?

“But we have to take that step of starting to correct those issues. And I felt that this was a necessary step to get those things corrected.”

After Saturday’s game, Clawson made it clear the Deacons’ game plan was a simplified one designed to limit large gains.

Junior linebacker Justin Strnad reiterated that afterward, too.

“We’ve just got to get communication, to get lined up and play football and we’ll be perfectly fine. That’s gotta happen. It’s gotta happen,” Strnad said. “We came into the week with a different game plan, a little more basic game plan and just some more basic calls to help us get lined up and stuff.

“I think after the first quarter, they probably made some adjustments. When that stuff happens, you’ve gotta communicate and play the defense and if you play it out correctly, we’ll be fine.”

So with the changes to the coaching staff, the defense will remain the same. It will be telling if the Deacons will be fine within that defense.

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