FSU Defense Looks to Overcome Youth, Depth Issues

The 2013 national champion Florida State Seminoles had a terrific defense that ranked first overall in Defensive F/+, according to FootballOutsiders.

Led by game-changing players in Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith, the 2013 defense will go down as one of the best FSU units ever, with every defensive starter except one eventually being drafted as FSU broke the modern NFL Draft record with 29 players selected in a 3-year span. The one player that wasn’t drafted, linebacker Christian Jones, still ended up starting for the Chicago Bears in 2014.

The 2014 defense disappointed despite returning top talent that would contribute to the 29-game winning streak. Timmy Jernigan, Joyner, Smith and Terrence Brooks were impossible to replace, but the defense still returned Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman, Ronald Darby, P.J. Williams, Jalen Ramsey and more.

With the offseason loss of up and coming defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to Georgia and season-long rumors of unmotivated play from some of its star players, the 2014 unit finished a disappointing 28th in Fremeau Efficiency Index and 30th in S&P.

FSU managed to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff because of kicker Roberto Aguayo and the sheer late-game heroics of quarterback Jameis Winston and defensive back Jalen Ramsey — not to mention a certain Eddie Goldman forced fumble against Clemson. Many fans predictably blamed new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly for the decline in performance.

While head coach Jimbo Fisher has the ‘Noles recruiting among the top programs in the country, it’s hard to replace that much talent, experience and leadership on defense. In fact, it’s impossible which is why 2014 wasn’t really Kelly’s fault.

For example, 2014 could have had Timmy Jernigan and Nile Lawrence-Stample manning the interior of the defensive line, but Jernigan left early for the NFL and Lawrence-Stample tore his pectoral early in the season against Clemson. There was no one on the roster that could replace them. Other starters seemed to only give maximum effort against big-time opponents or when the team faced a significant deficit, as it often found itself in such holes early on last year.

Tyler Hunter was recovering and easing his way back from a very serious diagnosis of congenital spinal stenosis that just ended the career of promising Florida tackle Rod Johnson. Nate Andrews was asked to do more than he could in 2014 and fans incorrectly correlated 2013 freshman interceptions with greater physical talent and range than he possessed.

Goldman disappeared at times and Darby and Williams both failed to live up to their 2013 tape. The linebackers, Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup, could not stay healthy and were poor in pass coverage respectively. Heralded linebacker Matthew Thomas had both a suspension and constant health issues last year. Mario Edwards Jr. was probably the best run edge defender in college football but lacked any semblance of a pass-rush. In other words, the issue last year was personnel, not scheme or coaching.

So what does this mean for 2015? First, let’s look at the personnel Kelly has to work with:

Let’s start with the defensive line. DeMarcus Walker will take one end spot while talented, but unproven sophomore Derrick Nnadi will likely slide in next to him at nose tackle. Lawrence-Stample will return to his defensive tackle spot while the other defensive end spot will probably be manned by the talented Rick Leonard, who was named defensive MVP for the spring.

On passing downs, Leonard might be replaced with a combination of the talented Jacob Pugh and 6’7″ Lorenzo Featherston. On paper, it’s a good group and one that seems like it should be able to generate a more effective pass-rush. Fellow defensive tackle Demarcus Christmas will also play quality snaps this year.

It would be remiss to not mention the former No. 1 high school recruit, defensive end Josh Sweat, who had a serious knee injury his senior year. By all reports, his rehab is going along well and he may actually play some snaps this year. It is unlikely he will make an impact because of the loss of strength and power in his lower half due to the inability to lift but it’s something to keep an eye on as the year goes on.

FSU also likes to play versions of 3-4 where it’s possible the three down linemen would be Walker, Nnadi and Lawrence-Stample with Pugh and Featherston playing as outside linebackers. Pugh’s role would also be known as the “Jack” linebacker. Regardless, FSU does have very good size up front this year and can be multiple, which should help shield the linebackers from blockers, even in a dime package.

FSU’s linebacker depth situation is still atrocious and will consequently probably play a ton of nickel with two linebackers and dime with one this year. Terrance Smith seems to struggle to stay healthy and Reggie Northrup tore his ACL in January’s Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. But if there’s just one linebacker on the field, it will be Smith. FSU gets some much-needed infusion of talent with freshmen like Sh’mar Kilby-Lane, but how much they can really contribute is a question mark as is how Northrup will recover from his ACL tear.

LOUISVILLE, KY - OCTOBER 30:  Chris Casher #21 and Reggie Northrup #5 of the Florida State Seminoles celebrate after Northrup intercepted a pass during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on October 30, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE, KY – OCTOBER 30: Chris Casher #21 and Reggie Northrup #5 of the Florida State Seminoles celebrate after Northrup intercepted a pass during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on October 30, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

This position group is easily the one that causes the most problems. If Smith goes down, FSU could be in a lot of trouble.

Finally, we get to the secondary, which is loaded with premier talent. Future top 10 NFL Draft pick Jalen Ramsey, while unbelievable at the star position, will slide over to cornerback this year. While he may be better at star than he will be at corner, his switch will enable the defense to put the best combination of players on the field.

The other corner spot will be a battle between former basketball player Marquez White, converted tailback Ryan Green and incoming 5-star freshman Tarvarus McFadden. The star position will be manned by either sophomore Trey Marshall or former safety Tyler Hunter. This explains Ramsey’s switch; the drop at star from him to Marshall or Hunter is less than what FSU has at corner.

According to FSU’s early depth chart, Lamarcus Brutus has played consistently enough to earn the starting spot at free safety. Fans should remember him from his momentum-changing interception against Florida last year. The other safety spot will mostly likely be locked by the greatest safety prospect in the history of Rivals.com, the uber-talented true freshman Derwin James. In dime packages, Nate Andrews would come in at the money spot as the fifth defensive back, sort of like an undersized in-the-box safety/linebacker hybrid — the same role where he excelled in 2013.

This would mean in FSU’s dime package, they would really have two linebackers — Smith and Andrews — especially if Northrup still isn’t ready to go. Northrup would essentially be Smith’s backup. It’s very possible the dime will be FSU’s base defense this year.

So what does this all mean? It means Florida State is extremely young, inexperienced and yet extremely talented this year on defense. The Seminoles are big, physical, and fast. With youth however, comes mistakes. Expect the play of this defense to have a low-floor and a high-ceiling.

In other words, it has the potential to be very good, and if it can generate a pass-rush, perhaps even better than 2014. It’s probably not a top 10 unit nationally, but top 15 or 20 would be pretty realistic. The defense will be good enough to keep FSU in most games if the offense can avoid turnovers, especially deep in its own territory.

The veterans seem ready to wash the taste of the Rose Bowl loss out of their mouths and the youngsters seem ready to make their own mark on Seminole history. It should be fun watching this group grow up together and get better as the year goes along.

About Jon Marchant

Jon Marchant is a writer for Noled Out and a rational die-hard FSU fanatic. He believes in cheesecake and Jimbo Fisher. Jon graduated from Florida State in 2010 with a double major in Political Science Social Science and a minor in International Affairs. Jon currently resides in West Palm Beach, Florida with his wife Laura and their lazy dog Mack. Jon can be followed on Twitter @MrWarchant.